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Monday, 6 August, 2001, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
On tour with Colin Powell
Colin Powell with the Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji
Powell was well received on his trip to East Asia
By the BBC's Jon Leyne

You never fully realise the indignities of modern air travel until you manage to avoid them.

Imagine taking a flight where you don't have to worry about your ticket and passport, where there are no boarding passes and none of those endless, tedious, security checks.


Mr Powell is a guys' guy - just as his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, was a woman's woman

Better still, imagine a journey to the airport in which there is guaranteed to be no traffic, and you know that within half an hour of leaving your hotel room you will be on the plane and in the air.

That's life on board the personal plane of the American Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Airline luxury

There are about 50 of us on the converted Boeing 757, plus the Secretary of State and the crew. Mr Powell himself has a stateroom - with a couch that presumably opens into a bed, and a desk with a couple of chairs.

Colin Powell with Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji
Talks with Beijing were cordial
The rest of the plane is filled with his personal staff - the security detail who, worryingly, continue to wear their guns even in the air, and a dozen or so members of the press.

The food is, well, kind of airline food. But the real luxury is that there are no announcements.

Of course there is a reason the United States government allows us humble hacks to share this relative luxury. They want us to give a good account of their man.

A "regular guy"

Colin Powell comes across as what Americans call a "regular guy", and that is about as high a praise as you can get in the United States.

Without fail, he comes down and chats and jokes with the press in the back of the plane. He briefs us - always on the record - he's not into spin he says.


Colin Powell is the first Secretary of State in living memory to speak in whole and comprehensible sentences

He administers a gentle ribbing when a colleague dozes off during one briefing at the end of his tough tour of East Asia.

Mr Powell is a guys' guy - just as his predecessor, Madeleine Albright, was a woman's woman.

Outside of world affairs and the military, he loves cars. His particular passion is ancient Volvos, which he rebuilds by hand in his own garage. You can still see the former soldier in him, too - always up early, always prompt, still - at the age of 64 - keeping fit.

Car enthusiast

As I sat opposite him at supper, close enough to see the old war wound on his neck, we gossiped about cars and motorbikes.

It was hard to keep remembering that this is someone who would probably make it onto most prospective lists of the six most important people in the world.

Madeleine Albright
Powell is very different from his predecessor Madeline Albright
Colin Powell is the first Secretary of State in living memory to speak in whole and comprehensible sentences. He possesses a natural dignity and charisma that, to be brutally honest, his boss, President Bush, struggles to achieve.

And now, after his successful trip to China last weekend, he has achieved something of a small diplomatic triumph - a gentle repair operation on one of America's most tortured foreign relationships.

Compromise

For Mr Powell, the logic is quite simple. He shares the American belief in the civilising power of prosperity. In China's case, that developing prosperity is deeply dependent on the United States - the market for 40 per cent of Chinese exports.

That means, he thinks, that compromises can be found even over the toughest issues, like Taiwan or missile defence.


For all his reasonableness, Colin Powell often appears an isolated figure in the new administration

But of course, all of that depends on no more incidents like the spy plane crisis of last April, which could hand the initiative back to the hardliners in Washington and Beijing.

Because, for all his reasonableness, Colin Powell often appears an isolated figure in the new administration - a pragmatist amongst a team of Republican colleagues who seem determined to reassert America's virility in international affairs.

And just because Mr Powell is, or certainly appears to be, a genuine "nice guy", it doesn't mean he is right on matters of policy.

There are plenty of people in Washington who will be quietly criticising his naivety for engaging so openly with a government in Beijing which his colleague, the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, still insists on calling a "communist dictatorship" at every opportunity.

Prompt departure

There is a downside to travelling with the Secretary of State. You absolutely have to be there promptly, ready to join the motorcade, and that's often after only a few hours sleep.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Donald Rumsfeld called Beijing's government a "communist dictatorship"
As we left the last stop of our Asian tour, a gruelling night in one of Hawaii's best beach side hotels - okay, maybe it wasn't that tough - one of my colleagues was a minute or two late.

The press minibus was left racing to catch up with Mr Powell's limo. When we did get close, the half-witted motorcycle escort rider wouldn't let us join the line of cars speeding down the closed off freeway.

For a crazy half hour, our US navy driver played cat and mouse with the police motorcyclist, who didn't seem to have inherited the deductive skills of Hawaii Five-O.

We needn't have worried. When we finally made it to the airbase, Colin Powell was still out there chatting and shaking hands with the folks on the tarmac - just like the regular guy he appears.

See also:

30 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Powell mends bridges in Asia
23 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Powell begins first East Asia visit
29 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Powell dubs China a US friend
27 Jul 01 | Asia-Pacific
Powell's China mission
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