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POWELL STILL LEADING THE FIGHT, BUT NOW IT'S FOR CHILDREN

The olive-green uniform, with its imposing array of medals, is gone.

In its place, retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin L. Powell wears a simple blue suit, with a single enameled lapel pin.

"Let me tell you about my little red wagon," he says, eyes lighting as notebooks snap shut at the end of yet another routine press conference.

"It's a beautiful symbol of childhood," he adds with an enthusiasm missing from his comments on presidential woes and the state of the American military he once commanded.

"Every child should have a little red wagon. It's what you use to pull your dreams. And when the going gets rough, it comes with a long black handle -- so an adult can reach down, and help a child along."

America's top soldier during the combat of both Panama and the Gulf War, Colin Powell -- in Buffalo Thursday to lecture and accept an honorary university doctorate -- now wages war on the hardships of childhood.

As the head of America's Promise, a clutch of mentoring and safe haven programs for at-risk youths, he has chosen a path more private but, in his view, as fulfilling as the presidential campaign he once considered.

After accepting an honorary doctorate of law at the convocation that opened the Buffalo State College academic year Thursday, he said he has no regrets.

"I made a decision with my family in 1996 that we would devote our energy to working with youth in private life, rather than in public life," he said. "I don't bring to political life the passion and commitment I brought to my military career."

Still listed in opinion polls as one of the most admired leaders in America, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted dismay over the "major distraction" under way in Washington.

"I am disappointed and upset by what's happened in recent months -- upset by the situation the president has gotten himself into, and gotten the country into."

But, he added, it is "time for some of the talking heads to quiet down for a while" and let Congress pursue an orderly investigation into the findings of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

"Let the constitutional process work," he urged. "My only hope is that it works quickly."

U.S. strikes on a terrorist camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical company in Sudan weren't staged because of the Lewinsky case, he added.

"I'm convinced they were not," Powell said, adding that he had talked to Pentagon leaders about the attacks.

"Those strikes were being planned long before this domestic situation arose," he said, adding that the results of the strikes need to be studied to determine effectiveness and whether the Sudan plant really was producing a nerve gas precursor.

Powell also refused to condemn the intensity of the Clinton investigation.

"I'm not in the business of deploring," he said. "Judge Starr was given a very difficult assignment, and you have to remember that for seven months the President was not acknowledging things that Judge Starr had gathered information to confirm."

He does remain disturbed by morale and the state of readiness in the military, he said.

"I think readiness levels have dropped," Powell said. He said recruiting goals have not been met and both the Clinton administration and the Pentagon have to take "a hard look at the whole defense institution."

While budgets also need reviewing and base closings may be needed despite congressional opposition, he added, some areas do need additional commitments for a modern-day struggle.

"You really can never be totally ready to defend yourself against a terrorist attack," Powell said, citing both international and domestic threats.

"We need to invest in our intelligence capabilities, we need to invest in our police capabilities, and we need to make sure we have response plans in place," he added. "But we have to keep it in some perspective -- a terrorist attack doesn't happen every day (and) I think it's a problem we will have to live with."

What he doesn't want to live with is a nation of threatened and impoverished children, a theme he stressed in his convocation and his talks with reporters.

"I'm trying to turn 15 million kids-at-risk in America into kids-at-promise, because we can't afford to lose a single child as we go into the 21st century."

Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Powell added that his sister -- Marilyn Powell Berns, a 1953 Buffalo State graduate who returned from California for the ceremonies -- went to a high school for gifted children while he went to one that took anybody.

At the College of New York, he added, he completed a four-year program in 4 1/2 years, squeaking by with a "2.0001" grade point average only because the school factored in four years in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. The school then sent him unceremoniously on his way to the Army, he added, but "now they invite me to every fund-raising dinner you can imagine."

Powell closed his day here -- and his visit to the city that was the destination of his "first long trip outside New York City" at the age of 16, to witness his sister's graduation -- by speaking at the University at Buffalo, to open UB's 1998-99 Distinguished Speakers Series.

His hour-long exploration of recent history, foreign policy and his own background was interrupted often by ovations -- none so loud as when he praised American service men and women, or when audience member Alice Posluszny took a microphone to urge him to run for president.

He spoke of the American dream, "fundamentally a story of values," and of the importance for both children and nations "to have a sense of shame" and the ability to tell right from wrong and adhere to the right. More statesman than politician, he spoke of the end of the Soviet Union and an era when "we had contained them on the field of battle; we beat them on the field of ideas."