Colin Powell listens as President Bush speak on trade promotion authority at the Department of State. (Photo by Brooks Kraft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Remembering Colin Powell

Powell’s real legacy was Barack Obama

When you think of the highs that went with the career of Colin Powell, you have to celebrate such a journey. From the son of Jamaican immigrants in the South Bronx, to army volunteer, to the first of his kind at the Pentagon and the White House, to the world stage. Along the way, he became America’s top soldier. America’s national security chief. And then, America’s lead diplomat. Oh, and he was black, in an age when that drew scorn, or antipathy, or, wait for it, death threats.

Having worked with him, as a White House correspondent, then UN diplomat, I see another, unspoken accolade via which Powell shaped the political landscape of the United States way beyond his days in power. Because Colin Powell, for many, was the first African-American viewed as a highly credible, potential President, paving the way for the emergence of another, think Barack Obama.

Always, in conversation with him, you sensed that he understood that role, as a herald maybe to others, a flag-carrier not the main protagonist, never seeing himself as the epicentre of the narrative. Call it selflessness, a rarity in American politics at the time, and certainly ever since. Call it knowledge of one’s own limitations. Either way, Powell’s humility was an essential ingredient of his credibility. Sadly, in time, that credibility would come back to haunt him, and tarnish his legacy, when others used it for their own ends.

Attending a Pentagon briefing, I just remember thinking: this ain’t Kremlin-speak

First impressions do matter. Hard to forget seeing Powell for the first time, then head of the US military for a Republican President, George Bush Senior, spelling out the strategy for dealing with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, just after I’d arrived in Washington from Moscow as a correspondent. Attending a Pentagon briefing, Powell on Saddam’s army, I just remember thinking: this ain’t Kremlin-speak.

“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it,” said the four-star General  of the enemy, later stopping to tell a small gaggle of us : “you go in with overwhelming force, and you get the hell out as soon as the job is done.” This was Powell the man of action. The street-wise leader, soundbite-savvy, who saw job done in Kuwait, expelling Saddam, and said : Enough.

Fast forward to the mid 1990s. With a Democrat, one Bill Clinton in power, and vulnerable as a leader who liked doublespeak, who tended to appear to be all things to all people, encapsulated in that one-liner on his student-day approach to drugs : “I smoked but I didn’t inhale.” General Powell, by then in retirement, wrote a best-selling memoir and barnstormed the country to acclaim. I joined him on a book-signing tour in the Midwest, tasting first-hand how Powell had become the most popular public figure in America, loved for his “straightforwardness.”

“He’s precious,” said Margaret, a middle-aged housewife in Ohio one autumn evening, when she lined up for a couple of hours to see him. “You believe him, and you trust him. You trust him to do the right thing for all us, white, black, latino, all of us.” Pollsters called it Powell’s “precious variable, charisma and credibility,” and the polls suggested he could have won the White House.

But he backed away, to the dismay of the army of support that was gathering. I can still recall the sadness of one of Powell’s closest friends, later to be with him at the Department of State, being told by the General that he couldn’t put his family through a campaign for the White House, especially his beloved wife Alma.  

“He feared for his life, if he ran as a black man, Alma even more so, she said he’d be shot like Martin Luther King,”  that confidant told me, “and what can you say when it’s a fear you’ve never had, because you’re white?”

Still, the man who could have been President had a chapter yet to come. A Republican, given the Presidents he had served, from Ronald Reagan on, Powell was to work for George Bush Junior as Secretary of State, Dubya appointing him in typical jingoistic manner: “it’s a great day when a son of the South Bronx inherits the job first held by Thomas Jefferson.”

I watched Powell’s dramatic testimony before the UN Security Council in 2003 and wondered who had written it

 What a poisoned chalice that became for Powell. Bush, aided by Tony Blair, decided on a war to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Powell, we knew, was opposed on the grounds that it could be a never-ending conflict. He produced another of his eternal soundbites on Iraq, telling Bush in the Oval Office famously : “if you break it, you own it.” Time showed how right he was on that.

But Powell’s credibility became the most valuable of tools as the Bush/Blair axis sought to persuade the international community of their claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction threatening us all, so necessitating war. I watched Powell’s dramatic testimony, before the UN Security Council in February 2003, spelling out the allegedly lethal potential of Saddam’s arsenal, those so-called weapons of mass destruction, and wondered who had written it. It didn’t sound like Colin Powell.

Well, the truth we now know, lay with those in Washington and London who wanted us to believe Saddam’s Iraq could hit us within 45 minutes, or in downtown New York, or Chicago. Powell carried the pain of that presentation in New York to his death, learning he’d been sent out on false pretences, telling me at a Washington dinner years after that UN speech, “it’s a painful wound, a blot on all of us.” His confidants were not so charitable. “Betrayal” was their word for what Bush/Blair had him do.

In his final years, however, the General stayed true to self, quietly (you felt) returning to whence he came. He left the Republican party, publicly. And he proudly supported his unspoken legacy, that of black leader, throwing his weight behind Barack Obama for President, then advising Obama, before voting for Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden. He declared Donald Trump “a pariah and an international outcast.” But his was not a voice in anger, rather a call to the one America he came from, and the America he sought, on the right side of history.

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