Like many, I was confused not by General Colin Powell’s endorsements of Barack Obama, but rather his recent remarks alleging Republican extremism and racism. His barrage was internally inconsistent and ultimately made little sense at all. Such unfounded charges are out of character with his distinguished record and career.
In 2008 and 2012 Republicans nominated candidates from the more moderate wing of the party. Mitt Romney had been a centrist Massachusetts governor, and fellow Republican senator John McCain, for example, whom Powell also did not endorse, in the 2000 primaries had run to the left of Powell’s own employer, George W. Bush. In fact, McCain ran a campaign which was certainly more centrist than those of Reagan and the elder Bush, both of whom were also Powell’s bosses. McCain’s advisers were moderates in comparison to a Lyn Nofzinger or a take-no-prisoners Lee Atwater. If the issue had been primarily moderation in the Republican party, then Powell quite logically could have seen in McCain a candidate more centrist than the three Republican presidents he once worked for.
While “shuck and jive” is a silly term to use — although liberals from current press secretary Tim Carney to Chris Mathews have felt no hesitation in employing it, and its origins and exact meaning are mired in controversy — it was Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo in 2008 (“You can’t shuck and jive at a press conference.”), not Sarah Palin, who was the first major political figure to use the phrase in criticism of Barack Obama — to the apparent silence of General Powell at the time.
Stereotyping, polarization, and racial insensitivity have been frequent in the last three years. Yet when one collates the explicit instances (e.g., “they cling to guns and religion,” “nation of cowards,” “punish our enemies,” “put y’all in chains,” etc.), Democrats seem at least as culpable as Republicans in their indiscretions. As far as direct slurs of African-Americans in the context of the Obama candidacy, there were two infamous instances — one a reported characterization of Barack Obama by Senator Harry Reid (“a light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”), and another by Senator Joe Biden (“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”) — both insensitive stereotypes, as far as commensurate public commentary goes, ignored by Powell at the time. Were Cuomo, Biden, and Reid seen in 2008 as symptomatic of a darker liberal racism within the Democratic party?
As far as Powell’s oblique reference to Governor Sununu’s supposed racism for claiming Obama had been “lazy” in his preparation for the first presidential debate, the blunderbuss Sununu is known for just such off-the-cuff and blunt candor about everyone. Yet “lazy” is not quite Sununu’s alone: Barack Obama himself, in a moment of self-critique, earlier had used the same image to describe his own failings (e.g., “There is a deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there’s a laziness in me”). I don’t think Obama saw any particular racial connotation in the epithet.
But more worrisome is the larger context of Powell’s remarks. If he is worried about uncivil speech, extremism, and a cruelty in the public arena, then he might have recalled that his own boss was the object of a mainstream novel imagining his assassination, of a prize-winning docudrama imagining his assassination, of a Guardian op-ed imagining his assassination, and of a New Republic essay entitled “Why I hate George W. Bush.” Those smears did not come from conservative critics, of whom there were many, and they did not prompt Powell’s commensurate outrage. But even stranger, Powell himself, as Brett Stephens recently pointed out, has allegedly said things that might be termed insensitive to Jews (e.g., “Gestapo office” and “card-carrying member of the Likud Party”) in the context of loose, political speech that is part of the Washington give-and-take.
Powell is an authentic American hero, who heretofore was honored by Republicans in three administrations with prestigious appointments, could have had their presidential nomination in 1996, and had been smeared only by those on the left (despicably, as a “house negro” from the likes of Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte) — to the general silence of liberals. Nonetheless, his recent accusations are not factual, at least from the evidence he so far has cited. Perhaps they reflect a deeper anguish at former colleagues, and especially “neocons” (who once supposedly elicited from Powell the pejorative “f***ing crazies”) — all in the context of his tenure as secretary of state and his departure, and especially the unfortunate flawed presentation at the U.N. on WMD in Iraq and the disturbing silence about the role of his subordinate Richard Armitage in the Scooter Libby travesty. Certainly the controversies over those years have left their scars on both sides.
Colin Powell’s distinguished career rightly allows him to be influential in his political assessments and to speak candidly about whatever he sees as the truth — but his recent allegations are neither logical nor supported with evidence. And that’s simply a pity.