On paper, it shouldn’t be shocking to hear that an 84-year-old man succumbed to complications from COVID-19. And yet, this morning’s announcement that former secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell passed away comes as a shock, another marker of the end of a better era in our politics.
Way back in 1995, I stood in a long line to get a copy of Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey, autographed. Maybe there was a little naivete in the seemingly widespread, and seemingly bipartisan belief that an African-American president would bring racial reconciliation and an era of good feelings. At that point, the only thing most Americans knew about Powell is what they had seen of him in the television briefings during the Persian Gulf War – professional, direct, the occasional dramatic flare from the simplicity of his statements, cutting through the usual Washington jargon: “Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”
For a potential presidential candidate, it is near ideal to be associated with traits like directness, clarity, the sense of being a classic American success story and a key architect of a resounding U.S. military victory. It’s hard to overstate how much people in the early 1990s just expected Powell to be the first African American president someday. The sci-fi television show SeaQuest DSV, set in the, er, far future of the year 2018, worked in a reference to “former president Colin Powell.”
But by 1995, Powell had decided not to run for president – Bill Clinton was allegedly terrified of running against him. Powell told the public he lacked the passion and commitment for political life; his wife, Alma, reportedly threatened to leave him if he ran for president, fearing Powell would be targeted for assassination by a racist. We’re left to wonder how recent American history might have turned out differently if Alma Powell had less fear of her husband being assassinated.
Uninterested in the presidency, Powell moved into a position a few rungs lower on the ladder, becoming Secretary of State in 2001. In Washington, Powell was perceived as a voice of moderation in the administration in contrast to Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but that was fueled in part by the fact that Secretaries of State always see diplomatic solutions and Secretaries of Defense always see military solutions.
But Powell had been reticent about military force before George W. Bush came to the presidency and was not a fan of Democratic interventions, clashing with his predecessor as Secretary of State, Madeline Albright.
Albright was an early opponent of the Powell doctrine that the United States should restrict its military interventions to situations in which its vital interests are threatened, and should always insist on using overwhelming force. In his memoirs, Powell recalled that he almost had “an aneurysm” when Albright challenged him to explain “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
“You know, Gen. Powell wrote a book and one of the problems with writing a book is that it takes a while to get it published,” Albright said. “It was, I think, probably ironic that just at the time that this [book] came out, in fact, the limited application of limited force in Bosnia was working.”
Powell entered the Bush administration with a sterling, heroic reputation and put considerable effort into maintaining it. David Frum described Powell as the “deadliest bureaucratic knife fighter in the whole Bush administration.” Powell was widely believed to be one of Bob Woodward’s top sources for years, going back to the 1991 book The Commanders; Powell was usually portrayed as the wise and careful figure in Woodward’s accounts of the Bush administration.
It’s hard to shake the sense that Powell was mortified for his role in making the case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly his presentation at the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. He told NPR in 2006, “When people ask me, is this a blot on your record? Yeah, okay, fine. It’s a blot on my record. It’s there for everybody to see forever. But do you want me to walk around saying, I have a blot on my record every day?”
Powell never endorsed a Republican for president again, even though he donated to John McCain’s 2008 campaign during the primary.
Apparently Powell’s polite, buttoned-down public persona obscured a blunt, and sometimes funny assessment of other top figures in American politics. He endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but a leaked private e-mail revealed his true feelings: “I would rather not have to vote for her, although she is a friend I respect,” he wrote in the email dated July 26, 2014. “A 70-year-old person with a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational, with a husband still d***ing bimbos at home.”
In those leaked e-mails, Powell called Donald Trump a “national disgrace and an international pariah,” and showed scorn for his old Bush administration rivals:
The emails, some of which were first reported by BuzzFeed News, also show Mr. Powell venting about some members of Mr. Bush’s administration. In one reference to Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, he accuses “the idiot Rummy” of being disloyal to both President Bushes. In another email, Mr. Powell calls Dick Cheney, the former vice president, and his daughter Liz Cheney “idiots and a spent force peddling a book that ain’t going nowhere.”
Powell had his flaws, but he cared deeply about his country, tackled its problems with great intellect, astute wisdom and relentless drive, and spent 35 years in uniform before another four years as Secretary of State. He wasn’t always right, and wasn’t always easy to agree with, but he was always easy to respect. He will be missed.