Soldier, statesman, and skilled bureaucratic infighter Colin Powell has died at 84.
Born in Harlem in 1937 and raised in the Bronx, Powell grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood that included Italians, Jews, and African-Americans. In his youth, he picked up enough Yiddish that in 1993, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he greeted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir with the words, “Men kent reden Yiddish” (we can speak Yiddish). Shamir was fluent in the language but unprepared for the words coming from a gentile American military man. Powell took advantage, saying, again in Yiddish, “Don’t you understand?”
The road from the Bronx to the heights of power in Washington, D.C., was long, and went first through the United States military. Powell joined ROTC as a City College student and became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1958. He would serve in the Army for 35 years.
Powell joined the Army during a period of great change. The Army was newly desegregated, and the U.S. was on the cusp of its involvement in Vietnam. Powell served two decorated tours of duty in Vietnam, at dramatically different stages of the conflict, the first beginning in 1962 and the second in 1968. He was wounded on both tours and learned how changes in public opinion affected the military’s ability to carry out its missions.
Throughout most of his career, Powell was attuned politically. He rose through the ranks in the military with a clear understanding of how politics affected personnel decisions. In 2007, he told the New York Times, “Anybody who becomes a senior officer had better have some political instincts or you’re going to get ground up. We are a political nation. It is not a dirty word.”
Powell showed his keen political instincts when he began serving in the Reagan administration. Already a general, he became a military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Later, he moved to the White House, where he worked for the National Security Council, moving up from deputy national security advisor to the top job. While there, he saw up close the titanic clashes between Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz. After witnessing one of these battles up close early in his tenure, he joked to his good friend Ken Adelman, “It’s going to be a long two years at the NSC.”
While serving at the White House, Powell became friendly with Vice President George H. W. Bush. Powell’s bureaucratic skills attracted Bush’s attention. As Powell recalled, “the thing that really drew us closer together is that he saw that we were able to sort of stabilize things, to create a new National Security Council system that was very accountable.”
Powell understood how things worked in the Reagan White House—when to push things and when to back off. When Reagan would refer repeatedly to the 1951 alien invasion film The Day the Earth Stood Still as a reason for the U.S. and the USSR to resolve their differences and come together, Powell would roll his eyes and groan, “Here come the little green men.” But when Reagan made up his mind about something, Powell knew to get in line and get the bureaucracy aligned, too. During the internal fights about Reagan’s 1987 Berlin Wall speech, Powell was initially on board with the State Department’s Rozanne Ridgeway in objecting to the words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” But White House speechwriter Peter Robinson made sure Reagan saw the phrase, and Reagan liked it. State continued to object, but Powell recognized the game was up. “Roz,” he said, “at this point, we need to work from this draft, as opposed to a completely new draft.”
Powell’s politics were not exactly Reaganite, but he suited Bush well. When Bush became president, he named Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a role that made Powell famous as the face of the Gulf War in 1991. Powell was the progenitor of the Powell Doctrine, which dictated that the U.S. should go to war only with overwhelming force and overwhelming public support. This was the U.S. approach in that war, which was a political and military success. As always, Powell was conscious of the politics, and noted in his memoirs that he knew the PR fight had been won when he saw a Saturday Night Live skit mocking the media for asking Pentagon briefers ridiculous questions such as, “Are we planning an amphibious invasion of Kuwait, and if so, where would that be?”
Powell would stay on as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for the beginning of Bill Clinton’s term. Clinton also asked him to serve as Secretary of State, but he declined. After he left, Clinton awarded Powell the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Powell was now a retired American hero. He wrote a memoir, My American Journey, which sold more than 2 million copies. He flirted with running for president and registered as a Republican in order to do so. Ultimately, he decided not to run, determining that he lacked the political passion for the effort.
His career, however, was not over. Bush’s son, George W., considered Powell as his running mate in 2000, but wound up appointing him Secretary of State, the first African-American to serve in that role, just as he was the first black National Security Advisor and Joint Chiefs chairman, as well.
Serving as Secretary of State should have been the capstone to Powell’s career, but it ended up complicating rather than enhancing his legacy. The Bush 43 administration was riven by infighting on the national security team. Powell’s main antagonist was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a veteran of the Nixon and Ford administrations who had been mostly sidelined during the Reagan and Bush years. Condoleezza Rice, who as National Security Advisor was supposed to manage the internal conflicts, observed that much of the infighting took place by means of leaks and undercutting rather than direct engagement. As Rice put it, “The two did not confront each other face-to-face, let alone in front of the President.”
Another player in the mix, usually on Rumsfeld’s side, was Dick Cheney, who had been Defense secretary and a Powell ally during the Bush 41 administration. Powell’s main policy difference with Rumsfeld and Cheney was over the second Iraq War. Powell was a slippery opponent in that he rarely objected in meetings, but the Washington Post would reliably report his opposition. Powell carefully cultivated reporters throughout his career. One of his top press allies was the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward. As a result, as former Rumsfeld and White House speechwriter Matt Latimer noted, Woodward’s books “tended to heavily favor Condi Rice and Colin Powell’s versions of events.” Here Powell made a mistake, though, at least according to Rice, who “could never understand why it was career-enhancing for State to tell the press that Colin was losing every bureaucratic battle. In fact, State was winning its share.”
Another setback for Powell was his speech to the UN making the case that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, justifying the U.S. invasion. Powell would be forever unhappy about this, calling it a “blot” on his record. Rumsfeld, for his part, had little patience for the idea that it was anyone’s fault but Powell’s. “My Lord, he’s the guy who had more experience than anyone else,” Rumsfeld said. “He worked hard with George Tenet, with Condi Rice. He prepared his speech. He went up to the U.N. He made his case. And he wasn’t lying. The idea that he was lying or duped is nonsense.”
The political sixth sense that had guided Powell throughout his career was less evident in the George W. Bush administration. Powell left at the end of Bush’s first term, believing that Rumsfeld would be departing as well. When he found out that Rumsfeld was staying on, he tried to stay, too, but Rice had already been selected to replace him.
In 2008, now a private citizen, Powell backed Barack Obama for president over Republican nominee John McCain. Hillary Clinton thanked him in her memoir for helping her vet people for the State Department. Three Republican presidents had appointed Powell to senior positions, but he never again supported a Republican for president. Politics no doubt played a role in his decisions, but bitterness over the difficult last chapter of his public life seems to have lingered as well.
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