Remembering — and Grappling with — Colin Powell’s American Journey
On this episode of democracy-ish, our hosts mourn the loss of General Colin Powell and wrestle with his complicated legacy.
General Colin Powell died Monday of complications from COVID-19. A New York City native and son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. military and became our nation’s first Black Secretary of State.
In 2003, Powell made a now-notorious speech to the U.N. claiming Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which paved the way for the Iraq War. Those claims were later debunked, and Powell apologized. But his legacy was tarnished, especially among left-leaning Americans.
Powell helped pave the way for Barack Obama’s historic presidency in a number of ways, including his surprise endorsement in 2008 and his impassioned defense of Muslim American soldiers.
How can we rectify Powell’s service to this country, groundbreaking achievements and undeniable patriotism with his complicity in what is now considered to be baseless war? And how will we remember Powell in the years to come?
Trailblazing soldier, statesman and diplomat Colin Powell died Monday at the age of 84 of complications from COVID-19. He was a four-star general of the U.S. Army and the first Black Secretary of State, as well as the first Black person to serve in the roles he held earlier: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Security Advisor.
Born in Harlem to parents who immigrated from Jamaica and raised in the South Bronx, Powell graduated from the City College of New York, where he participated in ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He went on to advise four presidents.
Powell “had great charisma, gravitas, and a sense of integrity,” says Toure, “that he may have used for evil, depending on how you see it.”
Toure notes that anger about the Iraq War is still palpable among left-leaning folks who blame Powell for rationalizing in a notorious speech to the United Nations, for which he later apologized.
“I share their sentiment,” says Toure. “But people have complex lives, and two things can be true. He was a central part of one of the largest mistakes in modern American foreign policy. And yet at the same time, he did great things in many other areas.”
Danielle grew up in a household of Democrats, “but Colin Powell’s book [“My American Journey”] was a fixture in my family’s home — because he was a Jamaican American, and he was a New Yorker, and there was such pride in his presence,” she says.
“And such pride in the respect that he commanded. Many people had not seen a Black man get such respect from so many dignitaries around the world. I think that his legacy is very complex.”
Episode Highlights –– Colin Powell: Hero or No?
Could Colin Powell have been the first Black president?
Until Colin Powell leveraged his reputation to endorse the Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq in 2003, he was among the most respected and trusted leaders in the nation.
“To me, Powell is one of the most important precursors to the Barack Obama presidency,” says Toure. “In 1995, he was incredibly popular, incredibly famous, and it seemed like the country was begging him to run for the presidency … “My American Journey” had just come out. He was touring the country promoting the book, and thousands of people were showing up … He even wrote a speech saying he was going to run, and it seemed like it was his for the taking.”
We’ve since seen plenty of people enter presidential races who seem like overwhelming favorites but sink in popularity as campaigns wear on. But Powell was an extremely promising possible candidate in 1995, particularly as an alternative to Bill Clinton, who was already bruised by scandal. Powell led polls in New Hampshire for the GOP nomination and defeated Clinton 50-38 in a hypothetical match-up in Election Day exit polls.
“It’s my contention that the time America spent thinking about and envisioning him as president allowed people years later to see Barack Obama in that role much more easily,” Toure says.
Powell’s criticism of the right wing grows
When it comes to the Iraq War, we’ll probably never know what Colin Powell knew and when he knew it. He was “in bed” with Bush and Cheney — who are “war criminals,” says Danielle.
But we have to give him credit for the fact that “he saw the writing on the wall with regard to the Republican Party,” she says. “He began to develop a real critical view and perspective as Obama was getting ready to run.”
No doubt Powell was appalled by the radical right-wing GOP’s incessant smears of then-Senator Obama (and Michelle), which were steeped in racism and hatred of Muslims. This week, clips of Powell defending Obama made the rounds on Twitter.
Danielle cites one “Meet the Press” appearance she remembers watching in real time in 2008, in which Powell says: “He’s not a Muslim. But what if he was, does that make him less American?”
Powell ‘walked so Obama could run’
That was a powerful statement that predated Powell’s surprise endorsement of Obama in 2008, just two weeks before Election Day.
“This is a man that’s a general who served beside, and led, men and women with all different types of religious affiliations, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, who still fought and died for this country,” Danielle says of Powell.
Back then we were still in earlier stages of the tribalism we’re experiencing now, but for Powell to say that as a Republican … that was a major moment.”
Toure points out that when Obama was running in ’08, “he needed establishment figures to come forward and say, I trust this guy; we can listen to this guy. Powell gave a sliver of Republicans the permission and the sense of comfort to support Obama. Because Powell had been there, done that on the national stage for many, many years. Obama was not even a one-term senator.”
He notes that Obama ‘had hurdles to get the American mind to understand that he could be their president. But Powell broke down some of those doors.”
Toure thinks “Colin Powell walked so Obama could run.”
Standing up for a Gold Star family on ‘Meet the Press’
This week wasn’t the first or the second time Powell’s October 2008 appearance on “Meet the Press” has gone viral. His remarks in that interview about Corporal Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a Muslim U.S. Army soldier who died in combat in Iraq, took on new meaning in 2016.
Powell talked about how he was touched by a photograph of Khan’s mother grieving over her son’s headstone at Arlington Cemetery. He essentially argued that if a Muslim soldier made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, there’s nothing wrong with a young Muslim kid thinking they could be president someday. It was a poignant rebuke to the “birtherism” smear Donald Trump so famously deployed against Obama.
The Republican Party seems to assume that “if you’re serving this country, you’re doing so as a Christian,” says Danielle.
Gen. Powell probably had a pocket Constitution, too
The Khan family themselves reminded us that it’s not the case when they appeared onstage at the Democratic National Convention in 2016. Corporal Khan’s father Khizr gave an impassioned speech praising Hillary Clinton and excoriating Donald Trump.
"Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future," he said. "Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy,"
Khizr Khan then held up his pocket Constitution to wild applause. Naturally, Donald Trump would go on to publicly denigrate the Khan family every chance he could get.
This context helps explain why Powell “began to see that the party he had been affiliated with for his entire political life as unrecognizable,” says Danielle. “And I appreciated that.”
Was Powell’s exit from the GOP too late?
Danielle wonders if we still need the kind of validation Powell provided to Obama, whose “rise was meteoric” and wasn’t initially perceived as someone with the “depth of knowledge and skill” necessary for the office.
“I don’t think it matters anymore,” she says. “Because no one has any values."
Toure points out that Powell’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton “was a big deal at the time” too. But while Obama needed people to vouch for him to overcome a lack of experience, Hillary didn’t, he notes: “She was the most experienced presidential candidate we’ve ever had.”
However, Powell stood up for her nonetheless.
He also endorsed Joe Biden in 2020 before a public exit from the GOP in 2021, after the January 6 insurrection.
“Does it matter that Colin Powell said after 1/6 — after the Capitol was wrapped in smoke, hundreds of officers were beaten and [insurrectionists] were trying to hang Mike Pence — that he was leaving the Republican party?” Danielle asks.
“It didn’t seem to really have the same impact. This statesman, this general, who decades prior everyone on both sides wanted to run for president — did it matter that he left the party? Did it leave a mark?”
Toure doesn't know “why it took him that long to officially leave,” he says. “But perhaps he saw that he could continue to maintain some level of power — to be able to say we are going in the wrong direction — from inside the party more effectively than from outside it.”
The Iraq speech: Broken trust or misplaced patriotism?
“Let’s move into the trickier, sticky parts,” says Toure. “Because Colin Powell was definitely considered somebody of tremendous integrity, somebody who was a straight shooter, who was believed — especially for the folks on the left. There was no one on the right who we looked up to, believed or trusted more.”
If Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney or even then-President George W. Bush himself told us Saddam Hussein was about to deploy a nuclear weapon, many Americans wouldn’t have believed it, Toure argues. But when Powell told us Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, it made even anti-war politicos rethink their positions.
“It helped pave the way for a war that turned out to be completely unnecessary,” says Toure.
“Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush are deceptive,” Danielle notes. “I think they knew they needed somebody with character who they could make the salesman — to get their war.”
She doesn’t think Powell was completely ignorant of the truth, but she doubts he was given all of the information that was available. She thinks he probably based his opinion on what he knew about the region, his decades of experience and a belief that his colleagues in the Bush administration were (like he was) “patriots trying to protect our country and the world from the axis of evil,” she adds.
How could Powell not know the truth?
Toure doubts that Powell was unable, with his knowledge and his connections, to figure out what was really happening, or at least question any lies he was told.
“I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation. It doesn’t pass the smell test. This is a military man … He surely knew generals who had knowledge of that area. I suspect he knew we had a significant problem and thought it was OK to exaggerate and speculate about what will happen in the future in order to prevent the worst-case scenario.”
We’ve learned post-Trump that those in the halls of power — like the Pentagon, FBI, CIA — “play Follow the Leader,” says Danielle.
“We assume these people act as individuals but we recognize now that they function like a fucking gang.”
Powell did what no other Iraq hawk has: apologize
Unlike any of the architects of the Iraq War, Powell expressed remorse — “not like that brings back anybody from the dead,” Danielle says. “But he apologized for being the voice [of the argument to invade], knowing that had he not said anything, it would have been harder for them to get there.”
Toure remembers that at the time, “the country was so hell-bent on war and the voices trying to say, Wait a minute, don’t go, were being demonized as unpatriotic” — even Democrats in Congress were piling on the war bandwagon.
“It was very much a lynch mob mentality,” he adds. “And if you weren’t with the lynch mob, you were also the enemy.”
Historic ‘firsts’ might outweigh the stain on Powell’s record
So what do we make of Powell’s legacy, nearly 10 years after the Iraq War ended but only months after we officially ended our 20-year war in Afghanistan?
Toure points out that Powell helped pioneer contemporary warfare, which is highly technical and much more precise and focused on minimizing loss of life. He was a critical part in architecting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” back when it “was a great compromise for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military.”
He also thinks Powell was “a valuable part of the attempt to bring the Republican Party back from the insane brink. And yet there’s this massive mark on his record.”
Danielle thinks that his achievements, particularly “the series of firsts he ushered in for Black Americans, will outweigh the warmonger title some are trying to place on him.”
A statesman from a ‘forgotten time’
Danielle will remember Powell for commanding dignity and respect — and for his charisma. Even as a teenager, she recalls watching and listening to him and being impressed by his gravitas.
“I think he will be remembered for what we don’t have much anymore: people with character, true patriotism, courage and valor. All of those words kind of fall on non-listening ears now. But I think he will be remembered fondly because we’ve moved so far past it. He is a statesman from what seems like a forgotten time.”
When people pass away, we need to acknowledge “the fullness of who they were: the good and the bad,” she adds. “Not just what makes us feel good.”
“I think we always rush to erase the bad things. But to bring up the fact that he was one of the people who ushered us into war isn’t somehow disparaging his memory. It is a part of who he was, a part of his complex career.”
Danielle thinks it does everyone a disservice to pretend Powell’s complicity in the Iraq debacle didn’t happen because it was so instrumental in shaping the politics of today.
“That’s fair,” says Toure, signing off until next week.
“I don’t know,” Danielle replies. “Folks, just keep hanging on.”
Check out the frustration, rage and absurdity that was the 2020 election on democracy-ishas Danielle Moodie and Toure discuss the current state of the political climate and our country from a Black perspective.