It was Nov. 8, 1995, and Colin Powell had just concluded a 25-city tour to promote his memoir, My American Journey. Huge crowds greeted him wherever he went, his poll numbers soared, and so did expectations for his candidacy.
All of Washington and much of the country tuned in to watch the retired four-star announce if he would be a candidate for president.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, he might have become the first Black president in U.S. history. But Powell stepped to the microphone and declined the mantle, saying he did not have the same kind of passion and commitment for political life that he had every day of his 35 years as a soldier. He lacked what analysts call “fire in the belly,” an unquenchable thirst for the presidency and the power it bestows that he would do whatever it takes to achieve the office.
He had agonized over the decision, calling it “a miserable period,” losing weight, suffering from the stress, and questioning why he was putting himself through this. He wasn’t a politician, and he couldn’t imagine going through the rigors of a campaign. His wife, Alma, opposed his running, and when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995, just days before her husband’s press conference, underscoring her fears for his safety, the decision became clear. And with it came great relief. Powell never looked back, and in the years that followed, he served his country in other ways, among them becoming the country’s first Black national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, and the first Black secretary of state under President George W. Bush.
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937 and he died Monday at Walter Reed National Medical Center, from complications of COVID-19; his family said he had been fully vaccinated and reports emerged that he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that weakens the immune system. He left a legacy in foreign policy known as the Powell Doctrine, which emphasizes U.S. national-security interests must be at stake in any military intervention. And there must be overwhelming U.S. force with an emphasis on ground forces, and broad public support. These elements were in place for the first Gulf War, waged by the first President Bush, when Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
During the second Gulf War, Powell warned the second President Bush about the risks of invading Iraq, invoking the well-known retailer Pottery Barn rule that “if you break it, you own it.” At the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2007, Powell credited New York Times columnist Tom Friedman with applying the rule to Iraq and said he told Bush, “Once you break it, you are going to own it, and we’re going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it’s going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years. And it’s going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment.”
Powell pushed for more diplomacy, including going to the United Nations, where he gave a speech advocating for military action that he would later regret. With his considerable rhetorical skills, he told the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, that there was “no doubt in my mind” that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was working to obtain the key components needed to produce nuclear weapons. The invasion of Iraq launched on March 20 with an air assault dubbed “shock and awe.”
Much of the evidence Powell cited was later shown to be faulty, and he told Barbara Walters in an interview in September 2005 that his speech at the UN was “a blot” on his career. “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”
Once Bush decided to go into Iraq with military action, Powell supported the president even though he had been opposed. Asked if he should have quit, he protested that the initial military action had been successful and it was “lack of planning” for what followed that allowed things to spiral out of control. “And to quit while it was underway was not my way of doing business in serving in the administration,” he said at Aspen in 2007.
Powell was a soldier’s soldier, who honored the chain of command and was never one for sentimentality. He sums up his early life with this quote, “I was born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx, went to public school, got out of public college, went into the Army, and then I just stuck with it.” The public college was the City College of New York, where tuition was $10 a semester, and where Powell majored in engineering. He was a self-described C student with not much of an idea about what he would do with his life when he discovered the Reserve Officer Training Corps. “And I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it,” he told the American Academy of Achievement in an interview in 1998. “That’s what you really have to look for in life, something that you like, and something that you think you're pretty good at. And if you can put those two things together, then you’re on the right track, and just drive on.”
Powell didn’t think of himself as a politician, but his allies and critics alike thought of him as a political general. He was charming and had a reputation for knowing how to work all the angles on his way up. He began his rise through the ranks serving as a Kennedy-era adviser to the South Vietnamese army. After a second tour in 1968, he received the Soldier’s Medal for bravery after a helicopter crash in which he rescued three others from the wreckage.
He wrote in his memoir that he was disillusioned by what he saw in Vietnam, where he thought American military leadership had been ineffective. Tasked with investigating rumors of the My Lai massacre, where U.S. forces indiscriminately killed women and children in a Vietnamese village, Powell’s report was seen as a whitewash. Years later, in 2004, he told broadcaster Larry King, “I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Powell earned an MBA at George Washington University in 1971 and was selected as a White House fellow to serve in President Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget. Several top military assignments followed, adding further luster to Powell’s résumé, and in 1987, President Reagan named him national security adviser, the first Black person as well as the youngest person, at age 49, in the job, which he held until April 1989, when Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, promoted him to a four-star general.
Four months later, in August 1989, Bush made Powell chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, breaking another race barrier with the then 52-year-old Army general, who was also the youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs. In that role, he worked seamlessly with President George H.W. Bush, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the U.S. forces that invaded Iraq, and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, with whom he would later clash when Cheney was President George W. Bush’s vice president.
As head of the Joint Chiefs, Powell oversaw more than two dozen military crises, most memorably the invasion of Panama in 1989 to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power, and Operation Desert Storm, the name given to the U.S. operation to repel Iraq from Kuwait. It was known as the first television war since the public was able to watch it unfold on CNN.
Powell said it changed war forever, recounting in his oral history with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia how he went to Cheney before the ground war commenced and said, “‘Dick, so far you’ve been seeing a nice air war. It’s clean, it’s neat, pilots fly, then come back. They all look like Steve Canyon. If you lose a plane, you lose one guy. If you lose a two-seater, you lose two guys.... When the ground war starts, ground war ain’t air war. It’s ugly, it’s dirty, and you’re liable to see pictures coming out of some kid laying halfway outside of a tank on fire. He’s burning. It’s very ugly. You can’t respond to everything that somebody sees on television, so don’t start asking me for how many people got killed or how many people got wounded. You’ve got to give us some time.’ Cheney understood it beautifully and in fact, he held the press off for a while, until it became too hard to do, and when it was going so well and we weren’t seeing these kinds of images, I said, ‘Go for it.’”
A self-described “reluctant warrior,” Powell’s military restraint as chair of the Joint Chiefs led to a memorable clash over U.S. intervention in Somalia and in the Balkans in the ’90s with Madeleine Albright, who was serving first as President Clinton’s ambassador to the UN and then secretary of state. She challenged Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you are always talking about, if we can’t use it.” Powell wrote about the encounter in his memoir, “I thought I would have an aneurysm,” he said. “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.” For him, a strong military was a deterrent and not a reason to go to war.
When the 2000 presidential election put the Bush family back in the White House, Powell was once again a hot political property. According to Barton Gelman’s 2008 book, Angler, about Dick Cheney, Powell requested a public declaration from George W. Bush that he did not wish to be, and would not be, a candidate for vice president. Still, Bush wanted him in the administration as opposed to having him on the outside as a potential rival, offering him the plum position of secretary of state.
Cheney, according to Gelman, didn’t trust Powell, thinking he was too swayed by his press clippings. The vice president had been given broad authority by Bush and made sure he had enough loyalists planted at State, including his daughter Liz, to keep Powell in check. When the 9/11 terror attacks happened less than a year into Bush’s presidency, the White House shifted onto a war footing that rested on the shaky hypothesis that Iraq might have been behind the attacks and the stakes were too high to wait for definitive proof.
The battle lines were quickly drawn in the administration between Cheney and the hardliners and Powell, who aligned himself with Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. They pushed back on the handling of detainees, the use of torture to gain information, and the rush to war. They were no match for Cheney, who guided the policy-making process around them, leaving them out of the loop. Powell did not learn of the CIA’s program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), a euphemism for torture, until more than a year after it was in place.
In his book, Bush at War, Washington Post investigative journalist Bob Woodward reported that Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, would joke that Powell was kept in the “icebox,” and only taken out when needed. The week before Time’s cover story on the 9/11 attacks, the magazine’s cover, dated Sept. 10, 2001, featured a very pensive Powell with the question, “Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?” The report portrayed him losing out to administration hardliners. Woodward characterized it as a “very effective hit” on Powell by the White House.
Powell will always be remembered for the flawed evidence he presented to the United Nations, enabling the Iraq War. Still, he emerged largely unscathed by the Bush-era scandals over torture and the public release of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Armitage, Powell’s deputy, revealed three years after the fact that he was the source of the leak about Plame to conservative columnist Robert Novak. “The news that he, and not Karl Rove, was the leaker was devastating to the left,” Novak wrote in his column Sept. 14, 2006.
Behind the scenes, Powell pushed back against the Bush administration’s harsh treatment of detainees, and its legally dubious justification for torture. But he proved powerless to stop Cheney and his band of brothers in the White House and never went public in any meaningful way.
A week after the November 2004 election, Powell announced his resignation in a press conference, saying it was a “mutually agreeable” decision between himself and the White House. Bush nominated Rice the next day. She was confirmed with 85 votes in the Senate to become the second woman and first Black woman to be secretary of state.
Interest in Powell as a potential presidential candidate continued for the next several years, prompting Powell to wonder in an oral history interview with the Miller Center in December 2011, “If people forget how old I am, I say, see my sell-by date?” He expressed no regrets. “For me it was the correct thing. For my family it was certainly the correct thing. I would probably be OK at governing. I would not have been good at campaigning.”
He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, telling The Washington Post “because I think she’s qualified, and the other gentleman is not qualified.” In hacked emails first reported by BuzzFeed News, Powell called Donald Trump a “national disgrace,” the birther movement that he headed “racist,” telling a former aide, "There is nothing he can say that will sway Black voters so he might as well say it to white folks.” In 2020, he endorsed Joe Biden and called Trump “dangerous” for the country in the days after the killing of George Floyd. (He was, of course, swiftly attacked by the White House occupant on Twitter.)
Asked in 2014 on Meet the Press about his party affiliation, Powell said, “I’m still a Republican. And I think the Republican Party needs me more than the Democratic Party needs me. And you can be a Republican and still feel strongly about issues such as immigration, and improving our education system, and doing something about some of the social problems that exist in our society and our country. I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with this.”
After the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Powell changed his mind about his party affiliation. “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “I’m not a fellow of anything right now. I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”
Powell and wife Alma founded America’s Promise Alliance, an organization dedicated to helping at-risk youth. He told Time magazine on the organization’s 20th anniversary in 2017 that the presence of stable, trusting adults in the lives of young people is a key factor, perhaps the key factor, in keeping them in school and out of the criminal-justice system.
He was happiest tinkering with one of the many old Volvos he restored over the years. He had as many as six in various states of repair and disrepair when he chaired the Joint Chiefs. “I was not a natural mechanic,” Powell told Passions in America, a blog that searches for what makes America tick. “I had manuals, reading, studying. I bought these manuals you can get at any auto parts store to tell me what was wrong, what was in the car, how to take it apart. I never had any formal training. I just started pulling it apart.”
He was under a Volvo when word came that U.S. forces had captured Noriega during the invasion of Panama in 1990. “The beauty of it all,” he told the blog, “was that rather than dealing with humans, I knew what was wrong when the car was telling me what was wrong.”
If he could get the car to start, he was happy. In many ways, Powell was a throwback to earlier, simpler times, before Internet trolls and social-media shaming and toxic tribal political divisions. The story he loved to tell audiences, and that people his age understood, recalled when he was growing up, “at 11 every night, suddenly they played the national anthem on television… They showed film footage of the flag, and at the end of the national anthem, there was a flyover of jets, and as soon as the jets flew over the flag and the last note of the national anthem played, the test pattern came on and we all went to bed. And the world was a better place.” Or at least the news and the noise stopped long enough that people could imagine the world was a better place.