This morning, about a nanosecond after Colin Powell made clear his endorsement of Barack Obama for president, I called his long-time aide and former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson. The brusque former Army colonel told me he had no idea which way Powell might tilt but that he was “utterly ecstatic” with Powell’s decision. And he said that like Victor Laszlo said to Rick after all of the drama in Casablanca, which happens to be Powell’s favorite film, he felt like saying, “Welcome back to the fight, Colin.”
Exactly three years ago, on October 19th, 2005, Wilkerson cleared his conscience and offered a full-throated condemnation of the Bush administration and the “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal.” Since then, the American public has been waiting to see if Powell would follow in his aide’s footsteps, and publicly split with the administration. Wilkerson’s friendship with Powell suffered a massive blow, as many thought Wilkerson was presuming to speak for Powell, which he wasn’t. But on many levels, Wilkerson — and other dissident Republicans frustrated with the nation's foreign policy course — helped legitimate an exodus away from the GOP and towards Obama. Powell has now joined them.
John McCain has frequently referred to Colin Powell as one of the greatest national servants he has known — and vice versa. The break with McCain today is about the general’s firm belief that America is at a pivot point in its history.
Colin Powell — possibly the only man who could have run against and beaten George W. Bush in 2000 — probably sees a lot of himself in Barack Obama. Clearly, they are both African-Americans and committed to breaking through every last racial barrier in the U.S. But Powell would have supported Obama had he been Caucasian, Latino, or Vietnamese-American. The value that Obama brings to politics is that he transcends convenient typecasting. Colin Powell kept breaking the mold as well as he rose to prominence and almost the White House — held back by his wife Alma who feared scenarios of assassination as well as his own sense that he didn’t have “the fire in the belly” for elective office.
Powell said of Obama today that “he has both style and substance. I think he is a transformational figure.” W’s first secretary of state also didn’t like the defamatory slurs deployed by the McCain/Palin team trying to link Obama to William Ayers’ anarchist views. And Powell doesn’t think Alaskan caribou-gutting expert and folk legend Sarah Palin is qualified to be president of the United States.Powell’s endorsement breaks some family china. His son, former Federal Communications Chairman Michael Powell, has been an advisor on technology to McCain. And his best friend and potential defense secretary choice in a McCain White House, Richard Armitage, is still listed — despite Bill Kristol’s best efforts to export anyone connected to Powell out of Republican circles — as a key national security advisor to McCain. Lawrence Wilkerson has been with Obama from just about day one of the Illinois senator’s race.
McCain has frequently referred to Powell as one of the greatest national servants he has known — and vice versa. The break with McCain today is about the general’s firm belief that America is at a pivot point in its history.Powell works hard for young, underprivileged youth and launched “America’s Promise” to help motivate and animate young people who get little support from others. That’s what really is driving Powell’s endorsement.
Much of the political left doesn’t think it wants Powell’s endorsement. They are still angry at him for helping the Bush administration promulgate lies and half-truths at the UN General Assembly meeting designed to shore up support for America’s misguided invasion of Iraq. Americans loved Powell’s honor and dignity, fairness — but that day cost him a lot in the eyes of much of the country and world. But Powell fought torture. He said that Guantanamo should be immediately shuttered and the detainees brought into America’s existing judicial system.
In the Israel/Palestine standoff, he said we should engage Hamas — something neither McCain nor Obama have had the resolve to admit needs to be done. Powell has been insisting that we should be dealing with the world as it is — not as we may imagine it to be.
How could he tell the next young group of students he meets through his own organization or when he speaks at a mega-forum motivational seminar — or visits with kids in the classes Larry Wilkerson teaches in inner city D.C. each week — that Sarah Palin is what they should try to become. No way.
Powell wants the world to be better, to stand for better things — and that is not the world cynically sculpted by Karl Rove, Bill Kristol and McCain’s current team.
From the iconic general’s vantage point, genuine hope and change is what Obama stands for — and we should applaud Colin Powell for coming back into the fight.