Colin Powell: public life, the Volvos, and one and so poignant

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Colin Luther Powell, who died Monday, was a thoughtful, witty and self-aware public servant. He never ran for office himself, despite pressure from many who believed that as a Republican with moderate social and economic views and military background he had a good chance of becoming America’s first black president. .

Instead, he held an important transitional leadership role from the late 1980s to the early 2000s – moving from National Security Advisor to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of State – as US national security forces turned away from the clarity of the Cold War. to the diffuse demands of a global war on terrorism.

Why we wrote this

For more than two decades, Peter Grier has interviewed Colin Powell about everything from hope to his Volvo repair hobby. He looks back on the life of a thoughtful and witty public servant, whose sidelining led America down a different path.

Asked in an interview about how he handled the mass of information, opinions, advice and criticism that floods any top American official – and for years and years – General Powell has quoted one of the favorite military theorists of the US military of the 19th century. German General Carl von Clausewitz.

“There is a great Clausewitzian expression that says ‘beware of the briskness of transient events’,” General Powell said. “There are a lot of transient events there, and I try to be wary of their vividness.”

Colin Powell – who held some of the most stressful national security positions in the US government in decades of public life – used to relax while fixing old Volvos.

It looks like unlike many geostrategic issues, a hesitant carburetor could be straightforward to fix.

When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the early 1990s, he kept five or six Volvos hidden in garages near his quarters in Fort Myer, Virginia. At this point, he thought he had already refurbished over 30 of the reliable, square Scandinavian cars.

Why we wrote this

For more than two decades, Peter Grier has interviewed Colin Powell about everything from hope to his Volvo repair hobby. He looks back on the life of a thoughtful and witty public servant, whose sidelining led America down a different path.

Lynne Cheney, wife of then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (and mother of current GOP Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming) wanted to buy one of President Powell’s completed projects. The head of the JCS and the head of the Pentagon finally decided that was not a good idea.

“Dick and I explained that it would be better if the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense did not have a car sales relationship with a used vintage car,” the general said. Powell in an interview.

Colin Luther Powell, who died Monday, was a thoughtful, witty and self-aware public servant. He never ran for office himself, despite pressure from many who believed that as a Republican with moderate social and economic views and military background he had a good chance of becoming America’s first black president. .

Instead, he played an important transitional leadership role from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, as US national security forces shifted from the clarity of the Cold War to the diffuse demands of a war. global counterterrorism.

Asked in an interview about how he handled the mass of information, opinions, advice and criticism that floods any top American official – and for years and years – General Powell has quoted one of the favorite military theorists of the US military of the 19th century. German General Carl von Clausewitz.

“There is a great Clausewitzian expression that says ‘beware of the briskness of transient events’,” General Powell said. “There are a lot of transient events there, and I try to be wary of their vividness.”


Bill Grant / The Christian Science Monitor / File

General Colin Powell, pictured during a visit to the Christian Science Monitor newsroom in Boston in December 2004, played an important transitional role as U.S. national security forces moved from the clarity of the Cold War to the diffuse demands of a global war on terrorism. .

High speed military life

Colin Powell’s parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. He was born in Harlem and raised in the South Bronx. He attended City College of New York, where he served in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and was appointed second lieutenant in the United States Army after graduating in 1958.

Military life provided the rituals, symbols, sense of belonging and purpose that young Powell sought, and he never looked back. At first he was labeled as a “fast burner” or a moving man. On his first tour of Vietnam, he survived a Viet Cong shell that hit a tree he was sheltering under; in his second tour, he survived a helicopter crash.

Then his crisp efficiency began to land him jobs in Washington. After Vietnam, he spent 17 of the next 22 years in the Pentagon or Washington. Along the way, he met two future Republican Secretaries of Defense who became his mentors: Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed him National Security Advisor, where he dealt with a Soviet Union in the final throes of its existence. He was then the country’s highest military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, from 1989 to 1993. During the Gulf War of 1991, he became known for the so-called “Powell Doctrine” of military force. , which was, in essence, that the United States had to employ overwhelming force.

This approach worked well in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 – perhaps too well even for President Powell. As Iraqi forces flocked to Baghdad under US fire, the Joint Chief of Staff began to push for an end to hostilities, the then Deputy National Security Advisor recalled. , Robert Gates, in a oral history on file at Miller Center from the University of Virginia.

“It’s going from military conflict to rout and rout to massacre and the US military is not doing massacres,” Gates recalls, General Powell said.

A turning point in history

General Powell’s popularity skyrocketed following the victory of the Gulf War. In the mid-1990s, pundits often mentioned him as a very possible candidate for the GOP nomination in 1996.

But he never even made an exploratory offer – maybe for family reasons, maybe because he was starting to sound like a moderate political comeback in the GOP, or maybe because he just felt that ‘he lacked the near-maniacal will it takes to successfully compete for the highest office in the country.

In 2001, newly elected George W. Bush, with little experience in foreign policy, asked General Powell to be his secretary of state. When he was sworn in, Secretary Powell became the highest black official at this point in American history, placing fourth in the presidential succession.

The September 11 attacks of that year changed the course of U.S. history, and the Bush administration began to view foreign military intervention as a milestone in the new declared war on international terrorism. .

In February 2003, Secretary Powell gave a speech to the United Nations in which he presented evidence, according to the US intelligence community, proving that Saddam Hussein and Iraq continued to accumulate weapons of mass destruction. International inspectors were not enough to rule out the danger of a possible Iraqi nuclear weapon, Secretary Powell insisted.

The subsequent American invasion succeeded in overthrowing Hussein, but no weapons of mass destruction were found. The pre-war American assessment was wrong.

Secretary Powell then defended his presentation, saying it was not something that had been glued from snatches of espionage in his Foggy Bottom office.

“It wasn’t an exaggeration, and it wasn’t a lie,” he said in an interview.

But he also admitted that the presentation was in fact flawed and that it would remain a “stain” on his record.

“I’m the one who introduced it on behalf of the United States to the world,” General Powell told Barbara Walters on ABC News in 2005.

What could have been for the GOP – and America

What would it have been like if Colin Powell had run for president – and won?

The story of the Republican Party could have been different. After all, its political boom predates the Trump years and the party’s right-wing turn to populist conservatism.

But the election of Ronald Reagan – and the continued rise of a young Georgia House member named Newt Gingrich – could have indicated that the change in the GOP was already happening.

The interesting thing about discussing politics with General Powell was that he didn’t focus on foreign policy, or military force, or other security issues he had spent his life on.

He talked about children and offered them the opportunities he had had in life.

One fall day in 1995, after retiring from the military, he looked out the windows of his office in Alexandria, Va., The city seven stories below him in the growing darkness.

Asked what specific skills he would bring to the presidency, he ticked off a list by heart: fairly good leader, experienced in the compromise process, someone who knows how to set goals.

Then he stopped and looked at the city housing projects visible nearby.

“I want to bring the sense of hope and faith that has fueled my life into the lives of every young child,” he says. “I can take you five blocks from here and show you kids who don’t have that in their lives anymore.” “


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