Newsmaker: Colin Powell — a soldier, diplomat and transformational figure
Colin L. Powell, who in four decades of public life served as the nation’s top soldier, diplomat and national security adviser, and whose speech at the United Nations in 2003 helped pave the way for the United States to go to war in Iraq, died on Monday. He was 84.
He died of complications of Covid-19, his family said in a statement, adding that he had been vaccinated and was treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he died. Powell had undergone treatment for multiple myeloma, which compromised his immune system, a spokeswoman said.
Powell was a path-breaker serving as the country’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. Beginning with his 35 years in the Army, Powell was emblematic of the ability of minorities to use the military as a ladder of opportunity.
His was a classic American success story. Born in Harlem of Jamaican parents, Powell grew up in the South Bronx and graduated from City College of New York, joining the Army through ROTC. Starting as a young second lieutenant commissioned in the dawn of a newly desegregated Army, Powell served two decorated combat tours in Vietnam. He later was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan at the end of the Cold War, helping negotiate arms treaties and an era of cooperation with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was the architect of the invasion of Panama in 1989 and of the Gulf War in 1991, which ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but left him in power in Iraq.
Most popular public figureBy the time he retired from the military in 1993, Powell was the most popular public figure in America because of his straightforwardness, his leadership qualities and his ability to speak in blunt tones that Americans appreciated.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, he analysed himself: “Powell is a problem-solver. He was taught as a soldier to solve problems. So he has views, but he’s not an ideologue. He has passion but he’s not a fanatic. He’s first and foremost a problem-solver.”
Once retired, Powell, a lifelong independent while in uniform, was courted as a presidential contender by Republicans and Democrats, and became America’s most political general since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He wrote a best-selling memoir, “My American Journey,” and flirted with a run for the presidency before deciding in 1995 that campaigning for office wasn’t for him.
He returned to public service in 2001 as secretary of state to President George W. Bush, whose father Powell had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs a decade earlier. In taking the job, Powell followed the footsteps of one of his heroes, Gen. George Marshall, who served as secretary of state to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
But in the Bush administration, Powell was the odd man out, fighting internally with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the ear of Bush and for foreign policy dominance.
He left at the end of Bush’s first term under the cloud of the ever-worsening war in Iraq begun after Sept. 11, and growing questions about whether he could have and should have done more to object to it. Those questions swirled in part around his UN speech, which was based on false intelligence, and which became the source of lifelong regret.
He kept a low profile for the next few years, but with just over two weeks left in the 2008 presidential campaign, Powell, a declared Republican, gave a forceful endorsement to Sen. Barack Obama, calling him a “transformational figure.” Powell’s backing was criticised by conservative Republicans. But it eased the doubts among some independents, moderates and even some moderates in his own party, and largely neutralised concerns about Obama’s lack of experience to be commander in chief.
Support for Democrats When it came time to elect Obama’s successor, Powell continued his support of Democrats, saying he would vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Before the election, he expressed disgust for Trump in a batch of leaked emails that a Powell spokesperson confirmed as authentic.
“Trump is a national disgrace and an international pariah,” Powell wrote in one email. Trump’s attacks on the issue of Obama’s birth also troubled him, the emails made clear. “Yup, the whole birther movement was racist,” he said.
Powell, in the next election, backed Joe Biden, delivering a message of support for him at the 2020 Democratic national convention.
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937, and reared in the ethnically mixed Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. His parents, Luther Powell, a shipping-room foreman in Manhattan’s garment district, and Maud Ariel McKoy, a seamstress, were immigrants from Jamaica.
While in the service, Powell met Alma Vivian Johnson on a blind date, and they married in August 1962. In addition to his wife, his survivors include two daughters, Linda Powell and Annmarie Lyons; a son, Michael, who served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; and four grandchildren.
Years later, the sting of the United Nations speech still pained him. Yet he sought to move on. “Let others judge me,” Powell said in the 2007 interview. “All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.”
Eric Schmitt is a Pulitzer Prize — winning American journalist
The New York Times.