WASHINGTON – Having covered Colin Powell since the Reagan White House and later, when he became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George HW Bush, I had associated him over those decades with the Republican presidents and the GOP.
But Powell was first and foremost an army man, not a party man. He was a registered Independent from his early years as a combat infantryman in Vietnam until his retirement from the armed forces. In fact, until his death, he preferred to be called “general”, rather than the honorary “Mr. Secretary.”
Perhaps this is because during his sometimes controversial tenure as George W. Bush’s top diplomat, he was quashed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and ultimately the president, on the key decision to invade Iraq.
In happier times for him, immediately after successfully leading the First Gulf War, he was arguably America’s most popular public figure, riding the crest of a nationwide book tour for his memoirs and, in 1996, seriously considering defying President Bill Clinton is running for a second term.
As Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Ben Kamisar point out in Tuesday’s “First Read” in March 1996, the NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll showed Powell was leading Clinton in a hypothetical general election clash, from 47% to 38 % at a time. when Clinton’s job rating was above 50 percent.
In the end, Powell decided not to run. But he only did so after testing the waters in the first primary states and writing two speeches – one to get started, the other to decline. Some of his reasons were personal, involving his family. But he told me in 2012 when I asked him if he regretted not running away: “It was heartbreaking.
I intervened, “You’ve lost sleep.”
Powell replied, “Yes. It was a horrible time, because I didn’t expect to be approached that way and have so much pressure on me. I am a soldier. But after a few weeks, I realized it just wasn’t me. This is not what I can do.
He went on to point out, as it was known, that his wife, Alma, was also against it. But he then added: “I don’t have the passion to do what politicians do. I’m so glad we have them. We must have them. I’m glad we have a Mitt Romney, we have John McCain, we have Barack Obama and the Bushes, everyone is great. But it just wasn’t me. And when I said no, I said I would find other things to do to serve the country, and I did.
The wisdom of this decision was obvious to me when Powell, still a national hero, addressed the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. It was the year that the Bush campaign sacked McCain in the United States. South Carolina’s GOP primary, using ugly racial attacks on McCain. Bangladeshi adopted daughter.
I was part of the NBC News team of four political correspondents on the convention floor. Powell, still true to his origins, challenged the GOP to embrace diversity and affirmative action, arguing in these words:
“We need to understand the cynicism that exists in the black community, the kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some members of our party miss no opportunity to strongly and loudly condemn the affirmative action that has helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it comes to affirmative action for lobbyists who charge our federal tax code with preferences for special interests. It does not work. It does not work. You cannot make this case.
The delegates laughed and hooted.
Never comfortable in politics, the retired general – who four years earlier had been the first serviceman since Dwight D. Eisenhower to be courted by both political parties to run for the White House – then lived four years as a strange man on Bush’s national security team.
Those years included his acceptance of what he had been told to be carefully verified CIA intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Delivering this fateful speech at the United Nations in February 2003 was, he later admitted, a “stain” in his record that he has always regretted.
This experience, and his good friend McCain’s decision to pick Sarah Palin, who Powell clearly thought unqualified, for the ticket, led to his split from the Republican Party and his support for Obama against McCain in 2008.
Of course, as Powell explained to NBC News’ Tom Brokaw when he announced his decision on “Meet the Press,” he was also motivated by his belief that Obama, the first black candidate on a ticket to a great party, could be a transformational leader. . And he wanted to counter the rise of Donald Trump, who was already attacking Obama’s birthright as an American by birth.
Powell also timed his announcement for maximum political impact: Sunday two weeks before Election Day. Campaign veterans from McCain and Obama say both camps knew it was a fatal blow to Republican hopes.
Powell’s deeply rooted belief in the diversity and value that immigrants bring to American society – born out of his own family’s Jamaican heritage, as well as his experience in the military as a melting pot for advancement – Made his antipathy for Trump automatic in 2016.
Although the Clintons were deeply hurt by his embrace of Obama in the 2008 race, his endorsement of Hillary Clinton against Trump was inevitable. The same was true of his support for Joe Biden last year.
Republican critics can say the man who surpassed his peers to become Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under George HW Bush had turned his back on the party that launched his career in public service .
But after the January 6 riot, Powell told Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “TODAY” that Trump was “responsible for one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen in all my years. as a government employee “.
Powell would argue that today’s Republican Party is not the party of Reagan and the Bushes or his Cabinet colleagues Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker. Despite all his gratitude to them, he reserved his deepest loyalty not to political parties, but to the US military.