Colin Powell: Public life, Volvos, and a poignant what if

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
Secretary of State Colin Powell receives a pat on the cheek from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in the Oval Office during a meeting between President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Washington, May 7, 2002. General Powell, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of State, died Monday.

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

Instead, he served 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 America’s national security forces switched focus from the clarity of the Cold War to the diffuse demands of a worldwide war against terrorism.

Why We Wrote This

Over two decades, Peter Grier interviewed Colin Powell about everything from hope to his hobby fixing Volvos. He looks back on the life of a thoughtful and witty public servant – one whose sidelining took America down a different road.

Asked in an interview how he dealt – for years and years – with the firehose of news, opinions, advice, and criticism that washes over any top U.S. official, General Powell quoted one of the U.S. Army’s favorite military theoreticians, 19th-century German Gen. Carl von Clausewitz. 

“There’s a great Clausewitzian expression which says ‘beware the vividness of transient events,’” General Powell said. “There are lots of transient events out there, and I am trying to beware of their vividness.”

Colin Powell – who held some of the most stressful national security posts in the U.S. government during decades of public life – used to relax by fixing up old Volvos.

He would say that unlike many geostrategic problems, a balky 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 stashed in garages near his quarters in Fort Myer, Virginia. At that point he figured he had already renovated more than 30 of the boxy, reliable Scandinavian cars.

Why We Wrote This

Over two decades, Peter Grier interviewed Colin Powell about everything from hope to his hobby fixing Volvos. He looks back on the life of a thoughtful and witty public servant – one whose sidelining took America down a different road.

Lynne Cheney, wife of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney (and mother of current GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming) wanted to buy one of Chairman Powell’s finished projects. The JCS chief and the head of the Pentagon eventually decided that wasn’t a great idea.

“Dick and I allowed as how it would be better if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of Defense did not have a car-selling relationship dealing with a used, ancient car,” General Powell said in an interview.

Colin Luther Powell, who passed away on Monday, was a thoughtful, witty, and self-aware public servant. He never ran for electoral office himself, despite pressure from many who believed that, as a Republican with moderate social and economic views and military experience, he had a good chance of becoming the first Black American president.

Instead, he served an important transitional leadership role from the late 1980s to the early 2000s as America’s national security forces switched focus from the clarity of the Cold War to the diffuse demands of a worldwide war against terrorism.

Asked in an interview how he dealt – for years and years – with the firehose of news, opinions, advice, and criticism that washes over any top U.S. official, General Powell quoted one of the U.S. Army’s favorite military theoreticians, 19th-century German Gen. Carl von Clausewitz. 

“There’s a great Clausewitzian expression which says ‘beware the vividness of transient events,’” General Powell said. “There are lots of transient events out there, and I am trying to beware of their vividness.”

Bill Grant/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Gen. Colin Powell, shown during a visit to The Christian Science Monitor newsroom in Boston, served an important transitional role as America’s national security forces switched focus from the clarity of the Cold War to the diffuse demands of a worldwide war against terrorism.

A military life at high speed

Colin Powell’s parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. He was born in Harlem and grew up in the South Bronx. He attended City College of New York, where he participated in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation in 1958.

Military life provided the rituals, symbols, and sense of belonging and purpose that the young Powell craved, and he never looked back. Early on he was tagged as a “fast burner,” or man on the move. In his first tour of Vietnam, he survived a Viet Cong shell that hit a tree under which he was sheltering; in his second tour, he survived a helicopter crash.

Then his crisp efficiency began to land him Washington jobs. After Vietnam, he spent 17 of the next 22 years in Pentagon or D.C.-based employment. Along the way, he met two future Republican secretaries of Defense who became 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 then served as the nation’s top military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, from 1989 to 1993. In the Gulf War of 1991 he became known for the so-called “Powell doctrine” of military force, which was, in essence, that the U.S. needed to employ overwhelming strength.

This approach worked well in expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 – perhaps too well even for Chairman Powell. As Iraqi forces streamed back toward Baghdad under withering U.S. fire, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to push for an end to hostilities, remembered then-Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates in an oral history archived at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia.

“This is turning from a military conflict into a rout and from a rout into a massacre and the American Army does not do massacres,” Mr. Gates recalls General Powell saying.

A bend in history

General Powell’s popularity soared in the wake of the Gulf War victory. By the mid-1990s pundits often mentioned him as a possible strong candidate for the 1996 GOP nomination.

But he never even launched an exploratory bid – perhaps because of family reasons, perhaps because he was beginning to seem like a moderate policy throwback in the GOP, or maybe because he just felt he didn’t have the near-maniacal drive it takes to successfully compete for the nation’s highest office.

In 2001, newly elected George W. Bush, with little foreign-policy experience, asked General Powell to be his Secretary of State. When he was sworn in, Secretary Powell became the highest-ranking Black official to that point in American history, ranking fourth in the presidential line of succession.

The September 11 attacks that year bent the course of U.S. history, and the Bush administration began to look at foreign military intervention as a forceful step in the newly declared war on international terrorism.

In February 2003, Secretary Powell delivered a speech before the United Nations in which he presented evidence the U.S. intelligence community said proved that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had continued accumulating weapons of mass destruction. International inspectors weren’t enough to head off the danger of a possible Iraqi nuclear weapon, Secretary Powell insisted.

The subsequent U.S. invasion succeeded in toppling Hussein, but no weapons of mass destruction were found. The pre-war U.S. assessment had been wrong.

Secretary Powell later defended his presentation, saying it wasn’t something that had been pasted together from scraps of espionage in his Foggy Bottom office.

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

But he also acknowledged that the presentation was in fact wrong, and that it would remain a “blot” on his record.

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

What might have been for the GOP – and America

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

The history of the Republican Party could have been different. After all, his political boomlet long pre-dated the Trump years and the party’s sharp turn right toward populist conservatism.

But the election of Ronald Reagan – and the continuing rise of a young House member from Georgia named Newt Gingrich – might have indicated that shift in the GOP was already occurring.

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

He’d talk about kids, and providing them the opportunities he’d had in life.

One fall day in 1995, after he retired from the military, he looked out of the windows of his office in Alexandria, Virginia, at the city seven stories below him in the gathering dark.

Asked what special skills he’d bring to the presidency, he ticked off a rote list: pretty good leader, experienced at the process of compromise, somebody who knows how to set goals.

Then he paused, and looked at the city’s housing projects visible in the near distance.

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

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