When Colin Powell walks into a room, you kind of want to sit up a little straighter.
He looked in his dark suit, walking-tall way, smiling but firm, well, presidential. It’s only natural that such a thought came to mind, given that President Barack Obama had been re-elected the night before. There was still a buzz in the air among those attending the book talk by Powell, the former U.S. Secretary of State at the Dupont Circle offices of the Aspen Institute, the non-profit, non-partisan think and issues tank.
Not only that, but it had been only days since Powell, a Republican, had endorsed Obama for a second time, which stirred a certain amount of controversy, at least among the likes of shoot-from-the-hip Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly, who suggested that Powell did so because Obama, like Powell, is black and rose success from modest circumstances.
It’s also true that in the 1990s, there was a groundswell for the popular Powell, an African American who led the hugely successful U.S. military effort in the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, to run for president.
Nobody in the crowd at the Aspen Institute asked him about that, but they didn’t need to. Powell brought it up himself. “We all know the huge effect of fund raising and money has had on the electoral process. That was evident to me even back then. My running was a serious matter, raised by serious people, and it had to be taken seriously, and I gave it considerable thought. I agonized over it a little, truth be told. But a decision like that in our house involve my wife, Alma, and I thought about it. And I thought about having to go to yet another fund raiser. I thought about the life of daily campaigning that it would take, and I finally decided and I came down for my morning coffee and told her of my decision. “I’m not running,” I said. She looked at me and said, “What took you so long?”
Everybody laughed. This was, after all, not a policy staff meeting in the Pentagon or White House. This was a book talk, moderated by noted biographer (of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein) and Aspen president and CEO Walter Isaacson. Powell was among friends—including his successor as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, Aspen members, a two-star army general, former colleagues in his state department where he served as the first African American Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and an opera singer and professor of music at George Mason University. Everybody knew everybody.
Still, Powell had a little more—all right, a lot more—gravitas than anyone else in the room, but he wore it lightly and well. The book in question—“It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership” published by Harper—is a kind of bookend to his critical and popular successful memoir “My American Journey”, an anecdotal riff on the qualities of leadership and what is required to be a top leader in any field.
Some of it centers around Powell’s famous 13 rules—they were first referenced in a Parade Magazine story—chief and legendarily among them “Get Mad, Then Get Over It”. “Throughout my military career,” he said, “I’ve always encouraged discussion, even disagreement, and the rule applies here, not just about getting mad, but arguing. But once that’s over, the decision is made and you abide by it. It works in life, too. A reporter asked my wife once how we had managed to have successful marriage for so many years—“Get mad, then, get over it,” she answered.
Powell has had a fabled American career of service. In the army, where he says he found his home, his life, his friends, and in American government, he rose to the rank of four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served as National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State, becoming the first African American (of Caribbean descent) to serve—in both roles.
A decorated combat officer—he has always said he was haunted by Vietnam, where he served with distinction. He is not only the author of the 13 rules (others include “Share Credit!” “Have a Vision!” “Be Demanding!” “Perpetual Optimism is a force multiplier”) — he is also the author of the Powell Doctrine. This doctrine was an approach to military decision-making in wartime that, summed up, means applying maximum force with minimal casualties. This worked famously in Desert Storm, the first Persian Gulf War against Iraq, where, coupled with the elder Bush’s ability to forge an eclectic alliance against Saddam Hussein, U.S. Arms won a decisive victory with few casualties.
The 2nd Iraq war, in which President Bush asked him to make the case for military action against Saddam Hussein (in a post-9/11 climate) based on intelligence that Hussein had WMDs was a different matter. “Look, I went there—gladly—with the intelligence that was given to me. Based on that, I gave my speech. It turned out that the intelligence should have been looked at more closely by all concerned. I’m not happy with that—we should have bored in more into the intelligence. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not asked about that, and it’s a burden I carry. It’s a blot on my record. But given the same intelligence, that is what I knew then, when I made the speech, I would do it again.”
He had blunt things to say about the war and other matters, saying that the Iraqi army should not have been dismantled, that the conduct of the war, post-victory, was not all it should have been.
He praised President Obama for his handling of the auto bailout, for what he called “his nuanced diplomacy”, and he said that the election revealed a diverse America .
“The Republican Party, we all, are facing a historical demographic change,” he said. “In another generation, there will be no more minorities, in terms of gender, Hispanics, people of color, families with different organizations. The Republican Party has to recognize it. Yesterday demonstrated that you have to figure it out. You can’t say we have no immigration policy. It’s a historic moment that’s happening, and we’re the only country that could deal with such a huge change, and that’s why it’s such a beautiful country.” He said that “there is a vein of intolerance in my party (Powell is a Republican after all). We have to change that. You can’t attack the president and say he’s a Muslim. There’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, but we can’t demonize people we disagree with …I hope after the election yesterday, there’s no place in America for this kind of intolerance. We are the example of the best in us to the world. When I hear somebody say that we’re living in the worst of time—I say, no it’s not, I can show you the worst of times.”
There was both authority and a passionate love of country in his words. Describing the United States of America post-2012 election sounded, well, presidential.