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Colin Powell, the Humble American

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Colin Powell, the Humble American

In 2003, when Colin Powell was Secretary of State, I invited him to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the annual black-tie gala where journalists bring officials as their guests to develop sources and schmooze in a noisy ballroom at the Washington Hilton. Powell was then the rock star in the Bush Administration, a group of people seen widely in Washington as aloof, inaccessible, entitled, or just boring. At pre-dinner receptions in the hotel, Powell commanded whatever room we were in. He had the authoritative bearing of a retired four-star general, but he also had an easy smile and a teasing humor, and, whatever he really thought of them, he greeted everyone with warm gentility. I had a hard time keeping pace as Powell moved among the crowds until we finally sat down for dinner. A few days later, he sent me a handwritten note with a typically humorous and fatherly tagline: “Many thanks for a lovely evening, largely because you were there.”

I’ve covered Powell since the late nineteen-eighties, when he was appointed to run the National Security Council after the disastrous arms-for-hostage affair with Iran that was brokered by his predecessors. It marked a rapid rise, especially for an African American at the time. Powell will be remembered for many things. He overcame the odds of a disadvantaged heritage and never tried to pad his credentials, as do so many in Washington. “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means,” he wrote in “My American Journey,” a memoir published in 1995. He often spoke proudly of his roots: born in Harlem, the son of Jamaican parents. His father was a shipping-room foreman and his mother a seamstress. Powell acknowledged that he was, at best, a mediocre student whose life only came together after he joined the military—and realized he was good at it. If Powell hadn’t joined the Army, he once speculated, he might have ended up as a bus driver.

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Powell will also be remembered for defying the rampant discrimination of his time; he was forced to use segregated bathrooms in gas stations during military training in the South, in 1957. He was a White House fellow during the Nixon Administration and later broke centuries-old racial barriers in three of America’s most powerful jobs: as national-security adviser, in the Reagan Administration; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations; and Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush Administration. Until Barack Obama took office, he was the most powerful African American in U.S. history.

He will also be remembered for crafting the Powell military doctrine, in the run-up to the first war with Iraq, in 1991; it was shaped by the searing memories of his two tours in Vietnam. He warned that the United States should only commit troops to a conflict if it had achievable goals, sufficient firepower, public support, and an exit strategy. Thirteen years later, he famously noted, “You break it, you own it,” about toppling Saddam Hussein. He had misgivings about that second Iraq war, but, as my colleague Dexter Filkins noted, he ultimately became the public front man for the Bush Administration’s justification for it at the United Nations. The case was based on phony intelligence and bad judgment, some but not enough of which Powell had questioned during intense briefings at the C.I.A. It was, as he subsequently acknowledged, a permanent stain—a defining flaw—in his life story. The war dragged on for eight years. Nearly five thousand Americans were killed, and an estimated four hundred thousand Iraqis died between the 2003 invasion and the U.S. withdrawal, in 2011. The Iraq War is now widely viewed as the greatest foreign-policy debacle in American history.

For those of us who knew him, however, the elegant soldier-statesman may be most remembered for his decent humanity and humor. Powell had a rare “gift of presence,” Time wrote, in 2001. He had a way of connecting with people whatever their status or party or religion or nationality or job. He was at least as close to his longtime driver, Sergeant Otis Pearson, with whom he worked on dilapidated old Volvos on weekends, as he was to any of the four Presidents he served. (Powell eventually owned twenty vintage Volvos; President Bill Clinton gave him a 1966 wreck to work on when Powell left the Pentagon, in 1993.)

I travelled with Powell as a member of the diplomatic press corps when he was Secretary of State. King Abdullah II of Jordan once told me that Powell had an impact because he came to meetings willing to listen first; only afterward did he look to outline U.S. goals. “Powell has a very realistic approach,” he said. “I was very impressed with him when he came to the area, as we all were, the countries that had the opportunity to sit with the Secretary of State.” On that first trip to the Middle East, Powell also chatted with the incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—one retired general to another—about security strategy. In Egypt, Powell told a press conference that he had sought “the advice and counsel” of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about regional flash points. “It was particularly impressive because he is a larger-than-life figure,” Nabil Fahmi, then the Egyptian Ambassador to Washington, told me at the time. In Kuwait, Powell participated in a ceremony for the six hundred political prisoners still held by Iraq a decade after the first Gulf War, which he had overseen as America’s senior soldier. He met some of their families, too. Along the way, he held talks with the Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov; they came away on a first-name basis.

Powell’s human touch deepened his diplomacy. King Abdullah II once offered to personally chauffeur Powell to the airport in Jordan in his new Mercedes-Benz S500, which had a twelve-cylinder engine. He knew Powell loved cars. Powell countered that he’d drive the king’s car to the airport. Abdullah complied and rode in the front passenger seat. “Great car,” Powell told the travelling press. He was a blast to cover. “I remember all the times we travelled with him and drank wine in Australia and stout in Ireland and chatted with him in his hotel room,” Neil King, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, wrote to me, after Powell’s death was announced, on Monday. “He was wise and kind and gracious. There are so very few people like him left in official Washington circles.”

Powell always came to the back of his plane to talk to us, usually dressed in his travelling track suit. He loved technology and would show us his latest mini camera or recommend his latest discoveries on the Internet. He sometimes shared news of his three adult kids, of whom he was profoundly proud, or latest grandchild; he was such a family man. He also shared personal insights from his trips in a way no other Secretary of State whom I’ve covered (dating back to Henry Kissinger) ever did. On a poignant trip to Hanoi, four decades after he was deployed as a soldier, Powell went into the cockpit of his Boeing 757 to survey the sites that had once been targeted by U.S. warplanes. “To hear the voice of the air-traffic controller in the tower, greeting our pilot and giving him instructions, and to hear that voice, that accent, brought back lots of memories from years ago,” he told us. Powell had received a Purple Heart for injuries suffered when he stepped on a booby trap. On his return to Vietnam, he quietly slipped out of the conference that he was attending in order to walk around the capital, this time with security provided by a government that he had once fought. “Same kinds of shops, smiling people, happy people,” he later recounted. “They wanted to talk.”

There’s an inherent tension between any U.S. official and the press corps covering his or her every step—and misstep. As we covered the debate about whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, including the ingredients for a nuclear bomb, ABC’s Jonathan Karl and I bought a cake and yellow frosting, then printed out the nuclear symbol to put on top of it. We presented Powell with his very own “yellow cake.” In weapons parlance, “yellowcake” is a type of uranium that can be used for either peaceful nuclear energy or to make the world’s deadliest weapon. The Bush Administration claimed that Saddam was seeking to acquire it from Africa. Powell wasn’t pleased; he wouldn’t let us take pictures. Amid deepening tensions between Powell and neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, we presented him with a poster we had made at a PX in Spain that had his name in place of a bullfighter’s. In the end, he lost the fight. After Bush was reëlected, in 2004, Powell drew up a list of things he wanted to work on during the second term. He took it with him when he was summoned to the White House. He never had a chance to explain it, he later told me. Bush blindsided Powell by announcing that he had just asked Condoleezza Rice to serve as his next Secretary of State. Powell had been fired. He was clearly stung. It was an ignoble end to a lifetime of public service.

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Colin Powell, the Humble American