On a personal note: Remembering Colin Powell

Gen. Colin Powell briefs the media during the First Gulf War. (Photo: AP)

Oct. 19, 2021 by David Silverberg

In 1991 during the First Gulf War, I had the good fortune as a reporter to be covering the Pentagon when Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a briefing on the state of the war.

No military in the world can function without presentation charts. Powell brought a bunch to show the media how coalition air forces were eroding Saddam Hussein’s command, control and communications capabilities in the prelude to ground operations. The charts had long, rising and abruptly falling lines displaying the decline in Iraqi forces’ ability to send and receive signals.

A reporter asked an obvious question: How could Powell be so sure this was true? And by extension, how could our audiences be sure that what he was saying was true?

Powell, a big, broad-shouldered man, smiled. “Trust me,” he said.

And people did. Powell had a reputation as a straight-talking, truth-telling guy. He could be trusted. As the nation’s top military man there was much he had to conceal and he might not provide the entire truth but what he did say could be taken to the bank.

Then, and later, the media, the nation’s leadership and the American people trusted him.

Powell died yesterday, Oct. 18, 2021. Tributes are pouring in. Much is being made of the fact that he was the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State.

But when he was in office, when he prosecuted an astonishingly victorious war, his racial background was irrelevant—as it should be. Much more important today, in an age of distrust, deception and divisiveness, it’s worth remembering him as someone who is so rare in our time: someone who could be trusted.

It was because of this credibility that in 2003 President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney pressured Powell, then Secretary of State, to bless their effort to go to war against Saddam Hussein again. Despite flimsy evidence of weapons of mass destruction, a lack of provocations and his own deep skepticism of the intelligence, Powell did what he felt was his duty and followed his commanders’ orders.  He presented the United Nations with the American justification for a war of choice. It was a decision he regretted the rest of his life and will always be judged a flaw on an otherwise sterling record of service, dedication and duty.

This was an aberration—and a big one. But in looking back over his life and career, it’s much more enlightening and uplifting to remember his thoughtfulness, his honesty and his honor. Powell was a true patriot; not the loud, vulgar, ostentatious kind or the kind who exploits appearances for personal gain but the kind who gets up and goes to work every day to make the country a better place and advances its best and highest ideals and values in every way he or she can.

Powell also exemplified something else. When he was thinking of running for president in 1996 he said that he wanted to appeal to what he called “the sensible center” of American political life. He eschewed extremism and divisiveness or fanaticism.

At that time there was a “sensible center,” a common ground of discussion and common sense where conversation and reason reigned. Powell’s passing at the age of 84 highlights just how much the sensible center that once governed the national dialogue—and the national course of action—has been deliberately undercut and assaulted. The kind of hatred, prejudice and rage that has taken its place is no improvement and is leading to disaster in every possible way.

We need to return to the sensible centrism he embodied.

The evaluation of Colin Powell has begun. Biographies will be written. Far too much focus is being placed on his race. His flaws and errors will be revealed.

But I’ll always remember him as a man of impeccable service and true patriotism, tall and commanding, his uniform immaculate and his decorations sparkling under hot lights, his charts behind him, smiling knowingly and saying “trust me.”

I did. We could. And restoration of his kind of honesty should be his greatest legacy.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

3 thoughts on “On a personal note: Remembering Colin Powell

  1. IMO what Powell did to help Bush and Cheney sell the Iraq War crossed the line into unforgivable territory. He had been National Security Director FFS. He knew who to call to check out the trumped up intelligence. Possibly millions died as a result.

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  2. I am sure that you met so many important people during your career as a journalist. Was Powell duped or was he complicit in selling an empty, falsified case to the American people and the world?

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    1. Powell gave an extensive interview in 2016 to PBS’ Frontline program about the speech (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/colin-powell-u-n-speech-was-a-great-intelligence-failure/). He called it a “blot” on his record and an “intelligence failure.” He said the decision to go to war had already been made and his job was to get a UN resolution approving the action. He also said an initial draft of the speech from Dick Cheney’s office was full of half-baked allegations and unsubstantiated claims that he removed and he based the speech on a National Intelligence Estimate. After the speech much of the intelligence fell apart and ulimately it was never confirmed on the ground.

      Personally, I think he was reluctant and skeptical of the war but didn’t press his case forcefully enough. He was already signed on as a member of the administration and although he expressed a lot of hesitation and caution he never went so far as to resign in protest. In the end he was a good soldier in the service of a bad cause.

      I still think he was a fundamentally honest person and did the best he could to do his duty as he saw it. Even though I was a registered Democrat I would have supported him for president in 1996 and even gone to work for him–I liked him a lot more than Bill Clinton at that point.

      Also, you have to look at the full span of his career, which was honorable and decent. He got to a level where these kinds of incredibly tough choices get made and he made what turned out to be a wrong one in this instance. But I will also say he was a terrific general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I got to travel around the world to different militaries after the war and I can tell you that what the US did in Desert Storm was regarded with awe–and I mean awe in the full sense of the word. There’s nothing like winning that kind of victory to get other generals’ respect and admiration.

      We desperately need his kind of integrity in government and the country. We also need the kind of integrity that was shown by John McCain. Two giants are gone and I’m not seeing many to take their place. Alexander Vinman springs to mind and maybe he will have a significant role to play in the future. Interestingly, he, like Powell, is the son of immigrants. I will also say that Trump’s absolutely disgusting attack on Powell is just one more mark of his stature–I would have been worried if Trump had praised him in any way.

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