The complex legacy of Colin Powell
We lost a true American hero on Oct. 18, a hero of military, government, political and cultural impact.
In the late 1980s, Colin Powell became a superstar figure in the Republican stratosphere, during the Reagan-Bush era of the Republican party, an era that saw the GOP hold the White House for all but eight of 28 years, from 1980 through 2008.
In 1996, Colin Powell could have quite conceivably become the first Black president. My, how history may have played out differently had he run, had he won.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush, Powell had come to prominence during the Gulf War of 1990-91. The military victory had been pulled off nearly without flaw. While an economic recession and "no new taxes" pledge helped make George H.W. Bush a one-term president, Powell and coalition forces leader Norman Schwarzkopf were well-known heroes in the early '90s, thanks largely to the 24-hour news casts of CNN.
Powell even had his own "doctrine," established during his time as Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Powell Doctrine was not ground-breaking and echoed other policies put forth following the Vietnam era. It called for American military involvement only if vital national security is threatened, if objectives are clear, all non-violent means have been exhausted, that there is widespread national and international support for action, and that there's a commitment to use all force necessary to guarantee victory.
Powell had attacked the Clinton Administration's policy of involvement in the Bosnian conflict in the mid-1990s, thinking the administration was not following the doctrine. Republicans, with no one standing tall to take the helm from the Reagan-Bush era, begged Powell to run against Clinton in '96. Polls were very encouraging.
But Powell didn't bite on the appeals to ego. He had no fire to run, and he chose not to.
Bob Dole eventually won the Republican Primary in '96, and Ross Perot, whose candidacy helped Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in '92, helped ease his victory in '96 by running again. Clinton won an electoral landslide, 379 to 159 to Dole. But even with the economy fully recovered from an early-'90s recession, only 49.2% of the popular vote went to Clinton while those voting for Dole and Perot combined for 49.1% (the remaining .7 to others).
Even on Election Day, General Powell was on the electorate collective mind. Exit polling indicated that more people would have voted for Powell than for President Clinton had he been on the ballot.
That's all subjective, but had he run in 1996, Colin Powell may very well have been elected president. The Democrats, no doubt, would have pushed Powell's bit role in the arms-for-hostages scandal that tarred the second Reagan term. A Clinton-Powell matchup, though, would have been hard to predict. But ponder if Powell would have ran, and would have won … might our nation be in a different place now, more unified perhaps? Think of everything that occurred in this century, 9/11, Afghanistan, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Jan. 6 … might a Powell presidency starting in 1996 changed our course in unimaginable fashion?
Powell would become Secretary of State under George W. Bush in 2001. It was in that role that he made his famous speech to the U.N., pushing the intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It was proven to be false intel. Powell would call his speech a huge mistake, a painful mistake, but a speech not given to deceive. Knowing the man as we would come to, it's impossible not to believe him. When the notion was proved inaccurate, that there were no WMDs, Powell was quick to admit the mistake. The Bush administration didn't appreciate the forthright acknowledgement. At the start of his second term, Bush asked Powell to resign. The four-star general did.
A few years later, Powell was again under a political microscope. The press needed to know who he would endorse for president, John McCain or Obama. He was a longtime admirer of McCain but could not endorse him after McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. Powell felt she was unprepared and ill-equipped to be president if need be. Her selection also solidified Powell's take that his political party was becoming too right-wing.
Instead, in 2008, he who had so many firsts as a Black man — first Black National Security Advisor, first Black Joint Chiefs of Staff, first Black Secretary of State — endorsed Obama, the first Black man to received the nomination of a major party. It was the beginning of the end of his high standing in an evolving GOP.
Obama was, of course, elected. Powell would be pushed further and further from his party in the second decade of the century as the GOP moved further right. His negative opinion of Trump solidified his status as a pariah in the GOP, made more firm by his endorsement of Joe Biden in 2020.
When pushed by more liberal thinkers as to why he didn't just change parties, Powell said, "I think the Republican Party needs me more than the Democratic Party needs me."
Shortly after the Jan. 6 insurrection, though, Powell left the Republican Party, long after it had left him, and after many within it had pushed him aside as no longer relevant in the new Republican Party.
On Oct. 18, Powell, who was fighting a blood cancer, died after being infected with COVID. Even upon his death, people used him for political means. Those who fight vaccine mandates used his death as an argument that vaccines won't keep you safe; those who endorse vaccines used his passing as a loud cry for healthy people to vaccinate in order to protect the immune compromised from becoming infected.
Politics: It seems it always, without invitation, went looking for Colin Powell.
Nearly all of our best American military heroes are less concerned about political parties than about the country. That's one of the many reasons they are so revered, that they stand for one nation, not the whims of political expediency or popularity. Colin Powell will be remembered in such warm light by history, imperfect as we all are, but as one of the great Americans of his time.
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