One of my few regrets in a drab and entirely uninteresting political life is that I never got to vote for Colin Powell as president of the United States. I would have voted for him if he had run as a Republican or as a Democrat. He has what so few contemporary politicians do: gravity, seriousness, fair-mindedness. Even when one disagrees with him on particular points, one senses that he has arrived at his views through thoughtfulness. He gives off a nice feeling of being above party — of being above all, if you can imagine, for the good of the country.
Powell has never run for political office, and perhaps his having been spared that indignity has allowed him to retain his own impressive dignity. His political career, such as it has been, was finished when, in 2003, he went before the United Nations and justified military action against Saddam Hussein on the grounds that the Iraqi dictator had, and was preparing to use, weapons of mass destruction, both germ and nuclear. Powell had been misinformed by various American intelligence gathering agencies, and, one has to assume, the White House. When no weapons were discovered, he was made to look bad — to look like little more than just another lying politician.
I believe Powell didn’t knowingly lie. He is a man of good character, and such men do not put their integrity on the line, even to attain political goals. If they do, of course, they are no longer men of good character. The effect of having been discovered disseminating false information must have been devastating, not merely politically but personally for Powell. He has allowed that it was a “blot” on his record, and said:
“I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world, and [it] will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”
As for that record, it is immensely impressive. Colin Powell rose to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the first black man ever to serve on the Joints Chiefs; and, perhaps more remarkable, he accomplished this without having gone to West Point. Growing up in the South Bronx, working at a Jewish furniture store in the Bronx while in high school, Powell went to City College of New York, where he majored in geology and was a perfectly mediocre student who only came fully alive in ROTC, compulsory in those days in public institutions and through which he earned his commission. His career is also a tribute to the colorblindness of the post-World War II U.S. Army.
Powell came to his greatest prominence, of course, during the Persian Gulf War, a campaign of limited but altogether successful objectives. What I remember from that six-month war was Colin Powell and Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, appearing on television news nightly to report on the progress of the fighting. Watching those two men, one sensed, for the first time in a long while, and in a way that has not been recaptured since, that genuine competence was at the helm in American foreign and military policy.
Powell is my exact contemporary, and as such, had he run and been elected president, would have been the only president of his and my generation. This was a generation that came of age in the late 1950s, the last pre-rock ’n’ roll generation, the last generation eager to shuck off childhood and become adult as soon as possible. Difficult to imagine Colin Powell, smartphone raised to take a selfie, or filling out the brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament, or welcoming rappers to the White House. By upbringing, career and temperament, he is a very different man than the fellow now in office.
My sense, based on a few conversations with black friends, is that the majority of blacks do not greatly admire Powell. They are equally unenamored of Condoleezza Rice. Both Powell and Rice, serious and accomplished though they are, have tainted themselves by their association with the Republican Party, by which they rendered themselves, in effect, sellouts. Blacks are quite as reflexive as my fellow Jews when it comes to the Republican Party, though it must be said, and Powell recently said it on “Meet the Press,” that there are still unappealing shreds of old-fashioned racism among some segments of the Republican Party.
An admirable quality of Powell is that he is able to recognize complications in politics, and not afraid to say what he thinks, including that he hasn’t settled thoughts on some subjects. On the same “Meet the Press” program, he said he was for the Black Lives Matter movement, insofar as it addresses the single problem of police too quickly reverting to shooting in their apprehension of criminals and suspects. Powell then added that the much greater problem was that of blacks killing blacks and violence in the ghettos and American life generally.
The question that Powell’s career poses, at least for me, is why is it that the best people, if they are not automatically uninterested in a career in public life, seem all but systematically eliminated from leading the country?
Joseph Epstein is an essayist, short-story writer and a former lecturer at Northwestern University. “Essays in Biography” is his latest book. He wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.