Colin Powell: A Good Man

Good morning!

Grab your cup of coffee and join me for a shorter, sadder Rude today.

I so admired Colin Powell growing up, hoping he’d run for President.  But one terrible decision haunted him until the end.

But let’s start with all the considerable good of his life.

The Man

Former Secretary of State and former Joint Chiefs of Staff head Colin Powell died a couple of days ago. I feel sad about his passing.

I also feel nostalgic for what was and, worse, what could have been.

Powell was the first black man I admired who wasn’t a movie star or athlete. He wasn’t Denzel Washington, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy.  Nor was he Lawrence Taylor, Walter Payton, or Magic Johnson.

He was a man who was often labeled with that backhanded compliment of being “articulate.”  In public, Powell was measured, poised, and prepared.  Everything you want in a public speaker.  Not a word wasted, not a word out of place.

Ah, the days when government officials looked competent.  It seems like it’s been three decades or so.  Oh yeah, it was…

But Powell wasn’t just a general. He was The General.

Powell rose up the ranks of the US military after attending City College in New York, in Harlem, and at the time a great school.

He then joined the Army’s ROTC program and later served in Vietnam.

His accomplishments include two Purple Hearts and the Soldier’s Medal for returning to a crashed helicopter to rescue fellow soldiers.

After Vietnam, he went to Washington and met Casper Weinberger and Fred Carlucci, who took him under their wings.

Joint Chiefs and Iraq, Part I

Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at age 52.

He was the youngest ever to earn that job, a record that still stands. And it’s a fantastic accomplishment.

I remember during the first Iraq war, when I was still in high school, hearing him speak at the podium.

Indeed, I was struck by how articulate and forthright he was.

“We’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it.”

That’s what he said the US military would do to the Iraqi Army that had invaded Kuwait.

I remember thinking, “Those Iraqi dudes are in big trouble.”

His phrase is inexorably etched onto my brain.

I’m sure my generation feels the same way I did when I thought, “Man, he’d make a great first black President.”

I have no idea why he didn’t run for President. Maybe he didn’t want the job or couldn’t take the pressure of running and pandering for votes.

I imagine most military men aren’t into that kind of frippery.

But I think he would’ve been great.

I also think he would’ve been far better at being President than he was at Secretary of State.  Some men are better at leading than following.

I also genuinely believe if he were President in the early Noughties, we would never have invaded Iraq.

The Speech

In my mind, the public will always remember Powell for that ridiculous speech he gave at the UN.

I just read an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, where they apologized for him.  The editors allege that he acted honorably and used the best intelligence the CIA could provide at the time.

Powell himself knew the intelligence was bullshit, and he said it himself before the speech.  That tidbit was found out about three months later. 

I remember sitting on my trading desk in London, looking up at the screen, watching the speech. 

The volume was on: it was one of those special moments.

You could tell he had no conviction in his voice. You could tell it was a pack of lies. I had never been so disappointed in a politician in my whole life.

Unfortunately, that disappointment has grown exponentially ever since.

At that moment, I knew he was just an apparatchik in an administration that had already lost its way.

In many ways, my complete distrust of government was born during that speech.

My respect for him plummeted after that.

Later, Powell was asked to resign by the very men he was loyal to because he constantly conflicted with Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon.

I think Powell knew far more about defense than Rumsfeld ever did.

Powell called that speech a blot on his career, but that speech was the beginning of the end of his career.

After that, his loyalty to Republicans didn’t last long as he voted for Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections.

McCain and Romney were no prizes, I agree.

The Founder of Modern Singapore, Lee Kwan Yu, famously said, “In multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion.”

That sentiment seems to ring true in this case.

Wrap Up

This doesn’t demean all his accomplishments.

He was born to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem.

He rose from nothing to become one of the highest-ranking members of the US military and the US government.

He was a well-educated, brave, and competent man who was admired by many in his prime. 

It’s just a shame that he didn’t go further.  But one can say that about each of us.

May he rest in peace.

Have a good day.

All the best,

Sean

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