LOS ANGELES, CA – It is easy to lionize those who have passed. Today, predictably like when Senator John McCain passed, statements of condolences flooded the news channels and outfits. Some of these statements felt insincere, as the media once vilified this man, especially in his role supporting President George W. Bush on the war in Iraq. Some of that criticism was legitimate and the heart of that criticism was putting “loyalty over leadership”, which he even brushed off but responded to.
I chose to wait a day to write this, as I wanted to respect the man’s life and legacy but with a little more honesty and objectivity and less fawning than I have seen from the day-of obituaries. Our first black Secretary of State, Colin Powell, died of complications from COVID, at age 84. His family revealed this on Facebook, and they interestingly noted that he was fully vaccinated. It was also well known that Powell had multiple myeloma which is a cancer of plasma cells that suppresses the body’s autoimmune response, in addition to Parkinson’s Disease. Media is already seizing and spinning, trying to justify that the vaccine doesn’t help in all cases, but never addressing the possibility that the vaccine itself could have exacerbated already tenuous conditions and hastened the death for the elderly. But that’s another piece.
This piece will focus on the many thoughts have raced through my mind around him as a historical figure and the circumstances around his death, so here are some takeaways that may be different from the rest.
CNN predictably decided to count the ways he was great, mostly based on attained titles, such as his rise through the ranks, with his highest two awards being the Congressional Gold Medal in March 1991 “in recognition of his exemplary performance in planning and coordinating” the U.S. response to Iraq’s invasion, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition, Colin Powell received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. I personally admire Powell’s patience, deference and loyalty to the structure and system. I am certainly not cut from the same cloth.
I think it takes someone who really cares what others think to achieve greatness in a structure. Even his criticisms of former President Trump were centered around assessments of how Trump was perceived by others. He was quoted calling him a “national disgrace and an international pariah.” Four years later, he bypassed the administration’s tangible results but instead focused on Trump’s adherence to the Constitution, saying “We have a Constitution. And we have to follow that Constitution. And the President has drifted away from it.” Suddenly a strict constitutionalist, this became a reason for Powell not to endorse Trump.
In many ways, Colin Powell said he was above politics, yet ironically, he played right into becoming a political pawn for both parties in his lifetime. This need to defer to another was what helped him rise through the ranks, but being second in line (or technically fourth in line for succession to the Presidency at one point) to President George W. Bush, truly puts his leadership under a microscope. He stressed his own loyalty to his President. One could say, well, Bush had tapped him as his first Cabinet pick. It was natural to return the favor. However, that is politics at its finest. The conclusion is he was a faithfully executing manager, not an “out of the box” thinker, which I think is one of the most important qualities of leadership.
Where I truly sympathized with Powell was that terrible feeling of betrayal when he found out his leaders lied to him and hadn’t told him the full truth. That pivotal moment in his life and career woke him up to the nature of the Bush presidencies, father and son. And this betrayal forever changed him, in a way that if he had a stronger foundation of discerning and questioning, it shouldn’t have. He should have been skeptical from the start. But we all make mistakes and grow from it. In Colin’s case, it felt like he fell in the same pattern but remained with similar blind spots.
Transcending betrayal is sadly one of the hardest lessons to learn in life. I sympathize with that feeling, but it is those moments in life that push you to refine your own critical thinking process and search for higher truths. When that higher truth is government or political party structures, it will inevitably fail.
Powell ultimately rejected the Republican Party and then stood for different values by the end of his life. I can understand this as I myself have taken to task the same party, which purports to be closest to my values. The difference between Colin and myself is that I was never enamored with any political party in the first place, as my first adult exposure to the party was under President Bush 43’s administration, the very source of his ultimate betrayal.
His next immediate moves seemed sincere. Endorsing President Obama and becoming a key endorsement that pushed his successful candidacy over the top, was almost like a perfect storm for his political evolution. This positive endorsement was perhaps the high point of his ensuing political moves. Instead of stopping there, he doubled down as co-chair of Obama’s re-election team. By the second time around, enough Republicans who gave President Obama a chance were re-thinking their support. Yet, none of this seemed to faze Colin. It was less about conservative principles, and more about a party structure that betrayed him and getting back at it, while hardly questioning the new boss.
What is fascinating to me is how a whole grassroots movement in his former party started out of the same frustration he experienced. But there was little overture to interact with those who shared that experience. The new Republican Party does not care for Democrats, or the Bushes for that matter. Even Jeb Bush was soundly rejected in the 2016 primary by Republican voters. But upon further analysis, Powell’s moves make sense. He was more of a Republican than he was a conservative. He rightfully left a structure that did him wrong, and he found another one, in the form of the Democratic Party and a fawning media. Ideology was of little concern. He enjoyed being used by Democrats to promote their Presidential candidates, as he endorsed Obama twice, Hillary Clinton and finally, Joe Biden, responsible for one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in Afghanistan. Since Powell stayed silent on this issue, I can just imagine what his thoughts were in his final days on an situation directly related to his life’s work.
Colin had once said, “I liked the structure and discipline of the military. I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn’t been distinctive in much else.” This statement, to me, captures what he was about, even until the end of his life. While he was referencing his early military career in that quote, I believe that he never transcended this mentality of needing to follow a leader. He himself was not a leader. He was a good foot soldier, and one with many blind spots