The Passing of Colin Powell Merits Reflection by All of Us

He would be the first to say Life is Complicated- And Its All Connected

An Extraordinary American Has Left Us

Colin Powell’s passing has led to a steady flow of 1:1 stories and reflections on his life that remind us all of some important things. You could have zero background or interest in military or diplomatic affairs, and yet learn much from Powell’s life. I certainly have done so.

The Many Roles of Colin Powell

 Powell saw himself first and foremost as an American. To him, that title carried with it special advantages and specific obligations. Probably next in line was seeing himself as a soldier. He often acknowledged that as a young man he underperformed in many ways. When he stumbled into the military, he found the path to focus, self-discipline, and teamwork – service to something larger than himself. It changed his life. Many of us can relate.

Lest anyone forget, Powell’s likely most famous quote during the Gulf War was a crisp reminder that he understood applied military power fully. Someone at an early press conference asked him as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs how would US Forces deal with Hussein’s army. His response was classic. “Our plan for dealing with this army is simple. We are going to cut it off. Then we will destroy it.” Seems pretty clear to me.  Any questions?

And so it was, in a matter of days. Powell was key in making this happen, working with a mercurial personality in the US Field Commander (Gen Norman Schwartzkopf, Jr.), all the US services and DOD, and as complex an international force as we have seen since WW II. Thus began the public articulation of the Powell Doctrine.

But More Than Just American or Soldier

Others likely would first call out his role as a mentor and a role model. He excelled at both and understood the importance of both. In so many instances he was the first Black or the youngest person to fill that role. Powell was fully aware of the potential and the obligations he carried in this regard.

Not unrelated to these roles was one he saw for himself as protector. Part of his duty was always to look out for those under his leadership – to protect them, support them, defend them. There were wonderful examples of this in his tenure as Secretary of State.

When he arrived on scene, people expected to be called up to his office for initial briefings. They were amazed to find that more often he came to them. Sat in their workspace and asked them what they did, what they thought, and what they needed. Any smart Army Second Lieutenant would likely have done the same, but it was a new thing for his colleagues at State.

Similarly, one of the early complaints he heard often that there were no decent break areas at the State Dept. Powell found the funds in short order the funds to build a world class coffee shop in the building. For years after, visitors were told, “this is something Colin Powell built for us.”

Early in his tenure he went to Congress to advise that we often threw people into the fire pit of international diplomacy with little or no preparation. He secured funds and built a training regime that we still benefit from today.

Still More Roles

Powell also had an immigrant component to his life; both his parents had immigrated to America. That meant his experience as a Black American was somewhat different than that of his native-born peers, a difference that complicated his life at times.

And he was an accomplished diplomat long before he became Secretary of State. Powell excelled at communicating and in enlisting the support of others. He did it in personal relationships and on the international stage.

 Powell grasped as well as one could that leadership was about accomplishing the mission, taking care of your people, and mentoring those that would follow you in leadership roles. He was the embodiment of the Leader Servant.

Two Interesting Comparisons

It would take a book to review these considerations but allow me to simply highlight that much of Powell’s life and career recalled those of two other, very different, national figures – Dwight Eisenhower and Barrack Obama.

Eisenhower as a coalition leader who managed to bring out the best in others and to excel beyond what one may reasonably expect. When Ike was the Supreme Allied Commander, his actual permanent rank at that time was Lieutenant Colonel. He could have been fired any day and put back down the ranks. But the man was good at everything required. It left him as the most respected military person of his generation. Same characteristics with Powell.

The linkage with Obama is a most interesting one. Both men felt the special responsibilities they had as Black men in leading national roles. Both wanted to do justice in that realm, but neither wanted to be defined by that role. Complicated business, race in America. I commend to you an excellent article in The Conversation reflecting on this reality. It is short but as solid as they come:

Three Unfulfilled Potentials

“A Stain on My Record” – Powell was out maneuvered too often as Secretary of State by Cheney and Rumsfeld. He did his best, but more often they carried the day, especially in persuading President Bush, an essentially weak leader, on a given course of action. It was their efforts that led to the Iraq War and their manipulation of intelligence that led to Powell making a powerful statement at the UN about the coming war.

His statement convinced a lot of us that the war likely was necessary, based on his standing and gravitas. He should have known better. He candidly stated over the years that it was a moral and judgmental failure on his part that would mark him forever. A shame that this is what so many remember him for now.

A Presidential Run – In the wake of the Gulf War, both parties put out feelers to Powell as a presidential candidate. He likely could have had the nomination of either. Powell chose not to go for either for two good reasons. He did not have the fire in his belly to do this and his wife Alma, always his most trusted confident, was dead set against it.

Had he accepted the Republican nomination, I don’t know that he could have beat Bill Clinton, but it would have been a heck of a race. If he had accepted the Democratic nomination, I believe he would have defeated Dole or any other likely candidate.

We will never know, but it is interesting to contemplate. Might the mess that is the modern Republican party and the stain of Trump have never happened had Powell been a candidate, and perhaps a president? Making the conversation from general officer to president is not often a smooth or good transition but Powell might have pulled it off.

Repudiating What the Republican Party Became – This last one is, for me, the most disappointing. I was a bit surprised and disappointed when Powell first came out as a Republican, but so be it. But as that party drove – not drifted, but drove – ever more extreme, more racist, more antidemocratic, I kept expecting Powell to announce he could no longer accept what has transpired.

He spoke out against Trump and some of the issues of the day, but not forcefully enough. He voted Democratic but kept his registration until very recently. Too little, too late. I expected better from him.


All in all, a life well lived. A decent person in every sense. He was a human being, with his shortfalls as well as his pinnacles. But overall, we are a better nation for his presence. He will be missed.

Bill Clontz, Founder, Agents of Reason              Bill Clontz

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1 reply to The Passing of Colin Powell Merits Reflection by All of Us

  1. I really wanted him to run. Even as a Republican, he would have had my vote.

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