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'An American journey': Colin Powell's life as a military leader, diplomat honored at funeral service

Among those in attendance at the National Cathedral were the Bidens, former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

WASHINGTON — Family, former colleagues and friends honored Colin Powell’s "life well lived" during a funeral service held Friday at the Washington National Cathedral.

The service comes a few weeks after Powell, a retired four-star general who became the country's first Black secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died after complications from a Covid-19 infection.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended the service, as did former President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell served as secretary of state under Bush and broke with his party when he endorsed Obama for president in 2008 and 2012. Former President Bill Clinton did not attend the service after doctors advised him not to travel due to his recent hospitalization.

Powell was eulogized by Richard Armitage, who had served as deputy secretary under Powell; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who preceded Powell as the nation’s top diplomat; and his son Michael.

"As he said in his autobiography, his journey was an American journey," his son told the assembled crowd, his voice trembling with emotion. "Colin Powell was a great lion with a big heart. We will miss him terribly."

Armitage remembered his friend of 40 years' "sense of humor, insatiable curiosity and his comfort in his own skin." He said Powell would often speak of the "need to treat everyone with a little more kindness" because "we don’t know what’s going on in their lives."

Albright called her successor "the ultimate team player" and "one of the most decent people any of us will ever meet."

"He made pragmatism charismatic," she said, and his "effectiveness was magnified by his lack of interest in racking up partisan debating points."

Prior to his casket being brought in, a military band played "Amazing Grace" — and ABBA's "Dancing Queen." Powell had been a fan of the Swedish pop group, and Armitage recounted an incident where Sweden's foreign minister gifted him a set of ABBA CDs during a visit.

"Colin immediately went down on one knee and sang the entire 'Mamma Mia' to a very amused foreign minister Sweden and to a gobsmacked U.S. delegation who'd never seen anything like it," Armitage said.

After rising through the military ranks, Powell became a four-star general and then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. He had served as U.S. national security adviser and deputy national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Powell served twice in Vietnam: During the first tour, he was wounded in action, and on the second tour, he received the Soldier's Medal for rescuing several men from a burning helicopter.

As the nation’s chief diplomat under George W. Bush, Powell delivered a well-known speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 laying out the White House argument for invading Iraq and stating there was intelligence that the country had weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. troops launched an invasion the following month. The evidence he presented about Iraq having biological weapons was later proven to be incorrect. Powell left the administration shortly after Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Powell later expressed regret over the remarks before the U.N., saying in a 2005 interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters that it would tarnish his reputation and describing it as a "blot" on his record that "was painful" then and "painful now."

Powell was born in 1937 in Harlem, New York, to immigrants from Jamaica and grew up in the South Bronx, going on to get a bachelor’s degree from the City College of New York.

He is survived by his wife, who had also tested positive for Covid around the same time; their three children; and multiple grandchildren.

Powell, who was fully vaccinated against Covid, died Oct. 18 at the age of 84 after receiving treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He had serious underlying conditions.

Powell had multiple myeloma, a cancer of a type of white blood cell, which can harm the body's immune system; surgery for prostate cancer when he was secretary of state; and, more recently, Parkinson's disease.

Biden, in a statement last month, called Powell a friend.

"Easy to share a laugh with," the president said. "A trusted confidant in good and hard times. He could drive his Corvette Stingray like nobody’s business — something I learned firsthand on the race track when I was vice president. And I am forever grateful for his support of my candidacy for president and for our shared battle for the soul of the nation. I will miss being able to call on his wisdom in the future."

Rebecca Shabad reported from Washington, D.C. Dareh Gregorian reported from New York.