WASHINGTON — Having covered Colin Powell since the Reagan White House and later, when he became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, I had associated him in those decades with Republican presidents and the GOP.
But Powell was first and foremost a man of the military, not a party man. He was a registered independent from his earliest years as a combat infantryman in Vietnam to his retirement from the armed forces. In fact, to his dying day, he preferred to be called “General,” rather than the honorific “Mr. Secretary."
That may be because during his sometimes contentious tenure as George W. Bush’s top diplomat, he was overruled on the key decision to invade Iraq by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and, ultimately, the president.
In happier times for him, immediately after his successful leadership of the first Gulf War, he was arguably the most popular public figure in America, riding the crest of a nationwide book tour for his memoir and, in 1996, seriously considering a challenge to President Bill Clinton’s run for a second term.
As Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Ben Kamisar point out in Tuesday’s “First Read,” in March 1996, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Powell leading Clinton in a hypothetical general election matchup, 47 percent to 38 percent — at a time when Clinton’s job rating was above 50 percent.
Ultimately, Powell decided not to run. But he did so only after having tested the waters in early primary states and written two speeches — one to jump in, the other to decline. Some of his reasons were personal, involving his family. But he told me in 2012 when I asked whether he had any regrets that he hadn’t run, “It was wrenching.”
I interjected, “You lost sleep.”
Powell replied: “Yes. It was an ugly time, because I never expected to be approached in that way and have so much pressure on me. I’m a soldier. But after a few weeks of it, I realized this is just not me. This is not what I can do.”
He went on to point out, as was widely known, that his wife, Alma, was also against it. But he then added: “I don’t have the passion to do what politicians do. I’m so glad we have them. We have to have them. I’m glad we’ve got a Mitt Romney, we got John McCain, we got Barack Obama and the Bushes, everybody terrific. But it just wasn’t me. And when I said no, I said I’d find other things to do to serve the country, and I have.”
The wisdom of that decision became glaringly apparent to me when Powell, still a national hero, addressed the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000. That was the year the Bush campaign trashed McCain in the South Carolina GOP primary, using ugly racial attacks on McCain’s adopted Bangladeshi daughter.
I was on the NBC News team of four political correspondents on the convention floor. Powell, always true to his origins, delivered a challenge to the GOP to embrace diversity and affirmative action, arguing in these words:
“We must understand the cynicism that exists in the Black community, the kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand Black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it’s affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. You can’t make that case.”
The delegates jeered and booed.
Never comfortable in politics, the retired general — who, four years earlier, had been the first military man since Dwight D. Eisenhower to be courted by both political parties to run for the White House — then experienced four years as the odd man out on the Bush national security team.
Those years included his acceptance of what he had been told was carefully vetted CIA intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Delivering that fateful speech at the United Nations in February 2003 was, he later acknowledged, a “blot” on his record that he always regretted.
That experience, and his good friend McCain’s decision to choose Sarah Palin, who Powell thought was clearly unqualified, for the ticket, led to his break with the Republican Party and his endorsement of Obama against McCain in 2008.
Of course, as Powell explained to NBC News' Tom Brokaw when he announced his decision on “Meet the Press,” he was also motivated by his conviction that Obama, the first Black candidate on a major-party ticket, could be a transformational leader. And he wanted to counter the rise of Donald Trump, who was already attacking Obama’s birthright as a native-born American.
Powell also timed his announcement for maximum political impact: on the Sunday two weeks before Election Day. Veterans of McCain’s and Obama’s campaigns say both sides knew it was a fatal blow to Republican hopes.
Powell’s deep-rooted belief in diversity and the value immigrants contribute to American society — born of his own family’s Jamaican heritage, as well as his experience of the Army as a melting pot for advancement — made his antipathy to Trump automatic in 2016.
Although the Clintons were deeply hurt by his embrace of Obama in the 2008 race, his endorsement of Hillary Clinton against Trump was a forgone conclusion. So was his backing of Joe Biden last year.
Republican critics may say the man who vaulted over his peers to become Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and George H.W. Bush’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs had turned his back on the party that launched his career of public service.
But after the Jan. 6 riot, Powell told Savannah Guthrie on NBC's "TODAY" show that Trump was “responsible for one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen in all my years as a government employee.”
Powell would argue that today’s Republican Party is not the party of Reagan and the Bushes or of his Cabinet colleagues Brent Scowcroft and Jim Baker. For all his gratitude to them, he reserved his deepest loyalty not to political parties, but to the U.S. military.