I have never met General Colin Powell, and I have not always agreed with the stances he has taken in public life. While he had an outstanding record as a senior military leader and handled the Gulf War brilliantly as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I was angry when he effectively blocked President Clinton’s attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military, and of course I regretted the role that he played in getting us into the war in Iraq (although I do not believe, as a few have suggested, that he had the power to have stopped the war.) He has long struck me as representative of the Silent generation: a sensible man, a mediator, and a believer in compromise and government by reasonable men. Such members of Artist generations—those born in the midst of great national crises, who grow to young adulthood in periods of postwar consensus—often become tragic figures late in life, like the Compromisers Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and the Progresssive Woodrow Wilson, because their wise counsel is ignored by younger Prophet leaders on both sides as the nation plunges towards catastrophe. That was General Powell’s fate in the first Bush Administration. But General Powell’s story, as it turned out, was not over, and this morning, face to face with his fellow Silent Tom Brokaw on Meet the Press, he performed a truly heroic act, crossing party lines to endorse Barack Obama for President. It is, I think, a move likely to have a substantial effect on the remainder of the campaign, and, more importantly, to lay the foundation for a broader attack on our national problems after Senator Obama becomes President on January 20.
The way General Powell presented his decision typified the best of his generation. He said, and I believed him, that he had spent many months pondering his course of action, and supplementing his long acquaintance with John McCain, whom he refused to criticize directly, with many contacts with Barack Obama. It was clear to me, as one with long experience with the American military, that he had measured Obama the way he had measured hundreds of his subordinates—by his capacity to do the enormous task which he had undertaken. He was evidently especially impressed by Obama’s response to the economic crisis. Although he did not specifically say this, the virtues which he attributed to Senator Obama—an inquiring mind, an ability to master data, and an unfailingly calm and unflappable approach—are also those of a great military leader. This, he seemed to say, was not a man who would make snap decisions based on ideology—and indeed he is not.
The test which General Powell implicitly accused Senator McCain of failing is also a military one: a failure to establish a command climate reflecting his own values, and a failure to control his troops. Senator McCain’s own military background has some relevance here. He was a fighter pilot, and among the American officer corps, fighter pilots play an almost uniquely individualistic role. While they depend upon their fellow pilots in action and upon their maintenance crews to keep their planes going, they do not have to worry about motivating and coordinating subordinates very much. Using a clam and even tone and measured language, General Powell delivered a scathing indictment of the McCain campaign: the robocalls, the obsession with Bill Ayers (which Brokaw disgracefully echoed, seeming to suggest that Ayers’s failure to repudiate his terrorist acts somehow reflected upon Obama, which it does not), and the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate who, as he put it, clearly is not ready to be President. The last point will be particularly telling, it seems to me, precisely because Obama has been so careful not to make any such statement himself—he has stayed above such things. Being a former military leader in what is now a multicultural Army, Powell was not bound by political correctness, and was not afraid to call Palin unfit just because she happens to be a woman, nor should he be. And Powell explicitly rejected Republican extremism on social issues when he said that he feared two more Republican appointments to the Supreme Court.
The most moving moment of his presentation occurred, I thought, towards the end, when he once again brought up the accusation that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and answered it in terms reminiscent of my own childhood and his youth. He isn’t, of course, he said, but what if he were? Has that become a crime in the United States, and are not young Muslim boys and girls entitled to dream of becoming President like the rest of us? That echoed both John Kennedy and FDR, and I am not aware of a single elected official who has shown comparable courage since 9/11.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of what Powell has done or the consequences he will have to endure. Having been for twenty years one of the most recognizable and popular men in America, he will now be subjected to one of the worst and most hate-filled attacks in the history of talk radio. Just as military men have to face hostile firepower, courageous politicians (especially in a time like this) have to be able to deal with endless invective, and I am honestly not sure which is more difficult. Yet he has made a contribution to our national life at least equal to any that he made in uniform. He surely would be a most valuable member of an Obama Administration—and in a far more prominent jobs than the ones Brokaw so patronizingly illuminated (Ambassador at large to Africa, or mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) It is sad, as I remarked yesterday, that there are almost no Republicans like him left in high elective office, but perhaps he can also help found a kind of Republican Party in exile that might begin to bring the party of Lincoln into the twenty-first century.
Thank you, General Powell. Your country never needed you more than it does right now, and you were there to help.