It was January 1989 when I first met Colin Powell. Little did I anticipate the life I would live after that. Ups and downs aplenty, new insights daily and exposure to the highest levels of power – and the men and women who wielded it – in several countries, not least of which was my own, arguably the most powerful of all.
Some of these happenings would occur while Powell and I were still in the Army, others after we had retired from active military service. Some would occur during wartime, others in conditions close to war and still others, the great bulk, in a time when the U.S. was ostensibly at peace but putting the final touches on its post-World War II state-building efforts. That is to say, we were completing the national security state, for whom constant war was almost like breathing.
The America of Powell’s time
John Le Carre’s final book, “Silverview“, records this sentence on its cover’s sideboard: “In this last complete masterwork from one of the greatest novelists of our age, John Le Carre asks what you owe to your country when you no longer recognize it.” Set aside the seller’s propaganda for a moment and note the basic truth of that statement.
At the end of our days, neither Powell nor I recognized today’s America, he perhaps more reluctantly so than I. For after all, the burgeoning national security state had provided a ladder he could climb to reach an unparalleled pinnacle of power within its hierarchy – unheard of for an African-American. That climb to Powell meant the old country was still alive, still functioning and he spent much of his labors, in and out of power, to communicate that to others, especially the youth of America.
He dedicated much of his retired life to that end.
In my view, he made his climb in a basically positive way. That is, he kept alive the spirit of the old republic, one where anything was possible so long as you worked hard and long, were fundamentally honest, treated others fairly – particularly your subordinates and those less gifted than you – and used your innate skills adroitly. That was Powell, like George Washington and George Marshall before him, the ultimate warrior turned politician and diplomat. And unlike those two forerunners, he was Black – in America usually an almost show-stopping impediment.
Today, as I sit and read the many missives we exchanged over some 12 years of constant contact and more than a quarter-century of knowing one another in good times and bad, I am most affected by those that communicate his great empathy, sense of fair play, love of young people, marvelous sense of humor and fundamental decency, as well as his insights into our Army and our government.
Powell: a born leader
Whether exchanging views on Yasser Arafat and the Middle East Peace Process, the first Gulf War, the Colin Powell Leadership Club at Macfarland Middle School in the District of Columbia, or inquiring about my wife and kids, he was quintessentially a good man. I certainly have not met his equal in a half-century of government service or teaching that service on two university campuses.
This was Powell’s way with me for years on end: laying out reality as he saw it, unloading his real appreciation of things and people. Most often he was right.
Colin Powell was the only truly great man America has produced in quite some time. If Heraclitus was right – that man’s character is his fate – then the character of America’s great men and women is the nation’s fate. In that vein, it is sad indeed that as I scan the horizon, I see Powell’s equal or even a possible aspirant – Black, white, or Brown – nowhere.
Larry Wilkerson is a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.