Powell Meets with Obama: Let the Speculation Begin

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Before there was Barack Obama there was Colin Powell. With the publication of his autobiography, My American Journey, in 1995, he cemented his status as a national hero of “Olympian” stature. Wherever General Powell traveled, droves of fans came out to support him, and eventually urge him to run for President of the United States. Just as Americans connect with Barack Obama’s mixed heritage today, they connected with Colin Powell’s combination of work ethic and American idealism a little more than a decade ago. In fact, Powell’s popularity was far more widespread among mainstream Americans than Obama’s is even now, which makes the possibility of the two men working together in some capacity should Obama be elected intriguing on many levels.

Yesterday on Meet the Press Powell had this to say about Obama, the possibility of a return to public life and his choice for President to Tim Russert:

MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, Newsweek magazine reports that Senator Barack Obama has sought you out for your advice on foreign policy. True?

GEN. POWELL: True. I’ve met with Senator Obama twice. I’ve been around this town a long time, and I know everybody who is running for office, and I make myself available to talk about foreign policy matters and military matters with whoever wishes to chat with me.

 MR. RUSSERT: Would you ever come back in the government?

GEN. POWELL: I would not rule it out. I’m not at all interested in political life, if you mean elected political life. That is unchanged. But I always keep my, my eyes open and my ears open to requests for service.

MR. RUSSERT: Any endorsements?

GEN. POWELL: Oh, not yet. It’s too early.

MR. RUSSERT: But you’ll support the Republican?

GEN. POWELL: It’s too early.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you support an independent?

GEN. POWELL: I’m going to support, I’m going to support the best person that I can find who will lead this country for the eight years beginning in January 2009.

MR. RUSSERT: Of any party?

GEN. POWELL: The best person I can find.

Who really knows what any of this means for the future but given the way Powell was, according to his wife’s statements in a biography about her husband, “used” by the Republican party, and the Bush II administration in particular, the poetic justice element is too juicy to ignore. When Powell left the White House in 2004 it was assumed that he was doing so on his own free will, because he was fed up with Bush policy. In reality, Powell wanted to remain in order to see the Iraq situation (which he now calls a civil war) resolved, but was pushed out. Moreover, Powell’s prized Aid to Africa project -which President Bush  had promised to promote – was left undone. Powell wanted his legacy in the Bush II White House to be, in part, the emergence of Africa into the First World. It was Powell who, before leaving office, declared that the Sudan crisis was an act of Genocide only to see nothing done in response. Worst of all, though, Powell, a man of unparalleled integrity, left the White House a deeply wounded soldier who had followed orders in delivering his ill-fated UN speech and had been burned at the stake for doing so.  

A decade before leaving his Secretary of State position, Newsweek hailed General Powell as “the most respected figure in American public life…an African-American who transcends race; a public man who transcends politics…a distinctly American character, with an easy confidence that inspires trust even among the most skeptical.”

Around that same time Washington Monthly wrote,

“Powell could well be a candidate, like Clinton in 1992 and Robert Kennedy in 1968, able to unite whites and blacks, affluent and poor, with an explicit call for mutual responsibility. He could successfully argue that the country owes the little guy a hand up, and the little guy in turn owes the country discipline and hard work. These issues are inevitably charged with race, and Powell could, on the only-Nixon-could-go-to-China principle, be the leader who finally talks straight to minorities about work, crime, and self-pity.”

This last quote in particular is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s forceful remarks about 1) black Americans and responsibility and 2) his promise to be the President who unites Americans again. In many respects, the same qualities that have given vitality and possibility to Obama’s campaign were being evoked 12 years ago when Powell was merely thinking about running for the nation’s highest office. In that regard, Obama is as much the political progeny of Colin Powell as he is the civil rights generation he so eloquently linked himself to in the “Joshua Tree Generation” sermon he delivered in Selma back in March. The civil rights generation, and Jesse Jackson in particular, might have symbolically opened the doors for black America to become part of the national political dialogue, but it was Colin Powell’s substantive presence in the White House in late 80’s and early 90’s that paved the way for real possibilities of national leadership

In the fall of 1995, before opting not to run for President due to family concerns, a Time/CNN poll showed that, if Gen. Powell were to run as a Republican, he would beat President Clinton by 51 percent of the vote to 41 percent. Again, just as Obama has remained a political enigma until recently, Powell managed to beg off questions about his own political stances – even which ticket he would run on – because of the cult of personality surrounding him. Pundits were left to speculate about Powell’s political affiliation based on patronage (most of his sponsors along the way, including Reagan and Bush I, were Republicans) and infrequent public remarks (including an NY Times Op-Ed he once wrote lauding President Reagan). Americans would later learn that he was a “Rockefeller Republican,” meaning he was liberal on domestic issues (abortion, welfare, and civil rights) and conservative on foreign ones (maintaining a strong military, and encouraging expansionist economic practices abroad), which would often put him at odds with his own party.

Ultimately, seeing Powell’s face in the Obama White House is not that far from the range of possibility. Their views, both domestic and foreign seem to be fairly aligned. Both men are liberal when it comes to social issues that affect everyday Americans. Both men want a solution to the Iraq situation, albeit for perhaps different reasons. Both men see the need to unite the American people around a common, transcendent goal. Both men are examples of American exceptionalism who have not lost sight of or touch with their roots and responsibilities to common folk. It is still too, too early to tell where this is all headed, but it makes for interesting speculation nonetheless: two black men linked by their unparalleled mainstream appeal, their decidedly un-African-American histories (remember Powell’s parents came from Jamaica). One weathered by the winds of time and the whims of an ever-shifting political climate, the other a veritable novice. One looking to redeem himself, the other looking to prove himself. Undoubtedly the naysayers will say America isn’t ready for two powerful black men in the White House, but this isn’t about what America is ready for but what it needs. Frankly, who can ever forget the days after 9/11 when George W. Bush was still unsure of his own presidency and the nation relied on Secretary Powell’s words for solace. He was the one people believed in, the only reason the entire administration had any credibility to begin with. Just imagine if he was given a second chance.

For the entire Meet the Press interview transcript click on the link below.