Colin Powell Was the First Barack Obama
Colin Powell Was the First Barack Obama
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell has endorsed Barack Obama for president. In truth Powell was the first black politician who was universally accepted as a potential leader of America, writes SPIEGEL ONLINE blogger Peter Ross Range.
There’s more to Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama than the imprimatur of a high-ranking Republican with a diplomatic and military pedigree. It means even more than the dagger-to-the-heart of John McCain’s hopes for the president. Above all else, Powell’s approval makes Barack Obama a truly acceptable black man for a majority-white America.
The truth is that Colin Powell was the first Barack Obama. He was the first national black leader who was universally accepted as a potential leader of America. He transcended race, and did it with such power and panache that he made it seem easy and irrelevant. It almost made him the first black American president.
I first met Colin Powell in 1987. I was covering the Reagan White House in its final years. Powell, a general in the Army, was deputy national security adviser to the president. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Reagan, as usual, flew out to his California ranch. Only the “B” team of presidential advisers accompanied Reagan, since it was a minor trip. But that meant Powell was the official who, in a casual sports shirt and a blazer, briefed the White House press corps on the latest wrinkles in U.S.-Soviet negotiations over the complex and historic Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II).
It was a bravura performance. Powell dazzled us with nuanced interpretations, clear details, direct answers, and the confidence of a man who has done his work. He handled the unruly press mob, with our usual trip-up questions and jaded skepticism, like an animal trainer at the top of his game. After all, he had served two tours in the Vietnamese jungles and had seen a lot worse than us.
I immediately called my editor in Washington and said, “Today a star was born.”
In my many subsequent meetings and interviews with Powell, I found him always the same. In total command of his facts, forceful in his presentation and preternaturally calm (of whom does that remind you?). And he always seemed beyond race. When he became the national security adviser and settled some serious wars between the fractious Pentagon and State Department, I wrote a profile of him for my magazine (U.S. News & World Report). I completely forgot to mention that he was the first black man in that job. Or even that he was black. It seemed gratuitous.
Yet every time I was around Powell, I still had that star-is-born feeling. This is the real deal. This man could go all the way, I thought. And he almost did.
It was in 1995 that Powell made the decision not to become the first Barack Obama. Europeans remember that Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the highest military position in America — and that he won the 1991 Gulf War with a doctrine of overwhelming force and a clear exit strategy. That is now known as the Powell Doctrine. Europeans also know that Powell became the first black secretary of state in American history.
But few realize that he came within a whisker or two of being elected president of the US. In 1995 the Republican Party was desperately thrashing about for someone to take on the political hurricane known as Bill Clinton. Colin Powell’s autobiography, for which he had received an advance payment of $5 million, was a runaway best-seller — a hit in majority-white America. Powell, the Gulf War hero who seemed to inspire people everywhere he went (remind you of someone?), had finally, after many coy evasions, let it be known that he was a Republican.
Republicans came begging and panting. They saw a Powell candidacy the way a soccer club sees a David Beckham. Powell, they felt (and no one disagreed), could have the presidency for the asking. Powell declined.
I felt relieved when my old interlocutor said no. Not only because, as a Democrat, I didn’t want to see such a powerful figure go up against my chosen president, Bill Clinton. But because I agreed with Powell’s wife, Alma Powell. She talked him out of running, 13 years ago, on the grounds that he might face an assassination attempt. “It’s me or the campaign,” she reportedly said. No surprise that he chose her.
Having chosen not to become the first African-American president — the first post-racial leader of America — Powell went on to become the next best thing: secretary of state. Powell did for America’s image and influence abroad in the first Bush administration what everyone now thinks Obama will do in the next administration. He made a pluralistic America a plausible role model for a world too often wrapped around race, tribe and nationality. He helped sustain the notion of American democracy as an international goal. And he put to rest many layers of doubt about an African-American leading a European or American country. He was, in his own way, the first Barack Obama.
Obama will profit from Powell’s last-minute endorsement in numerous ways. He has already proffered appropriate gratitude. He will use, but not misuse, the anointment from on high. Finally, if all today’s currents running in his favor continue, Obama will become the national leader that Colin Powell could not become. He will become the first Barack Obama.