Colin Powell, RIP: Soldier, Statesman, Immigrant’s Kid, Yiddish Speaker

A few thoughts on overlooked aspects of the late secretary’s career. Plus, what I got wrong.

In the day since Colin Powell’s death from COVID-19 complications, a lot has already been written about his rise from City College to the Army to the peak of America’s national security and diplomatic heights as national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and secretary of state. You have to look at Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ulysses S. Grant or George C. Marshall to find another Army man who rose to such lofty heights.

Let me focus on a few things about Powell’s life that aren’t getting as much attention, and about my own writing on him.

First, there’s his immigrant background. Powell’s parents both immigrated from Jamaica, like other prominent Americans, most notably in recent political and diplomatic life Vice President Kamala Harris, whose father is of Jamaican ancestry, and Susan Rice, whose grandparents came to the United States before the island became an independent nation, free of British colonial rule.

Is this entirely a coincidence? Maybe. But the drive and ambition of immigrants, and the values they transmit to their children, are legendary, as well as the lifeblood of this nation. Like Nigerians or Palestinians, Jamaicans have fared well when freed from the economic conditions or political travails of their homeland. Powell was very much an immigrant’s kid, living and working in the Bronx’s Jewish, Caribbean, and Italian milieu in the 1940s and ’50s. The future general and statesman worked for a Jewish-owned business and would later amaze Israelis and others with his ability to speak some Yiddish. It was a bit of racial-religious bonhomie that presaged the Black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights movement that’s become frayed over the years. Powell’s support of Israel always seemed propelled by more than realpolitik.

The experience of immigrants and their descendants is a central part of the African American experience. Powell, Harris, Rice, and others are reminders of that.

Another issue not getting enough mention is affirmative action. Powell was always an advocate for affirmative action, which complicated life for critics of using this sometimes blunderbuss tool to bolster hiring and school admissions of Blacks and other ethnic groups, not to mention women of all races. “I wish it was possible for everything to be race neutral in this country, but I’m afraid we’re not yet at that point,” Powell said on CNN’s Late Edition in 2003 and many other occasions. “I believe race should be a factor among many other factors in determining the makeup of a student body of a university.”

Powell told Politico in 2009, “You don’t have an obligation to bring in anybody who’s not able to do the work. But once you have established those qualifications, is there something wrong with a taxpayer-funded institution not making sure that it is representing the entire public, the entire population? And I think that’s a good rule for private institutions as well.”

Those of us who have had complicated views of affirmative action might have seen in Powell someone who ratified a picture of the world that negated any need for affirmative action. Didn’t Powell rise through the Army propelled by his talents alone? Aren’t the Armed Forces themselves proof that a treat-everyone-the-same ethos could apply elsewhere?

Of course, it’s not so simple. Thomas Ricks, the great military reporter and friend of this magazine, has written that to dismiss Powell as an “affirmative action general” is calumny. That makes total sense. Deft political skills helped drive his upward trajectory. Perseverance and smarts helped Powell overcome the hostility of one commanding officer who tried to scuttle his career. That Powell had influential mentors, like the late Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, helped. (If you’ve ever met a White House fellow like Powell, you know their energy, drive, and ability to game the system—in a good way.) As for his part, Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir, My American Journey, about whether affirmative action had helped him:

I benefited from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Army, but I was not shown preference. The Army, as a measure of fairness, made sure that performance would be the only measure of advancement. When equal performance does not result in equal advancement, then something is wrong with the system, and our leaders have an obligation to fix it. If a history of discrimination has made it difficult for certain Americans to meet standards, it is only fair to provide temporary means to help them catch up and compete on equal terms.

That’s not an entirely satisfying answer, but it’s a sign of the complexity of the issue. Where is the line drawn between preference and equal opportunity? In 1997, then President Bill Clinton squared off with the late scholar Abigail Thernstrom, an affirmative action critic, and a mentor to me, about Powell. In a somewhat threatening manner, Clinton stood over the petite Thernstrom at a panel on race and asked, “Abigail, do you favor the U.S. Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no? Yes or no?’” Late Army Secretary Clifford Alexander later wrote in The New York Times that Powell did not, in fact, benefit from any affirmative action program. “Let’s hope that President Clinton will choose his examples a little more carefully in the future,” wrote Alexander, who was the first Black civilian leader of the Army. Regardless, only a fool would doubt that Powell was eminently fit and usually excelled at the illustrious positions that he held.

Would Powell have been a good president? It reminds me a bit of the early Saturday Night Live sketch “What If Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?” (I couldn’t find the video, but the absurdly hilarious premise is worth it if you can track it down.) Powell had mad skills as a diplomat and a warrior, but could he have been our Ike? Even then, Newt Gingrich’s GOP would never have nominated Powell.

In 1995, I wrote a cover story for The New Republic, where I penned the “White House Watch” column, arguing that Powell shouldn’t run for president because he was too close to various K Street lobbyists. (Alas, the piece is not available online.) I thought it clever at the time, but in retrospect, it was contrarian for the sake of being contrarian when lots of right-minded people liked the general and wanted him to run. This was after the success of the Gulf War and before the disaster of the Iraq War. I was wrong, or at least wrong to point to the likes of Kenneth Duberstein and Richard Armitage, the former having been White House chief of staff and the latter an accomplished diplomat. Both were immensely competent public servants, and while lobbying and influence ties were something to consider, they were hardly disqualifying, as a younger me thought.

There were legitimate reasons to think Powell might not have been a good president, including his advocacy for the Iraq War despite his reservations. Another was Powell’s opposition to gays in the military, which he later renounced but that in the early days of the Clinton administration forced the new president to seek the unworkable “Don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise rather than the nondiscriminatory policy he had campaigned on in 1992. On the other hand, Powell’s moderate politics, bipartisan élan, and pre–Barack Obama racial transcendence would have done a lot for the country had he somehow won in the 1990s or the following decade. But as I said above, he was too liberal for the Republicans and too conservative for the Democrats.

What might have been shouldn’t distract from what was. If yesterday’s outpouring is any indication, Colin Powell, not just akin to a modern Ike or George Marshall but a Yiddish speaker, affirmative action defender, and Jamaican American, will get the rich memorial he deserves.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.