One would think that Colin Powell — former national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state — would be
ready to slow down and smell the roses. Think again. The 75-year-old Powell has kept a busy schedule since leaving public service, with a schedule chock full of speaking engagements and entrepreneurial ventures that take him all over the world.
On Monday, a life-size portrait of Powell, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, will be placed on public view. The image was created by artist Ron Sherr, who chose to depict Powell on the grounds of Fort McNair in Washington. While this isn’t the first painting he has received (and may not be the last), Powell talked with The RootDC about why he remains humbled and touched by the experience, his plans to influence the next generation and what he wants his legacy to be.
What was it like to be chosen as the subject for this painting?
Well, I can’t tell you how proud I am that I’m going to be hung. What makes it so unique is that I have other portraits; I have a portrait in the Pentagon — it’s a photographic portrait, and I have a very fine portrait as secretary of state that’s in the State Department, but this is the first time they didn’t have to do it. They asked to do it, as opposed to it just having to be done because I was secretary of state or chairman, so I’m deeply honored. I was online looking at who else is in the Portrait Gallery, and it is humbling to be included in that group of very distinguished Americans.
So even in all the times that you’ve been honored for your achievements, you still feel humbled and surprised?
Well, particularly this time. If you go in the Pentagon and if you find the right corridor, you might see my picture on the wall along with all the other former chairmen. And if you’re at the State Department in a very secluded area, in a very formal area where all our paintings are, there might be a few people there. But what is exciting about this is that apparently it’s going to be near one of the entrances. Fellow citizens from all over the country and people from all over the world will be walking right by it, and that’s pretty humbling. That really, really touches me deeply.
In the little essay we wrote to go next to it, I make the point that I’m just an immigrant kid, son of immigrants — went to public schools, came along at a time when the Army was ending segregation, and I was in the first cohort of soldiers in an integrated Army, and just made the point that as an African American, I was able to achieve so many things in my life because my country had changed to make sure that it was starting to live the dream that our Founding Fathers had. And the men and women who are in that Portrait Gallery reflect the march of progress from where we started to where we are now, so I’m deeply flattered.
As far the change in our country, you did choose to endorse Barack Obama for the 2012 presidential election — and he subsequently won. What are your thoughts on the road he is facing for the next four years?
Well, if I wasn’t confident, I wouldn’t have supported him, endorsed him and voted for him. But you don’t know what the next four years will bring. So there will be ups, there will be downs, there will be controversy, there will be noise and shouting and celebrations and joy. That’s what our wonderful democratic system is all about. And so as you can already see, the first month after the election we are starting to see our democracy in full flower, with debates and accusations, counter-accusations as we try to solve the fiscal problem we have. I’m confident that he will navigate these waters and sometimes it will be fair winds and following seas, as my Navy friends say. And sometimes it will be stormy.
Do you miss working in Washington?
No, I go through life . . . looking at what’s next, not what is behind me. I had a wonderful 35 years in the Army. I would love to repeat it, but I can’t. Every day was a challenge, every day was an opportunity, and I worked with some wonderful, wonderful people. And then I was privileged to have four years as secretary of state. While in the Army I had two years as national security adviser to President Reagan. But those are things in the past, and I always am looking ahead, and right now I’m deeply involved in reaching out to the public through my speaking business and working on some projects in Silicon Valley, and I am also very proud of my new facility up at the City College of New York, the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service. I love going up to campus and seeing what the young kids are doing, because they remind me so much of myself. Mostly minority, mostly of recent immigrant background, and all hungry to get ahead, and hungry to start life and be successful, and I want to be a part of their success.
You’ve set so many standards, broken so many barriers and have such a legacy, but personally, what do you want to be remembered for?
I just hope that after I’ve passed on people will say — and this is back to my soldier’s life — a) he was a good guy, he was a good soldier, he served his country well; he helped people who were coming after him; and he raised a good family. It’s the only thing you can leave behind that counts. All the rest of that is interesting, but not essential.
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