Thursday, January 19, 2006
In an overheated old schoolroom in Washington, Larry Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, is doing his best to impose military discipline on 25 pupils as they prepare to attack a mountain of pizza, cupcakes and cookies. It is the year-end party for Macfarland Middle School's Colin L. Powell Leadership Club, a tutoring and mentoring program that Wilkerson oversees as a volunteer. Striding before his charges in smart burgundy suspenders, the colonel -- everybody here calls him the colonel -- makes a point about duty:
"If you're not attending the meetings, you aren't a member of the club. It's as simple as that." He rebukes a boy who has shown up for the party but otherwise been scarce. "You know how I'll feel if you don't come to subsequent meetings," Wilkerson warns, "and you don't want to get me angry."
Then he drops the bluff demeanor and authorizes the kids to start chowing down. "Try to keep as much as you can off the floor," he says in a Southern accent softened by frequent chuckles. For the next hour he circulates through the room, greeting each student by name -- Jamie, Angela, Trevon, Tanya -- encouraging them to keep their grades up, prodding them to complete their community-service projects, inquiring about sometimes precarious home lives.
Since 1998, Wilkerson has devoted himself to helping at-risk children at Macfarland in the name of Colin Powell, whom he refers to as "my boss" and "the general." Wilkerson works tirelessly to keep them in the club and to secure scholarships for them at private high schools.
Yet these days he and Powell are estranged: This program represents the last remnant of a long, deep friendship between them. Like ex-spouses in an uneasy detente, "we decided we'd just communicate over the kids," says Wilkerson, sounding pained by the situation.
The split came as both men left the administration -- Powell as secretary of state, Wilkerson as his chief of staff -- after working side by side for 16 years. Wilkerson, a once-loyal Republican with 31 years of Army service, has emerged in recent months as a merciless critic of President Bush and his top people, accusing them of carrying out a reckless foreign policy and imperiling the future of the U.S. military.
"My wife would probably shoot me if I headed to the ballot box with a Republican vote again," he says. "This is not a Republican administration, not in my view. This is a radical administration."
Wilkerson calls Bush an unsophisticated leader who has been easily swayed by "messianic" neoconservatives and power-hungry, secretive schemers in the administration. In a landmark speech in October, Wilkerson said: "What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made."
He is particularly appalled by U.S. treatment of enemy detainees, counting at least 100 deaths in custody during the course of the war on terrorism -- 27 of them ruled homicides. "Murder is torture," he says. "It's not torture lite."
As for the invasion of Iraq? A blunder of historic proportions, he believes.
"This is really a very inept administration," says Wilkerson, who has credentials not only as an insider in the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II presidencies but also as a former professor at two of the nation's war colleges. "As a teacher who's studied every administration since 1945, I think this is probably the worst ineptitude in governance, decision-making and leadership I've seen in 50-plus years. You've got to go back and think about that. That includes the Bay of Pigs, that includes -- oh my God, Vietnam. That includes Iran-contra, Watergate."
Such a critique, coming from a man who was long thought to speak for Powell, is seismic in Washington power circles. Some observers used to regard Powell and Wilkerson as so close that they enjoyed a "mind meld," but now Powell distances himself from the pronouncements of his former aide.