By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008
Colin L. Powell yesterday became the most prominent Republican to endorse Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, with the former secretary of state and retired four-star general declaring the senator from Illinois to be a "transformational" figure who would "electrify our country . . . [and] the world."
Powell's endorsement, on NBC's "Meet the Press," came as Obama's campaign announced it had raised more than $150 million in September, more than doubling the previous record for monthly fundraising and giving him a vast financial advantage over Republican John McCain in the final weeks before Election Day.
Powell said he respects McCain and considers him a friend. But he said that McCain's "unsure" response to the ongoing economic crisis and his selection of a running mate whom "I don't believe is ready to be president of the United States" disappointed him, as had the recent negative tenor of McCain's campaign and a "narrower and narrower" Republican approach to serious national problems.
"I watched Mr. Obama," particularly in recent weeks, Powell said, and "he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge . . . in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor."
Obama "has given us a more inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations of our people," he said. "He is crossing lines -- ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines." Powell added that the Democratic senator had chosen in Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. a running mate who "is ready to be president on Day One."
In a telephone interview yesterday, Powell said his decision had been "emerging since the conventions, when I heard the convention speeches, saw who the vice presidential candidates were and then watched the debates."
"The real question," he said, "was whether to go public. . . . I just felt I had to, and I crossed that bridge last week" after consulting with close friends and family members. He said he had not informed either campaign in advance.
The announcement is a blow to McCain, a fellow Vietnam War veteran whose 2000 presidential campaign Powell supported before George W. Bush won the Republican nomination. McCain had publicly pledged during that campaign to name Powell as his secretary of state.
McCain sought to shrug off yesterday's endorsement, saying that he has always "admired and respected" Powell and that it "doesn't come as a surprise." He said that he was pleased to have the support of four other former Republican secretaries of state, and he said he had "a respectful disagreement" with Powell over whether Obama is ready to lead the country.
Powell, 71, served as secretary of state during President Bush's first term, but most of the power of his endorsement comes from his 35-year military career, during which he served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and earlier as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
Still reviled by some Democrats for his support of the Iraq war, Powell did not oppose the 2003 decision to invade the country. But inside the administration, and in public after leaving office, he was sharply critical of the conduct of the occupation. He has said that his February 2003 United Nations speech on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction was based on faulty intelligence and remains a "blot" on his record.
Since his departure from government in January 2005, however, Powell has regained much of the stature he held before joining the Bush administration; he remains highly respected at home and abroad as a foreign policy "pragmatist" and political centrist. His stamp of approval is likely to improve Obama's already favorable chances in once-reliable Republican states such as Virginia, and with the military community.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), on CBS's "Face the Nation," called Powell a "uniting figure" whose endorsement should overcome any lingering concern over Obama's lack of national security experience.
Republican former House speaker Newt Gingrich said on ABC's "This Week": "What that just did in one sound bite -- and I assume that sound bite will end up in an ad -- is it eliminated the experience argument. How are you going to say the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, former national security adviser, former secretary of state was taken in?"
Campaigning in North Carolina, Obama said he was "beyond honored and deeply humbled to have the support" of "a great soldier, a great statesman and a great American." A campaign spokesman said Obama called Powell after his appearance to thank him and say that he looked forward to taking advantage of Powell's advice in the two weeks before the election and, if he is elected, over the next four years.
Powell, an African American who headed the armed forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, was touted in 1995 as the only person who could upset Clinton's 1996 reelection bid. Then a registered independent, he rejected a run at the presidency but announced he would join the Republican Party and try to reverse what he considered its dangerous turn to the right. But Powell quickly withdrew from politics and turned his attention to working with minority youth. He reentered the political limelight when he agreed to support George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.
In his television appearance yesterday, Powell said that he had watched McCain and Obama over the past two years and told "my beloved friend and colleague . . . a friend of 25 years, 'John, I love you, but I'm not just going to vote for you on the basis of our affectionate friendship.' " And Powell said he told Obama: "I'm not going to vote for you just because you're black. . . . You have to pass the test of 'Do you have enough experience? Do you bring the judgment to the table that would give us confidence that you would be a good president?' "
During the recent economic crisis, Powell said, Obama had shown "steadiness, intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge." As for McCain, he said, "I've found that he was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems that we were having, and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem. And that concerned me. I got the sensing that he hasn't had a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had."
Powell said he was also concerned by McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whom he called "a distinguished woman" but someone not ready to be president. "That raised some question in my mind as to [McCain's] judgment," he said.
In explaining his decision, Powell was more critical of the Republican Party and McCain's campaign than of the candidate himself. He said Republican attempts to tie Obama to the 1960s domestic terrorism of William Ayers amounted to "demagoguery" and a distraction from pressing issues.
"I understand what politics is all about," Powell said, ". . . but I think this goes too far. . . . It's not what people are looking for."
Powell also said he was troubled by Republicans who "said such things as 'Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.' Well, the correct answer is 'He is not a Muslim; he is a Christian. He's always been a Christian.' But the really right answer is 'What if he is?' "
"Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" he added. ". . . Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could become president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."
Powell, who supports affirmative action for minorities and abortion rights, has also expressed concern about McCain's positions on domestic social issues. "I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court," he said.
While saying that race was not a decisive factor in his decision, Powell said, "I can't deny that it will be a historic event for an African American to become the president."
Powell said he would not campaign for Obama, noting the short amount of time that remains until Election Day. He also said that he is "in no way interested in returning to government" but that he would consider any offers made by the next president.
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz, traveling with the McCain campaign, and Shailagh Murray, traveling with the Obama campaign, contributed to this report.