Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had just spent an hour at the White House with President Bush when he showed up at Black Entertainment Television studios to discuss Iraq and affirmative action with a group of high school students.
For diplomats, abrupt changes in venue go with the turf. But for Powell, the 3.7-mile trek from the Oval Office to BET last week must have been especially grueling because he arrived sounding somewhat disoriented.
When Eunice, a 12th-grader from the District, asked whether the United States would rebuild Iraq after a war, Powell said yes and added confidently, "We do not expect [a war] to result in a great deal of destruction of infrastructure."
But when another student asked about projected casualties, Powell demurred: "I don't know. No one can say. War is a terrible thing. People lose their lives in war."
It almost sounded as if more thought had been given to protecting infrastructure than saving innocent lives.
The exchange, moderated by CBS's Ed Bradley, was taped for a one-hour BET special, "Open Mic: Secretary Colin Powell Speaks to Our Youth." The studio audience was made up of 11th- and 12th-graders from high schools in the Washington area. The program aired Thursday and Saturday. And though the ratings were not as high as for BET's popular "ComicView," Powell's open mike still drew about 375,000 viewers Thursday, according to Nielsen Media Research.
What they heard was more frightening than funny.
James, who didn't say where he lives, cited U.S. involvement in the 1973 coup in Chile, which caused thousands of deaths, and asked Powell why this country "considers itself morally superior enough" to demand that other nations disarm while keeping its own nuclear stockpile.
"It's not a matter of being morally superior," Powell said, contrary to what his boss has been implying for months. "It's a matter of recognizing the danger to the region and the world. . . . For the most part, the major nations of the world that have nuclear weapons have arrangements with each other, and they are under control, and no one is worried about that kind of nuclear conflagration any longer. But Iraq does not intend to use them for peaceful purposes but to be aggressive against other nations."
There was no mention of North Korea or any other country with a finger on the button and no mention of the obvious danger to the world that the United States poses with its new "shoot first, ask questions later" approach to foreign policy.
Lydia, of Silver Spring, asked Powell to explain why the United States would go to war with Iraq for violating a U.N. resolution while giving aid to Israel, which she said is in violation of many U.N. resolutions. Powell replied, "We are very deeply engaged in the Middle East peace process." He otherwise avoided the question.
Maybe the secretary of state was experiencing jet lag. Or maybe he was just stressed out from serving -- or being used by -- a president with whom he has such fundamental disagreements.
Otis, a student from the District, asked Powell what he thought about the diversity program at the University of Michigan, which the Bush administration is opposing as unconstitutional. "I've always been a supporter of affirmative action," Powell said. "It's benefited me, and I still think it's needed to address historic problems." He said he thought the Michigan plan was "acceptable."
Kevin, another District student, followed up: "Since you are for affirmative action, what are you doing to support it?"
Powell replied, "The president supports diversity," and he went on to talk about what a swell job Bush did as governor of Texas.
Joel, in Buffalo, e-mailed a question: "Would you stand up for what you believe is right even if it's against what the president wishes?"
Powell said yes but quickly added, "I work for the president and so my job is to serve him and help him execute his policies and decisions."
Such evasiveness and obfuscation may be an acceptable part of the statesman's game. But for students in search of straight answers, Powell's mike might just as well have been left unplugged.