In 1994, newly retired Gen. Colin Powell was the commencement speaker at my graduation from Howard University when I received my Master’s degree. He spoke with pride of his journey from a working-class family in the Bronx to being chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the George H.W. Bush administration. He was at the peak of his popularity. According to a U.S. News and World Report poll from that time, his favorable ratings among voters reached a high of 71 percent.
Notably, his polling was significantly higher among Whites (73 percent) than among Blacks (57 percent). Yet when matched against likely Republican nominee Bob Dole and incumbent President Bill Clinton, the main candidates in the 1996 race, he came in a close third. Those disparities, in many ways, capture the paradox of Powell in U.S. political life.
His recent passing brought a spotlight to someone who was once touted and courted by both major parties as a potential presidential candidate in the mid-1990s, but in recent years had become the forgotten man. There was no place for Powell in the political landscape of 2021.
Powell and the GOP
After agonizing over whether to run or not, Powell announced in 1996 that he would not be a candidate in the presidential campaign that year — and simultaneously declared that he had formally joined the Republican Party. He said Abraham Lincoln’s legacy helped inspire him to join the GOP and to try to make the party more diverse.
The GOP had been his patron throughout his career, as far back as Ronald Reagan and then later the elder Bush. His military career leaned toward the more traditional values espoused, though not necessarily followed, by the Republican Party.
Yet his decision to join the party came at the same time as its decisive shift to the right and its embrace of disparaging racial tropes on welfare, crime and other social issues. In 1994, Republicans had won back Congress; House Speaker Newt Gingrich presented his notorious “Contract With America,” which promised new prisons, more effective execution of the death penalty and a two-year lifetime limit on welfare, among other provisions. When Clinton signed the welfare reform bill that grew out of the Contract — officially titled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — three of his top officials at Health and Human Services resigned in protest, arguing that the law would destroy the federal safety net for the poor.
GOP policies were clearly in conflict with several of Powell’s stances, as he was pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-gun regulation, and pro-immigration. Some in the GOP’s more hawkish wing disparaged his vaunted military record, citing his opposition to taking out Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War in 1991.
By the 2000s, the party would veer even further to the extreme right, with the emergence of the tea party movement, birtherism, Mitch McConnell’s U.S. Senate, and finally Trumpism.
Powell’s political exasperations
In 2000, Powell returned to political life as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, bringing someone with global respect onto his foreign policy team. Some others on the team strongly opposed his appointment, including longtime nemesis Vice President Richard B. Cheney and others affiliated with the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, which would have an outsized influence of administration’s foreign policy.
Powell grew frustrated as he lost major foreign policy fights to Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. As his power waned in the administration’s first year, according to Post reporter Bob Woodward, Powell said with exasperation, “I’m in the refrigerator … They’ve got me put away and they’ll pull me out like a carton of milk when they need me and then put me back.” Many bet that he would leave the administration by year’s end.
The Sept. 11 attacks changed whatever plans he may have had. Powell, always the soldier, would not leave his post with the nation under attack.
And yet, it was Cheney and Rumsfeld who ran the war against Afghanistan and forged the scheme to go after Hussein. Before being booted from the team, Powell would be brought off the shelf for one last mission: Sell the war to a reluctant global community. He did so at the United Nations, to his enduring regret.
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While Powell dramatically endorsed Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over their Republican challengers, he remained a member of the Republican Party, despite all that had happened. He finally announced his departure after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But the truth is that the GOP left Powell long before he left it.
In his commencement speech at my graduation in 1994, Powell told us:
I want you to fight racism. But remember, as Dr. King and President Mandela have taught us, racism is a disease of the racist. Never let it become yours. Racism is a disease that you can help cure by standing up for your rights, and by your commitment to excellence and to performance.
Here, Powell presented a view of racism that was personal and individual, and overcome by one’s will and determination. In doing so he misread the lessons of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who both understood and led fights to address not just individual acts of discrimination, but systems and institutions of racism, including that of political parties. In 1967, King called for radical changes in the structure of our society to achieve justice for Black people. Mandela, in an important speech in 1990 before the World Economic Forum, argued that ending “scourge of racism” required “strong democratic institutions and a culture of compassion. None of this is possible without a strong economy.”
On war and race, the GOP has been as far from the values and views of King and Mandela as humanly possible, and has become even more so in the Trump era. Meanwhile, progressive Democrats cautiously avoid criticizing Powell directly, but obliquely refer to their differences with him clearly related to a war in which, tragically, hundreds of thousands were killed.
Powell embodied a paradox: Someone wooed by both parties, and yet reviled by key constituencies within both.
Clarence Lusane (@clusane) is a professor of political science at Howard University and the author of the forthcoming “Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman vs. Andrew Jackson, and the Future of American Democracy” (City Lights, 2022), among other books.