Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, died last month of complications from covid-19. He was 84.
The service brought together Republicans and Democrats. Also in attendance were former vice president Richard B. Cheney; former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright; former defense secretary Robert Gates; and former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage.
While two of the past three presidents attended the funeral, former president Donald Trump — who disparaged Powell in a statement the day after his death — did not.
Albright, Armitage and Powell’s son, Michael, delivered eulogies.
An emotional Michael Powell remembered his father for treating the hot dog vendor, the janitor and the bank teller the same way he treated a world leader.
His voice breaking at times, he recounted the story of a young disabled veteran who helped Powell when his car got a flat tire on the Beltway. The veteran wanted a selfie; instead, in appreciation, Powell invited him and his family to dinner.
“Colin Powell was a great leader because he was a great follower,” Michael Powell said. “He knew you could not ask your troops to do anything you were unwilling to do yourself.”
At a time of seemingly unsurmountable rancor and division in Washington and across the country, Michael Powell said he frequently hears people speak of his father and ask, “Are we still making his kind?”
“I believe the answer to that question is up to us,” he said. “To honor his legacy, I hope we do more than consign him to the history books. I hope we recommit ourselves to being a nation where we are still making his kind.”
Armitage spoke of his 40-year friendship with Powell, describing their bond as one between “two disgruntled, multi-tour combat vets who were not happy with the way we conducted the [Vietnam] War and certainly not happy with the way we left.”
He told story after story about Powell, from the time he passed a basketball around his Pentagon office with the Harlem Globetrotters to the time Powell got down on one knee and serenaded the foreign minister of Sweden after she presented him with a collection of Abba albums.
“This is a celebration,” Armitage said. “It’s a celebration of a life. And I want to kind of fill that picture of Colin Powell out a little bit. And I’m going to try to tie together his sense of humor, his insatiable curiosity and his comfort in his own skin.”
Albright hailed Powell as well, saying that beneath the “glossy exterior of warrior statesman was one of the gentlest and most decent people any of us will ever meet.”
Albright said that over a quarter century, the two became friends.
“As I grew to know him, I came to view Colin Powell as a figure who almost transcended time — for his virtues were Homeric honesty, dignity, loyalty and an unshakable commitment to his calling and word,” she said.
The invitation-only service was broadcast on television and streamed online.
A four-star general, Powell served under three Republican presidents, including as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He was the first Black person to lead the State Department and was also the youngest and first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell, who was fully vaccinated, had Parkinson’s disease and multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer that impairs the body’s ability to fight infection.
Members of both parties praised Powell last month as a respected statesman and trusted adviser to presidents. In a statement, Biden said Powell “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat.” Bush called him “a dear friend and patriot” who was “such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice.”
And Obama praised Powell for forging a path that aimed to make reaching high levels in government less challenging for Black Americans.
“He never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly,” Obama said in a statement last month. “But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow.”
Powell served as secretary of state under Bush — a tenure that was marred by a 2003 appearance before the United Nations in which Powell cited faulty information in seeking to make the case for U.S. war against Iraq.
Bradley Graham, John Wagner and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.