“I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln,” Powell said in a tacit rebuke of GOP ideologues who opposed racial diversity and extending a welcoming hand to immigrants.
His vision for the Republican Party, however, never materialized. Instead, it swiftly and surely moved toward Donald Trump’s political worldview, a party warning of immigrants replacing White Americans, one wary and sometimes mocking of international engagement and willing to embrace a populism that has divided the nation. Powell, the hero of the 1991 Persian Gulf War who once was heralded as the next Dwight D. Eisenhower, became an outlier in the party.
In 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama, the first Black president, and later backed Democratic presidential candidates, soundly rejecting Trump. In January, after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, Powell said he could “no longer call himself a Republican.”
The divorce seemed inevitable for a never-Trumper often described as a RINO — Republican in name only — by the party faithful, some of whom had once promoted him as a possible presidential nominee, a Black Republican in a GOP struggling for diversity.
“He certainly is one of the greatest political what-ifs,” said Douglas Heye, a former Republican National Committee communications director who served as deputy chief of staff to former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), referring to Powell’s potential as a leader of a modern GOP. “It highlights the fact that people like him were turning away in part because of some of that increased — especially racial — rhetoric that was acceptable in too many parts of the Republican Party.”
Powell, who died Monday at the age of 84 due to complications from covid-19, was widely praised by presidents, politicians and former colleagues. His death cast his complicated political legacy in sharp relief.
“Colin was, first and foremost, a military leader, probably one of the finest leaders in the post-World War II era,” former defense secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was totally dedicated to the country, to our national security, to the truth, and always put country ahead of party. That’s who he was.”
Powell resisted entreaties to seek the presidency, saying that he was turning them down because he believed he lacked the “passion and commitment” needed for political life. Panetta agreed, saying he never thought Powell had the “fire in the belly to run for public office” because he never “felt comfortable having to play the political game.”
“I thought of him really more as just a straight public servant, and I think, because of that, he really believed in doing what was right for the country and adhering to the values that he thought were important to the country,” Panetta said. “When he sensed that the Republican Party was moving away from those values, it really meant for him that he had to stay true to who he was.”
Following the Jan. 6 insurrection, Powell disavowed his party. In an interview with CNN, he was asked if members of the GOP realized that they “encouraged at least this wildness to grow and grow,” referring to the Trump administration.
“They didn’t, and that’s why I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican,” Powell replied.
“I’m not a fellow of anything right now,” he added. “I’m just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat, throughout my entire career, and right now I’m just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”
President Biden and former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama paid tribute to Powell Monday. Former president Donald Trump was silent until Tuesday morning, when, in a statement, he called Powell a “classic RINO” who was always “the first to attack other Republicans.” “He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace,” Trump said.
“He’s a rare breed,” Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush’s former White House press secretary, told The Washington Post about Powell. “He’s done the opposite of what a lot of people both sides do today, which is appeal to their base and ignore the middle. Powell built a huge middle and ignored both bases.”
Fleischer said that, had Powell run in 1996, he would have created a “very exciting, different political dynamic about the center.” He now hopes that, someday, someone will successfully replicate Powell’s political ways.
“Eventually, our polarization is going to get pierced by someone who runs up the middle and unites people,” Fleischer said. “A Powell-like person might be the right one to do it. I don’t know who that person is, but it intrigues me.”
As he stood before the cameras to say he would not run for the White House in 1995, Powell took a moment to recognize the fact that a Black man was being seriously considered as a presidential candidate.
“That’s the realization of a great dream, even though I may not be the one to fill it,” he said, a line others would later cite to explain why he endorsed Obama instead of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who, like Powell, was a Vietnam War veteran.
His backing of Obama “wasn’t some kind of radical shift,” said Anthony Cordesman, who served as national security adviser to McCain on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is the emeritus strategy chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It was dictated more by the character of what was a candidate on the Republican side he respected a great deal more than perhaps a preceding president, but that was replaced by a figure who, for obvious reasons, was a symbol of many of the other causes and issues that he supported,” Cordesman said Monday.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who preceded Powell, said his support for Obama was “clearly a difficult decision. I obviously think it was a very good one, but it was because of the way that he approached issues in terms of seeing beyond party.”
Powell’s warnings against Trump, Heye said, may have come at a time when not many in the GOP were listening to him anymore, given that he had chosen to endorse Obama over McCain.
“Since he essentially had left the party in 2008 and had warned — in a lot of cases, perhaps presciently so — of more extreme elements in the party, by the time we get to an actual Trump presidency, much less January 6, Powell had largely left that conversation,” Heye said.
In their tributes to Powell, Republicans focused on his pioneer status and years of service.
“It is hard to imagine a more quintessentially American story: A son of Jamaican immigrants who learned Yiddish from his boyhood neighbors in the Bronx becomes a four-star General in the United States Army and serves four presidential administrations, including as National Security Advisor, the youngest-ever Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first Black Secretary of State,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a statement.
Democrats, most notably Obama, highlighted the times Powell broke with the GOP.
“At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter in a way only he could,” Obama said in a statement.
“The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian,” Powell said of Obama in 2008. “But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
“That’s who Colin Powell was,” Obama said. “He understood what was best in this country, and tried to bring his own life, career, and public statements in line with that ideal.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) recognized the significance of Powell’s move to endorse Obama, saying “it meant something to the many Republicans and Democrats who had hoped they might cast such a vote for him years earlier.”
“When he rejected Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and failed leadership, it sent a powerful message to many in the Republican Party with which Secretary Powell had long been associated and sought to rescue from extremism and demagoguery,” Hoyer said.