There are many legends about the life and leadership of Colin Powell. One that stands out in memory began in the Vietnam War. As the conflict came to an end, many junior officers, concerned about its reputation, decided to leave the Army. But Powell, along with a handful of other promising officers, decided to stay and do what they could to restore that reputation.
It was a fortuitous decision. When Powell shipped back from his time in Vietnam, the military was one of the least trusted institutions in the country. When Powell retired, after 35 years in uniform, the US military was one of the nation’s most respected institutions.
Through his work and that of others, the US Army strengthened not only the discipline and pride of its forces but also the intellectual education and training of its war colleges. Powell, who earned the rank of four-star general and later became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was one of the stars in rebuilding the Army. Soon enough, after he became a White House Fellow in 1972, policy makers inside the government saw his potential as a future star of national security.
It was not always an easy ride for Powell, who died Monday, at 84, of COVID-19 complications. In many ways, when he reached what should have been the pinnacle of his career, his service as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, it turned out to be an unhappy time. His allies at the State Department sensed that White House aides were jealous of his widespread popularity and were trying to freeze him out.
A seminal moment came when Powell was asked by the White House to testify to the United Nations, seeking to persuade other nations why Iraq presented a clear and present danger to the United States through an account of Iraq’s weapons program. The White House saw that Powell, a figure of national credibility, might replay the role of Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban missile crisis, when Stevenson, blessed by President John Kennedy, rallied other nations at the UN behind the United States.
But there was one big difference between the Stevenson episode and that of Powell. Stevenson went before the UN armed with the truth. Powell instead was briefed by intelligence officers of his own government with a set of lies and misleading arguments. When the truth came out, as it inevitably did, Powell was personally crushed. His friends thought he had been manipulated and used. That self-described “blot” stayed with him the rest of his life.
Fortunately, Powell was such a class act that he stoically carried on. He was fortunate, too, to have the stalwart support of his wife Alma, to whom he was married for almost six decades. He lived a noble life, the kind of life that has been celebrated since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. America doesn’t have many heroes these days. We have one less now.
David Gergen is a professor of public service and founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has served as a White House adviser to four presidents and is currently a senior political analyst at CNN.