In my first encounter with General Colin Powell at the Pentagon, I could not take my eyes off of the ribbons cascading down the left breast of his dress greens. In my second encounter with Powell following a press briefing that he had given as President Reagan's national security adviser, there was the unmistakable sense that beneath his calm exterior burned a fire of great intensity that he banked with the same care that he measured his words.
It has been over 20 years since those encounters, but they and one other memorable Powell moment were on my mind on Sunday morning when this American idol became the latest and most prominent Republican to throw in his lot with Barack Obama.
As I wrote yesterday, I don't think that Powell's catharsis will move many voters at this late date. Nor was that his intention. But the endorsement, delivered in a soliloquy on "Meet the Press" that was stunning for its breadth and depth in these sound-bite times, is in a sense a road map of the tortuous route of dismay and disillusionment that I and many other Americans have traveled since that other memorable occasion: When Secretary of State Powell stood before the U.N. Security Council in February 2002 and, in journalist-author Bob Woodward's words, became "the closer" for President Bush's case for going to war with Iraq.
As someone who already was well aware of the capacity for treachery by the Bush administration, I felt a gut-wrenching turmoil as I listened to Powell's point-by-point justification over National Public Radio for the case that Saddam Hussein was building WMD and had deceived U.N. arms inspectors, and that the day was close at hand when the dictator would face the consequences of his actions.
In the end, Powell was the closer for me, as well, and pretty much on the basis of his imprecations alone I reluctantly supported the war -- for a few weeks. That is until that Bush administration treachery reared its head, as if on cue, as it became obvious that the American people, as well as Powell himself, had been intentionally misled.
While Powell still backs the war, that support is festooned with soldierly qualifiers, including the biggie -- that virtually no one understood that the fall of Baghdad was not the end of the war but the beginning of an insurgency out of which grew an horrific civil war.
* * * * * How is it that Powell can so enthusiastically support Obama if he never supported the war? Because Powell understands that the next president will face daunting challenges beyond the end game in Iraq.
Chief among them, he noted in his endorsement, is the economy. Then there is taking the War on Terror to where it belongs, reaching out to allies and foes, fixing a failing education system and rectifying a grossly unequal system of taxation. In short, beginning to undo the excesses and failures of the last eight years.
While Powell measured his words with typical care, there was an unmistakable poignance to them that shouted out from under the veneer of diplomacy that was even more pronounced when I watched the rerun of "Meet the Press" on MSNBC on Sunday night.
Powell said that John McCain, was "unsure," "did not have complete grasp," "raised questions about his judgment," and that his campaign was "a little too narrow," while the Republican party as a whole, and with the Sarah Palin selection in particular, was moving too far to the right while indulging in fear mongering and demonization.
It is a testament to the righteousness of the endorsement that the pushback from the McCain-Palin campaign and Republican puditocracy has been so weak, or so revolting in the case of people for whom the statesman-general suddenly become a traitor and just another uppity Negro with his endorsement.
Has Powell come home in the sense that he has now validated the view of folks like myself who see the last eight years as an unmitigated disaster?
Powell has never felt a tribal obligation and would have become a Democrat long ago if he did. He is a decades-long friend of McCain, remains generally admiring of George Bush (if not Dick Cheney) and still is a Washington establishmentarian. He just happens to be a moderate who values the very American inclusiveness that allowed he and Obama to rise about their humble beginnings. And finds the immoderate notion that being a Muslim-American is a disqualifier to be repugnant.
Still, endorsing Obama and calling him a "transformational" figure is a kind of act of courage that Powell never encountered on the battlefield or in a war room. It also is an overdue one since lives -- perhaps many thousands of lives -- could have been saved in Iraq if he had put aside his soldierliness and given voice to his demons the last time the White House was up for grabs.
Photograph by The Associated Press