How will history view Colin Powell?
In our time, Powell is universally admired. He is a glittering exception to the ceaseless levelling of reputations that mars our moment. His methodically crafted personal character readily withstands the malicious narcissism of toxic mediocrities, assiduously panning for nuggets of unexpected flaws and missteps amid the turgid eddies of social media.
An American Journey
Powell’s life story lends itself to mythmaking. A child of immigrants, raised in modest circumstances, he ascended to the pinnacle of the military, political, corporate, and not-for-profit establishments.
He titled his autobiography, My American Journey. Focusing on the path he took, Powell expressed gratitude to those who came before him, those who beckoned him forward, and those who were at his side or had his back. He inspired others to undertake the same journey, so that they, too, might go further than they or anyone else might initially imagine.
An Institutionalist in an Individualist Moment
Powell was explicit in his conviction that his story could occur only in America. One recognizes his affinity with Ronald Reagan in this defining respect.
Reagan and Powell exemplified the social mobility that James Truslow Adams popularized as “the American dream” in the 1920s.
They shared a perspective that that individuals’ capacities could only be ascertained, nurtured, and liberated through institutions.
Reagan and Powell were marked by their navigation of the turbulence of the 1960s. Longstanding arrangements and understandings—many out-of-date and some altogether corrupted—gave way amid assertions of freedom for individuals. It was a time of the anti-establishment and the anti-hero.
Reagan emerged as a citizen politician. Powell served in Vietnam. Informed by the past and looking toward the future, each strove to preserve and protect the essence of established institutions.
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In Eisenhower’s Shadow
Reagan and Powell admired Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan was personally acquainted with Ike, who encouraged and endorsed his entry into electoral politics.
Powell grew up during the Second World War and came of age in the 1950s. Initially he experienced Eisenhower as an ubiquitous public figure. The subsequent trajectory of his own military career would equip him to comprehend Ike’s example as few might.
Powell and Eisenhower were outsiders, from humble beginnings, who rose to the top of the merciless meritocracy that is the US Army.
Like Eisenhower—and Washington, Grant, Marshall, and other beloved American commanders—Powell’s self-management combined surpassing self-assurance with heartfelt humility.
This may reflect the tragic, timeless insight expressed by Eisenhower, as he relinquished command in the European theater following the Nazi surrender in May 1945. Mere weeks later, amid the ruins of London, he declared:
Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.
The Artistry of Visionaries, the Reality of War
Powell, like Eisenhower, harbored a visceral skepticism of charismatic politicians. Each saw that soaring rhetoric might find final expression in the bloody mud and chaos of war.
Visionary leadership must be handled with great care. It must be mediated and refined through institutions.
How does one strike the balance, in real-time?
Eisenhower established NASA. Yet it was John Kennedy who conjured the romance and national purpose unleashed by committing the United States to go to the moon. In for a penny, in for a pound, Kennedy further overruled counsels of caution, insisting that the moonshot be manned.
Yet it was Eisenhower who prudently limited American military engagement in Vietnam. Kennedy would take the steps that would gather force into the future, culminating in unnecessary tragedy for the people of the United States, Vietnam, and others.
Virtues and Vices
If Powell stands as an exemplary guardian of institutions, was he liable to trust them too much? Projecting his own ideals and values, did he grant the benefit of the doubt to others unworthy of it?
Such questions hang over his 2003 testimony to the United Nations, where he lent his prestige to claims that Iraq presented an imminent threat through possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Imagine Powell as president—as Reagan, along with millions of other Americans wished [14:00]. Would he, like Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs disaster, have reset his relationship with the intelligence community? Like Eisenhower, might he have challenged the national security state as no other president has done?
What He Did, What He Was
From the beginning, military leaders have played an outsized role in our national life.
No one would suggest that Washington possessed the intellectual genius of fellow founders such as Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. So, too, his record as general was far from unblemished.
Yet all recognize that Washington was, in the words of James Thomas Flexner, “the indispensable man.”
Powell is likewise distinguished by his extraordinary personal character.
Theodore Roosevelt, as a historian, recognized that assessments of individual achievements fluctuate with passing generations. As TR said of other lives of service, Colin Powell will ultimately be remembered less for what he did, than for what he was.
Image Credit: United States Army General Colin Powell, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, November 6, 1989. Russell Roederer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.