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Gen. Colin Powell, 1937-2021

Not all generals and admirals who transition to civilian leadership roles successfully adapt their style to the difference between giving orders to subordinates and seeking policy consensus from colleagues, critics, allies and the public.

Gen. Colin L. Powell did. The former four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state under President George W. Bush had the authenticity of a true leader and the kind of character to which people instinctively respond. General Powell did not have to re-invent his leadership style for civil governance. Those who would follow him and those who would challenge him recognized the innate character of the man.

Colin Luther Powell, the first Black secretary of state of the United States, died Monday at age 84 of complications from COVID-19. He was a 35-year Army veteran who started his career with ROTC at the City College of New York. His parents had come to the U.S. from Jamaica and raised their son in the South Bronx. He was, he wrote in his autobiography, "My American Journey," a "black kid of no particular promise."

And yet, after starting his service as a young officer in Vietnam and going all the way to overseeing the U.S. invasion of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in 1991, Gen. Powell would reach the top job in the Army and be considered as a presidential candidate.

Colin Powell's biography and obituary will always include his admission of the misstep that he called a "blot" on his record. Pressed by the White House, he gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in February 2003 asserting that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had, and might imminently use and share, "weapons of mass destruction." He cited germ warfare, hidden missiles and poison gas in spite of his reservations about the intelligence on which the claims were based.

Americans' enormous respect for his character gave credibility in the United States to the Bush administration's invasion plans. It enabled the American people, however reluctantly, to support going to war with Saddam Hussein. The war started a month after the U.N. speech; the American military presence lasted until 2011, resulting in the deaths of countless Iraqis and Kurds and thousands of Americans.

General Powell's support for the invasion was a principled man's failure of conscience to resist the importunings of the hawks in the Bush administration — Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who as secretary of defense, held a Cabinet post only slightly less senior than Secretary of State Powell. It was a costly mistake, yet Americans continue to admire him for his life of service and the humility to admit that he erred.

Colin Powell served presidents starting with Ronald Reagan and never afterward really left the public stage. Generations of Americans of all ethnicities know him as a household name and a role model of public service. In the years after his tenure in the Bush administration he provided advice and guidance to officers and diplomats who followed him, extending by generations his influence on the practice of American statecraft.

General Powell was the most illustrious among many former military leaders who spoke out when they saw that under Donald Trump the role of the military in the administration might cross traditional boundaries in risky and unprecedented ways. He put his allegiance to his country and Constitution and the considerable weight of his reputation ahead of his former political party to call it out.

The United States is gradually, painfully getting used to the truth that leaders who do great things also make mistakes, and sometimes worse. Colin Powell owned his mistake and continued to serve — visibly, admirably, decently. Americans are sorry to lose him. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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