HE was a big man on a big stage for a long time and I always liked him. Capable and resourceful, Colin Powell had a perfect military bearing and an equally perfect American life-story. Contrary to racist cliches – and apparently of no interest to obituarists – he was not born into the old African-American milieu, however narratively useful it may be to conflate skin colour with familial culture. The son of free, enterprising Jamaican immigrants and with white forebears in the genetic mix, he was like Barack Obama in one important way: he was ineluctably drawn into the ‘black experience’ but was not really a part of it. He always marched to his own drum. How many gentile teenagers in Powell’s (and Al Sharpton’s) New York today would be as keen as he was to learn Yiddish from an employer? How many black Americans ever asked the heraldic authority of Scotland for a coat of arms? When a race riot occurred during his tour in South Korea in the early 1970s, Powell was the man tasked with getting rid of black radicals from the army’s ranks.
It would be easy to cite these race-blind idiosyncrasies and lack of roots, in the Alex Haley sense, as the reason he was later spoken of as a possible Uncle Tom. His background, however, had little to do with it. Apart from press-ganging him into their service periodically as a race token – albeit half-heartedly: the Vietnam-era ‘movement’ didn’t see military careers as prestigious anyway – ‘progressives’ had little time for Powell principally because he was a Republican. The best control comparison for this thesis is the treatment afforded his brilliant contemporary, Condoleezza Rice. A Birmingham, Alabama, native with pre-Civil War slave ancestors, she was nevertheless mocked as an Aunt Jemima and a big-lipped black mammy. She abandoned the Democrats during the Carter years and was never forgiven.
His status as a man above partisan ownership became solidified as a modus operandi by the mid to late 1970s. Powell was shrewd enough to realise GOP presidents from Richard Nixon onward had a vested interest in advancing his career and also that Democrats would only embrace him fully if he took the John Kerry route of flagellating himself for his own war record. He took advantage of the former and lost no sleep about the latter. The army was the only institutional constant in his life; as its esprit de corps was rebuilt after the anti-war revolution of the 1960s, a gifted loyalist like Powell (whose career in uniform began in 1958) could write his own ticket.
That strength, however, eventually became a weakness. What many are calling Powell’s ‘infamous’ address to the UN Security Council in February 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq was portended earlier in his career. As a young major seconded to investigate the 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre, he found no evidence of the crime. Twenty years later, as a Reagan Administration favourite (appointed the President’s National Security Adviser in 1987), he was fortunate not to be ensnared to an indictable extent with his former principal, Caspar Weinberger, in the Iran–Contra affair. By the time he was Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s administration, the days of the establishmentarian insider – the patriot who would always do the ‘right thing’ for a noble cause – were over.
Ever the survivor, Powell eventually turned on the Republican Party, hoping for the condescending rehabilitation he’d spent a lifetime scorning. I still believe he was one of the great men of the post-Vietnam era. Donald Trump’s statement on his death was ill-advised even if his disappointment at not being credited by Powell “the reluctant warrior” for not starting any wars is valid. The Powell conundrum is how much, if at all, allegiance to a state under siege transcends fidelity to the demos and to truth, come what may.