For nearly two decades, Colin Powell has been one of the most respected public figures in the United States, a man who very well could have claimed the presidency in 1996 had he wanted it, and whose dramatic (even if it really wasn’t a surprise) endorsement of Barack Obama yesterday just might put this year’s Democratic nominee over the top.
The roots of Powell’s popularity—his inspiring personal story and his highly visible leadership during the 1991 Gulf War—are understandable, but its endurance is somewhat puzzling. This is the same guy who allowed the Bush administration to harness his sterling reputation to sell the Iraq war to the American public.
Publicly, Powell doesn’t sound much different than George W. Bush when the subject of the war is raised, and this was true when Powell appeared on Meet the Press. Asked by Tom Brokaw about his role as the “closer” in the administration’s campaign for war, Powell allowed only, “I regret a lot of the information that the intelligence community provided us was wrong.”
“The president, by the end of 2002, believed that the U.N. was not going to solve the problem, and he made a decision that we had to prepare for military action,” Powell said. “I fully supported that. And I have never said anything to suggest I did not support going to war. I thought the evidence was there.”
He also challenged the importance of his presentation to the United Nations in early 2003, noting that large majorities in the House and Senate had already authorized the war months earlier—the same “blame Congress” card that the war’s fiercest defenders are quick to play.
And yet more than five years after the war was launched, with Bush’s approval rating below 30 percent and an overwhelming majority of Americans satisfied that the war should never have been waged, Powell remains a lionized figure.
Just consider the implications of his Obama endorsement. On a basic level, Powell’s status as a leader who transcends partisan and ideological divides ensured that his declaration would dominate political news coverage and discussion at the start of the second-to-last full week of the presidential campaign. Plus, his authority on national security issues will only boost the confidence of swing voters who want to vote for Obama but who worry about his seasoning.
But more important than either of these factors is Powell’s moral authority. Across the political spectrum, he is viewed as deeply patriotic and unusually principled, a political figure who is above politics. In announcing his endorsement, Powell used that moral authority to shame the McCain campaign and the Republican Party for the tone of the campaign.
”John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know,” Powell said, “but I’m troubled that within the party we have these kinds of expressions.”
If Powell were the only person making this point, it would be one thing. But the personal nature of the attacks by McCain’s supporters—and, at times, by McCain and Sarah Palin themselves—has received much attention lately. This has hurt McCain with many white swing voters, who used to view McCain as an honorable politician and who don’t wish to associate themselves with a party that seems to be flirting with racial politics. Powell is amplifying—maybe dramatically—the concerns of these voters.
The fact that Powell’s endorsement is such a thorough triumph for Obama, though, only underscores how successful Powell’s own image maintenance effort has been these past few years. With the possible exception of Condoleezza Rice, every other prominent Bush administration official connected with the Iraq war has paid a price in terms of his or her reputation. But even though Powell’s comments on the run-up to the war sound an awful lot like Bush’s—we tried diplomacy, we had credible intelligence reports, and anyway none of it would have happened without Congress—he has paid no discernible price.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that Powell has been publicly critical of the mechanics of the war—troop levels, in particular—and, now that he’s a private citizen, has called for more aggressive diplomacy than the administration has been willing to pursue. He also probably gets the benefit of the doubt from many Americans who simply believe that Powell was duped just like everyone else—that Bush and his inner circle are the real bad guys.
But there’s another factor that’s worth noting: Powell’s apparent willingness to say off the record what he won’t say in public. Since his days in the first Bush administration, for instance, it’s been an open secret that Powell cooperates willingly with Bob Woodward when the Washington Post journalist writes his insider accounts. That cooperation has consistently paid off for Powell, with Woodward typically portraying him, as The New York Times put it when Woodward’s Plan of Attack came out in 2004, “as a farsighted analyst, perhaps at the expense of [President] Bush.”
Essentially, Powell has used Woodward and others to liberate himself from responsibility for just about everything that has been unpopular about the Iraq war. So while Powell was a loyal soldier in public, a narrative has emerged that painted him as a frustrated and marginalized voice of sanity in an administration awash in neoconservative nonsense. It’s an idea that has taken hold in popular culture: W., the movie from the imaginative Oliver Stone, depicts Powell hurling taunts at Dick Cheney that could have been written by a Daily Kos commenter.
This has made it easy for Americans to excuse Powell from culpability instead of demanding to know why he never aired any of his doubts in public before the war started. And it makes his endorsement of a presidential candidate who made his reservations about the war known five months before it started extremely valuable.