History & Culture

450 Days with Colin Powell

Powell

450 days with Colin Powell taught me more than a school education or any other professional experience.  Stories offer a window into Powell’s thinking, world, wisdom, and heart.  National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for George Herbert Walker Bush, and Bill Clinton, Secretary of State under George W. Bush, he was also a friend – a friend to all.  His values in stories:

Honesty.  “Don’t be afraid to be a skunk at the garden party.” The day was full, tempo fast.  We were in the National Security Council – not uncommon – discussing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2004. 

An event had occurred, and the Secretary of Defense was saying it was the fault of an American ally.  Powell listened.  Even as a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he tried to stay in his lane. 

The President was taking it in.  Others in the room knew this was a US failing, but no one wanted to contradict Rumsfeld.  Finally, in that little, quiet room, Powell slapped the table.  The room went silent.

Powell had had enough.  From memory, he laid down eleven layers of force structure possessed by this ally, making clear they did not have the capacity, and we did. This was not their fault but ours.  Fixing the future meant we owned it.  Honest advice is worth having and giving.

Respect.  “What’s your name?”   Yes, he practiced obvious leadership lessons, like praise in public, criticize in private, but far more.  He knew everyone at State, kitchen to garage crew.   

With hundreds in my bureau, buildings across DC, a team member arrived one day, looking mystified.  Her building was over on Navy Hill.  I asked what was up. 

“Well,” she said, “two years ago, when the Secretary arrived, he walked all over these buildings, met thousands of people, shook every hand … We poured out into the halls, and he asked us all – ‘what is your name, what are you working on, any kids, their names?’  He did that with everyone.”  That sounded like Powell, about people.

“But that’s not it …” she said.  “I have not seen him since that day, and just bumped into him … He knew my name, and asked me about my three children, by name … How can he do that?”  Smart, full of respect.

Caring.  “I love apples.”  Apple season and our family was picking. Our daughter, then four, suddenly announced she was picking apples for Colin Powell. We smiled, but she did.  

The next day, as promised, I delivered them.  Our day was full of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Ten o’clock that night, the Secretary’s aide appeared in my doorframe with an envelope.  “Secretary wanted me to give this to you.”  A handwritten note to my four-year-old, in a big hand, so she could see the words, saying “thank you … I love apples, thank you so much for picking those for me. Your friend, Colin Powell.”  If he did that once, he did it ten thousand times.  Life is about caring.

Forgiveness.  “Don’t worry, over …”  Sitting in the Secretary’s office, I overstepped – critical of an embassy’s operations.  The Secretary reminded me we are one team.  He was firm.  I was chagrinned, never wanting to disappoint Colin Powell. 

We talked for a while, but I felt terrible.  Leaving, I paused in his doorframe to apologize again. “Bobby, don’t worry, over, on to other things.”  Simple as that, point made and taken, over.  

He was passing mercy forward.  As a young man, he misplaced a service weapon, which could have been career-ending.  He confessed to his commanding officer, who then opened a drawer, gave it to him, and said, “don’t let it happen again.” Mercy matters; pass it forward.

Humor.  “Bobby Ray …” At my official swearing-in, the small Maine town from which I come showed up in force – mid-blizzard.  Powell was moved.  “Is there anyone left in Wayne, Maine?” 

On a trip to Mexico City, we got in late.  Powell called us to his room for, pre-game talk.  Mike Levitt, former Utah Governor, then at HHS, started laughing about a time Powell had come to Utah – to speak to a “truckers’ convention.”  Powell retold the story.

“I made the mistake of saying, if I had another life, it would have been as a trucker, but no truck.”  Well, when everything ended, ballcaps handed out, he found an 18-wheeler at the front door. “For you, Sir!”   

“So, I said, ‘Mike climb in,’ and we turned our caps around, got in and I drove off, around corners, and we dead-end at a park, family having a picnic on a blanket…” They laughed.

Leavitt said, “Can you imagine it, our faces pressed against the windshield, looking down, this poor family looking up, not believing what they are seeing, their governor and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, hats backward in a big rig?”  We all laughed.  Secret:  Nerves were gone.

The next day, creating an inside joke, Powell introduced his team. When he got to me, new to all this, he introduced me as “Bobby Ray Charles,” smiling. 

Afterward, to be sure all was as it should be, I said, “Sir, um, just wanted to say, well, just in case you might have thought, or just to be sure, just wanted to say, um, my middle name isn’t actually Ray.” He put his arm around my shoulder, “I know, Bobby.” 

That point forward, it was his way of saying, you are on my team, welcome.  On handwritten notes after that, he sometimes opened with “Bobby Ray.”  I loved it.  Who would not?  Humor.

Courage.  “Just having a bad day …” Two combat tours, wounded in Vietnam, saving fellow soldiers, 35 years in the Army, countless trips into warzones, Powell had courage. 

But courage comes in many forms.  Sometimes it is patience.  He got memos that might be interpreted as offensive.  He held fire, “I think what my friend is looking for is …” he would say, “just having a bad day …”  Take nothing personally; it works.

Gratitude.   Powell knew others knew what he did not, honored their knowledge.  Sometimes a “thank you” is not words.  The President wanted a brief on Mexico; Powell could have done it.  Instead, he found two experts, brought them to the White House, let them brief. Never forgotten.  Other times, he would say, “come on, you’re coming with me.”  Gratitude.

America will miss this man, and so will I, epic leader, epic friend – of all Americans.  We are fortunate to have lived in his time, but his values live on to illuminate the future through us.


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Bill on the Hill
9 months ago

I waited till now primarily out of respect for RBC…I was fully on board with Powell for a good many years, that is until around 2007 when he boldly went in with his full endorsement of Obama before he became potus, take note of the lower case, he never earned upper case letters…
From that point moving forward, I looked at Powell through a different lens, when 2012 arrived after (4) years of economic stagnation & the loss of respect towards America with regards to the Middle East & Israel in particular under Obama & yes those wonderful Dominion machines I believe once again played a part in Obama’s reelection imo…Once again Powell endorses Obama, despite his horrible track record as a potus… As time marched on I learned things about Powell’s knack for NOT stepping on any toes & furthering both his military & eventual political career…
I wish the man peace & I do hope he is in a better place, my condolences to the Powell family…
Bill on the Hill… :~)

Mandy
9 months ago

Nicely stated.

Tire Dove IT
9 months ago

So sad he was the Secretary of State who let Scooter Libby go to jail for the fake charge of “outing” Valerie Plame, when all during Libbey’s trial Powell was aware that his own State Department minion Richard Armitage was the guy who first wrote of her involvement. The whole time Libbey was on the hot seat Powell knew he was innocent yet said nothing.

Bob
9 months ago

I have the same amount of respect for powell as i do the bush family = Zero ! he sold his soul to obama who spent 8 years and no doubt billions of tax dollars trying to destroy Our Republic .

Doc Cheney
9 months ago

He lied to the United Nations. He lied to the American people. He personally facilitated getting the US into an unrighteous war for oil, during which 4,431 American military (fathers, mothers, sons, daughters) were killed and 31,994 were wounded in action, many of them permanently disabled. 1,487 military contractors were killed.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Iraqi Security Forces, 16,623 Iraqi military and police were killed. US military records put Iraqi *civilian* deaths at 66,081. Re-read that, please. At least 66,000 people trying to live their lives with their families in their own country are dead in large part because Colin Powell lied to us and was gung ho to militarily invade and destroy their country.

I won’t miss him. And veterans of the useless Iraq War shouldn’t miss him either. We have real heroes to be thankful for; this man is not one of them.

Inept
9 months ago

Obama was his boy!!! Need I say anything more?

Philip Hammersley
9 months ago

I salute Powell for his service BUT you must remember he supported Obozo who made our military second rate. He also stopped Bush Sr. from ordering Stormin Norman from going all the way to Baghdad in Gulf War 1. IF we had done so, all of the resulting crap would have been avoided since the Kurds were willing to jump in and help us.

Max
9 months ago

Unfortunately, politics entered the picture in this case, the US commanders did want to go all the way to Baghdad, but it was the Saudis who applied the pressure on the coalition to have Saddam Hussein remain in power. The Saudis figured that they could control Saddam but they could not so this lead to the unnecessary 2nd conflict.

Debbi B
9 months ago

Excellent, on-point article. Our nation will surely miss the man tremendously. An example of our best. Prayerfully, we will start living up to his standards more frequently, most especially those Americans regularly in the public eye or representing our nation.
Mr. Charles, a wonderful presentation, as always!

Janet
9 months ago

Mr. Powell is a man of grace and integrity and humility. Fir those who knew him what an honor. For those who did not we only wish we would have. America lost an honorable man. To think, he now is having great conversations with his Lord and Savior. You, sir, are an example to all of us.

Dan W.
9 months ago

Responsibility…As with Harry S, Colin Powell knew that if he made a decision, the buck for that decision stopped with him. No trying to weasel out of it or blame someone else. If he made a mistake, he owned up to it.

Tire Dove IT
9 months ago
Reply to  Dan W.

It was Powell’s decision as Secretary of State to let an innocent Scooter Libbey hang for supposedly revealing Valerie Plame’s employment with the CIA, when he was aware it was Richard Armitage who had the information published.

Tom
9 months ago

He was a neocon that pushed the BS about WMD. Guess what? That was a dream. We had Saddam in a box and didn’t have to create that war, but we did. ????????????

Max
9 months ago

RBC, thank you for a great article. I also had the Honor and Privilege to serve under General Powell and this article did water my eyes a bit. He had the great attributes as you stated and I know he will be missed.

Rbc
9 months ago
Reply to  Max

Max, thank you. We are lucky. America is lucky. People like you abs General Powell help make us all better. Thank you. He changed so much of my view about the centrality of people – caring for your people – to leadership. Semper fi.

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