Powell biography involves a game of connect the blots
"Soldier" provides a sketchy, but intermittently fascinating, portrait of the former secretary of state.
By Tim Rutten
Times Staff Writer
October 9, 2006
There is so much to like and admire about Colin L. Powell as a man and as a public servant that it would be vaguely comforting if his failure as secretary of State were somehow mysterious.
It wasn't, although it still may fairly be described as tragic.
That's one of the conclusions to be taken from journalist Karen DeYoung's rather sketchy — but intermittently fascinating — biography, "Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell." The author is associate editor of the Washington Post and a reporter of long experience with national security issues. Powell sat for six interviews with DeYoung and gave her wide access to his papers. His family cooperated in the project, and he presumably encouraged the more than 100 officials and former associates who were questioned for this book.
Despite the "life" appellation, however, this is essentially the story of Powell's service to President George W. Bush as secretary of State; the account of those four years consumes more than half the volume's considerable length. DeYoung ranges competently over the familiar details of Powell's early life and career — the New York-born and educated son of Jamaican immigrants who built a close and loving, if controlling, family around their children with Anglophile, high-church Episcopalianism; a desultory student's life at the City College of New York until he discovered a new home and family in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps; a stunning and well-earned ascent through the officer corps to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
For this part of the book, DeYoung borrows heavily from the 1995 memoir "My American Journey," on which Powell collaborated with Joseph E. Persico. Readers who find this part of Powell's life compelling — and it is — might profitably refer to it, as well. Where DeYoung comes into her own is in discussing Powell's brief flirtation with presidential politics and the bureaucratic infighting that has characterized this Bush administration from the start — in other words, the familiar territories of Washington reporting.
Here, there is much detail that sheds further light on a story whose broad outlines are well-known through the unprecedented volume of tell-all and self-justifying literature paradoxically spawned by this security-obsessed presidency. One of the interesting details is the suggestion that the distrust of Powell shared by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their cadre of neoconservative acolytes seems to date back to Powell's attempt to forge a more moderate Republicanism during his brush with presidential ambitions in the mid-1990s. Polls showed that Powell was the most popular man in America when he proposed that the GOP embrace him as leader who favored abortion rights, was pro-affirmative action, pro-gay rights and not at all hostile to gun control. President Clinton worried that, if the Republicans nominated Powell, he would not win reelection. Powell ultimately decided not to seek the nomination, but the neocons — including former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich — never forgave him for giving them a scare.
When Bush came to office, Cheney and Rumsfeld — whom Powell ruefully said regarded him as the Antichrist — quickly moved to cut him out of the administration's inner circle. The new secretary of State, who had spent a lifetime trying to fit in as a child of immigrants, as an African American in a country still dominated by Jim Crow and as an officer in an army historically hostile to men of color, chafed at being forced into the role of "odd man out."
Powell's version of events confirms what others have reported, that Cheney, Rumsfeld and their neoconservative aides arrived in Washington determined to find a reason to attack Saddam Hussein. According to DeYoung, "Powell's first official briefing on terrorism had taken place on December 20, 2000, even before he was sworn in as secretary of state. He had asked [counter-terrorism chief Richard A.] Clarke and his team — all still working under President Clinton at the time — to give him a full rundown on bin Laden. Intelligence had indicated that al-Qaeda was planning direct attacks against the United States and likely had sleeper cells already in place inside the country. After the inauguration, Cheney and [then national security advisor Condoleezza] Rice had received the same briefing."
Despite that, when the Cabinet's deputy secretaries first met, Paul D. Wolfowitz — Rumsfeld's assistant — "disputed Clarke's assessment of the al-Qaeda threat, suggesting that the more immediate terrorist danger to the United States came from Iraq."
Even after Sept. 11, the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction kept up the pressure for an attack on Iraq, while Powell worked to make possible an assault on Al Qaeda and its Taliban patrons in Afghanistan. Later, although he would do his best to sell the American people and the world the administration's case for war against Hussein, Powell also did his best to warn Bush of its consequences. (Powell's wife, Alma, told DeYoung that her husband was "callously" used by the White House, and the general now says he regards his infamous U.N. appearance as a "blot" on his record. "If I had known there were no stockpiles, I never would have said there were stockpiles," he says.)
There is one bit of malice at work in the Powell-DeYoung version of these now familiar events that should not pass unremarked upon. According to the author, the then-secretary went out of his way to identify the pro-war neoconservatives as affiliates of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think-tank with decidedly hard-line views on Israel's security. "Powell referred to Rumsfeld's team as the 'JINSA crowd.' " Later in "Soldier," readers are told that the neoconservatives in the Defense Department — nearly all of them Jews — supported war against Iraq as the first step to replacing Arab despots with democratic governments that would sever their ties to the Palestinians, thereby enhancing Israel's security. In explaining why he did not resign over his profound differences with the White House, Powell cited the example of Gen. George C. Marshall, who refused to quit as secretary of State even though he opposed President Truman's recognition of Israel as a quest for "Jewish votes."
Whatever his bitterness over his mistreatment, Powell knows that these old and wholly unmeritorious allegations of dual loyalty are a slander. He knows better and so does DeYoung. Their presence in this book is another blot on his record.
As written, the net effect of DeYoung's story — and, despite its length, her book is that, rather than a fully realized biography — brings to mind a scene from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Late in the film, Michael, who has become heir to his father's business in the aftermath of his elder brother Sonny's murder, tells the family counselor, Tom Hagen — played by Robert Duvall — that he is being moved out of his job. Vito Corleone, the Godfather — played by Marlon Brando — comforts the shaken Hagen thus: "Tom, I never thought you were a bad consigliere. I thought Santino was a bad don."
The loyal counselor
Clearly, Powell — although, characteristically, he never hits the point head-on — thinks of himself as a loyal and disinterested counselor, who served a bad president and a failed administration. DeYoung implicitly shares that view, but it won't do. Life isn't a film, and none of us are under contract to speak lines somebody else has written.
When Bush announced Powell's appointment as secretary of State, he invoked the memory of Marshall, the quintessential soldier-statesman. Powell hung his predecessor's portrait on his office wall, and he recalled Marshall's refusal to resign over fundamental differences with Truman as precedent for his own decision. Maybe, but strangely enough, the great American general whose historic example seems more apt here is Robert E. Lee, whose fidelity to rigidly unexamined notions of martial honor and personal loyalty helped push the nation into entirely avoidable tragedy.
As Ulysses S. Grant once said, Lee "gave himself wholly and without reservation to his cause, though I believe that cause was the worst to which any man ever gave himself."
At the end of the day, these two exemplary soldiers, Powell and Lee, shared the same tragic flaw — an inability to recognize the moment in which personal loyalty becomes civic folly.