Near the end of his autobiography, there is a scene that perfectly captures how Colin Powell--who may soon become a serious presidential candidate--seems to transcend the deadly consequences of race even as he embodies its urgent contradictions. In 1989, Powell had become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, at 52, the youngest. This was the position he held in 1992, when rioting broke out in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four policemen charged with beating motorist Rodney G. King. The riots were a brutal reminder of this nation’s still-inflamed racial passions. Powell was sick with disbelief.
“It can’t be happening,” he recalls thinking. “It was nearly 35 years since President Eisenhower had sent troops into Little Rock to quell the violence over school integration. . . .” Now Powell, a latter-day Eisenhower of sorts, was being ordered by George Bush to place a federalized National Guard under a central command. It was an ironic and bittersweet symbol of racial progress that a black man was now responsible for containing the chaos of black rage and rebellion. But there’s more.
As Powell watched the riots blaze on television, he received a request from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to help shape President Bush’s response in a speech to be given the night the catastrophe struck. The draft of Bush’s remarks that Powell viewed had “the fingerprints of the Far Right all over” it, with its failure to recognize that “the violence had not incubated in isolation” but had “deep social roots.” Powell urged White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner to “get some reconciliation into the President’s message.” That night Powell felt vindicated as Bush tempered his call for law and order with an acknowledgment that King’s beating was “revolting” and that our nation must offer a better future to minority Americans.
Powell caught Bush’s speech that night in an empty room in Washington’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, where the general was attending the annual Horatio Alger scholarship dinner. His career has been fueled by such fateful incongruities.
Powell’s story occupies the narrative ground where Bildungsroman meets racial mythology--and where the immigrant’s tale traces the defining features of national identity. Powell heroically turns racial maelstrom to magnificence, conquering bigotry to shine the often diminished brilliance of black life into foreign lands and into closed minds closer to home. If at times the reverie of the American Dream lulls Powell to sleep in the face of America’s nightmares, the general is also capable of a sober reveille about the costs of denied opportunity. In the magical arc of Powell’s triumphant patriotism, Frederick Douglass elbows Thomas Jefferson for a spot at Eisenhower’s side.
Although Powell was born poor in New York in 1937, he was surrounded by the rich love of his parents, who had come to America from Jamaica. His parents’ hard-work ethic and thrift--his father, Luther, was a garment company foreman and his mother, Ariel, a seamstress--shaped Colin and his older sister, Marilyn.
Powell’s positive experiences in “Banana Kelly,” the multiracial South Bronx neighborhood of his youth, led him to expect a world in which Irish, Polish, Italian, Latino and black folk could get along. And his West Indian roots--nurtured by a steady stream of colorful relatives who reveled in good rum and calypso music--illumine, perhaps, the indefatigable investment Powell has made in the immigrant’s belief that America is a land of unbridled potential.
Powell is not insensitive to how the charm of such sentiments wear thin on American blacks. Powell admits that his parents chose to “emigrate to this country for the same reason that Italians, Irish and Hungarians did”: to seek a better life with their families. But he concedes that “a far different emotional and psychological beginning” holds for “American blacks, whose ancestors were brought here in chains.” Still Powell occasionally chides American blacks from the undaunted perspective of a man who feeds on perpetual optimism, a quality distinct from the hard-earned hope many black Americans shield from the unsatisfying epiphanies of positive thinking.
Despite the support of his family, Powell writes that he was an “amenable, amiable and aimless” youth. He hit his stride at the City College of New York, when he joined ROTC and his leadership talents blossomed. From then on, he skyrocketed to success in the military, achieving high rank early and with distinction. Commissioned out of college, Lt. Powell was sent to Georgia’s Ft. Benning, where, for the first time, he faced the South and its racism head-on: “Racism was still relatively new to me, and I had to find a way to cope psychologically. . . . I was not going to allow someone else’s feelings about me to become my feelings about myself.” Powell fought racism with humor and steely resolve, acknowledging his hurt and anger, but mostly feeling challenged: “I’ll show you!” was his attitude.
If the South was to give Powell many of his most painful moments, it was also to provide him a loyal, lovely and long-suffering partner. Alma Johnson was a bright native of Birmingham who had graduated from Fisk at 19 and gone to Boston’s Emerson College for graduate work in audiology. Powell met Johnson on a blind date while he was stationed at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts. They soon married, and while Powell served his first stint in Vietnam, Alma returned home to live with her parents at the height of the civil rights movement in the early ‘60s. Vietnam was not the only place bombs were exploding; because of its racist violence, Birmingham became known to blacks as “Bombingham.”
Vietnam made Powell aware of the self-delusions and hypocrisies that easily attached themselves to the grandeur of Army life. For the most part, though, his criticisms of the institution he unabashedly adores pale when juxtaposed with his bone-deep gratitude for the opportunities the military affords minorities. In Powell’s perspective, the Army was “living the democratic ideal ahead of the rest of America,” having since the 1950s less discrimination, a truer merit system and “leveler playing fields” than existed “in any Southern city hall or Northern corporation.”
Throughout his book, Powell longs wistfully for the old days, when both the Army and his beloved Episcopal Church were saturated in traditions that have been swept away by the plague of modernization. He notes that in many senses, his early attraction to the church foreshadowed his later commitment to the military: “Here was organization, tradition, hierarchy, pageantry, purpose--a world, now that I think about it, not all that unlike the Army.”
Powell ripped through the Army’s ranks with remarkable speed, blessed by the sort of good luck that gives talent its best chance to shine. He served a second tour in Vietnam and further sharpened his soldier’s credentials in Germany, Korea and assorted sites in the States. But it has been in the corridors of power, away from the fields of battle, that Powell has burnished the halo of power and prestige that has attended his fabled rise.
Powell was sent by the Army to George Washington University to earn a master’s degree in business administration in 1969, when he was 32. Soon after, he became a White House Fellow, apprenticing under Frank Carlucci and Caspar Weinberger at the Office of Management and Budget. Powell was certainly on the fast track when he attended the National War College and when he served as military assistant to four secretaries of defense--including Carlucci and Weinberger as well as Harold Brown and Richard Cheney. He was Carlucci’s assistant when Carlucci became Reagan’s national security adviser. Finally, he was named Reagan’s sixth national security adviser before assuming his duties as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The public character of Powell’s ascent, the way his career trajectory spiraled away from the precincts of pure military service--which for many, including Powell himself, defines the authentic register of a soldier’s identity--chafes the smooth surface of his accomplishments. Because his psychic universe is held in place by the gravity of merit and elbow grease, the perception that Powell was a “political general,” a bureaucrat whose battles took place within the beltway, cuts deeply at his self-understanding.
Ironically, it was his very chumminess with politicos, gained in exile from the thrills and traumas of the field, that proved a boon to Powell as he sought to master both political mandates and military purposes during the Gulf War. Powell paints the picture of a gifted but emotionally needy Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a ground commander whose volatile ways at times put him at odds with Powell. Although Powell praises Schwarzkopf as a “brilliant officer, a born leader and a skilled diplomat,” rumors persist that the relationship between the two was strained by ego and competition, although both emerged as heroes at the end of the hundred hours of war they directed in the desert.
Of course, it is Powell’s heroic possibilities that claim our nation’s attention, that feed a frenzy of fascination with the real man behind the facade of public composure that remains whether he is facing trial or triumph.
Powell is vaunted as a man who can truly get beyond race, as a figure who can transcend its deficits as surely as he can evoke its bitter memory as a sign of his determination to defeat its frustrating persistence. For many whites, Powell is the materialized fantasy of dressing the American dream in dark perfection. His unblemished endorsement of the spiritual integrity of American citizenship in the view of whites splendidly counters the distrust of uncomplicated loyalty that wells up in many a black heart and community.
It may be, too, that Powell’s heroic complexion--buffed by military service and brightened by the moral discipline that appears to be its complement--eases the fears many whites feel toward black masculinity as an emblem of subversion and disorder. If Powell looms as the potential political savior of American democracy, it is in large part because of the perception that he has blanched the dangerous elements of black male identity in the curative pool of American patriotism. This is the paradox that Powell’s success both reinforces and obscures.
Equally arresting is Powell’s horning in on the elitist Populism that has been the cultural bailiwick of Ross Perot. Powell as homeboy doesn’t quite work, but Powell as honest Abe reborn has generated a certain low-key glamour, despite his intriguing silences about the political consequences of the principles he holds dear. In truth, Powell’s appeal also turns on his shrewd intuition of the need of Americans to have the benefits of inside-the-beltway political knowledge coupled with an outsider’s genuine disdain for the sordid and self-serving uses to which that knowledge has been put.
Of course, it may be argued that this is all smoke and mirrors, the haughty rein of appearance unchallenged by the concrete demands of policy. Holding the American public at bay about what he might do about the presidency--and hence about the practical effects of his beliefs--may be Powell’s manner of encouraging our nation to heal its lethal skepticism about the possibility of redemption in public life before he expends his precious political capital. Or it could be the same old game of “keep ‘em guessing” used to build up interest and exploit enthusiasm.
Powell absorbed a lesson or two from his former bosses about playing the political game, of course. In perhaps one of the book’s most revealing sections, Powell discusses his perceptions of Ronald Reagan, a man widely perceived as a formidable enemy of black interests.
Powell disagrees with that view but offers little evidence to support his dissent. He simply contends that he saw no personal racial animosity in Reagan (or in Bush), but he pays no heed to the destructive effect that 12 years of Reagan-Bush policies had on the lives of millions of blacks.
Is Powell really that removed from black mainstreams, or is he simply dismissive of the overwhelming evidence that contradicts his claim? Worse yet, is he unable to distinguish between the personality of politicians--which might, after all, be charming and winning--and their practices, which might be morally violent and vicious?
In the end, Colin Powell may be one of the last great moderates, a man whose vision of reconciliation tries to situate him between two perhaps irreconcilable ends. Not, mind you, a person who sits on the fence and gets shot at by both sides because he can’t make up his mind; a genuine moderate tries to take stock of independent thinking to arrive at a course of action. Therein, of course, lies the problem. Political history has shown that in our nation, the moderates end up looking like and voting with the conservatives more than with the liberals.
But then, many black folk turn out to be culturally conservative even if they’re politically progressive. Jesse Jackson is a prime example. That explains why even politically liberal and progressive black folk, beyond the lure of race, may be willing to give Powell a chance if he decides to run for the presidency. Those kind of folk, after all, have values too.
Colin Powell’s political success hinges on convincing this nation’s citizens that his brand of moderation is both more and less than what we’ve already got. His book is an eloquent explanation of how his principles look when they operate in the life of a singular black man who has become an American hero. Powell’s challenge now is to lift his principles from paper and the realm of the personal to the more difficult zone of public life. For this four-star general, it may be the only promotion that remains.