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December 17,  2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part One

Editors Note:

On Dec. 12, a 5-4 vote by the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court awarded George W. Bush the presidency. To do so, the conservatives applied "equal-protection" safeguards that historically had protected blacks and other minorities from discrimination.

In this case, however, "equal protection" was used to stop the counting of votes -- many from African-American precincts -- that likely would have given Al Gore the victory in Florida and thus the presidency.

As Bush's strategy was underway, retired Gen. Colin Powell -- one of the nation's most prominent African-Americans -- met with Bush at his ranch in Texas. Based on the available record, Powell did nothing to dissuade Bush from his course of action, which effectively disenfranchised the 90 percent of the African-American voters who cast their ballots for Gore.

On Dec. 16, four days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Bush appointed Powell to be secretary of state, the first African-American who would hold that post. As he has at other times in his military-political life, Colin Powell advanced his career by staying silent in the face of what many other African-Americans considered a gross injustice.

In view of these new developments and the questions they raise about Colin Powell's character, we are presenting an updated version of a series "Behind Colin Powell's Legend" that originally appeared at this Web site several years ago.

Behind Colin Powell's Legend Part One

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

On a sunny autumn afternoon, Sept. 25, 1995, hundreds lined up on a sidewalk in San Francisco to grab a glimpse of a national icon.

Indoors, dozens of reporters and photographers packed into a room baking under the hot lights of television cameras.

An electricity filled the air, as if the crowd were waiting for a TV actor or a rock star, some super-hot celebrity. In a sense, they were. That day, on a mega-successful book tour, retired General Colin L. Powell was scheduled to answer a few questions and sign a few hundred books.

Preparations for the news conference were going smoothly, too, until two minutes before Powell was to appear.

Then, the bookstore managers fell into in a small panic over an intruder who was holding forth at the back of the room.

"How did he get here?" one manager asked the other.

"I don't know," the other answered. "I don't know how he got in here."

"He slipped in," said the first.

Their fretting focused on a middle-aged man in a wheelchair who was speaking to a cluster of reporters. He was hunched inside his silvery metal contraption. His jeans-clad legs dangled as if inert. His clothes were tidy but informal. His thinning hair was slightly unkempt.

The man spoke quietly, at a deliberate pace. He paused occasionally to search for and capture an elusive word. The reporters, most younger than he was, leaned over him with microphones and note pads. They seemed intrigued, but uncertain of his news value.

The bookstore managers did not have a quick solution to the intrusion, so they drifted back to their anticipation of Powell's arrival. "I have so much respect for this man," bubbled the store's director of sales.

The Hero Arrives

Moments later, San Francisco's mayor swept into the room. A wave of excitement followed as Colin Powell arrived and strode to the rostrum. He was the picture of confident authority, in his wire-rim executive-style glasses, a well-tailored pinstripe black business suit, a crisp pastel-blue shirt, a tasteful burgundy tie.

The mayor pumped Powell's hand and proclaimed a formal welcome for the first African-American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reporters competed to toss some softball questions that the general smoothly swatted over the fence. Powell offered only a well-rehearsed glimpse into his private side.

"Writing the book," the retired general explained about My American Journey, "you learn a lot about yourself, you learn a lot about your family, you learn a lot about people who helped you along the way that you have forgotten about. So, it was very introspective for me, and I came away with a deeper appreciation of my own family roots, but an even greater appreciation of the nation we live in, the society we are a part of, and a faith in this society that I hope, as a result of this book and whatever I might do in the future, faith that I hope we can continue to pass on to new generations."

The second query was a self-help question about race: "What do you say to all the kids from all the Bronxes around this country who say, 'race is a stumbling block, poverty is a stumbling block?'"

"Race is a problem," Powell responded firmly. "Let it be someone else's problem. What you have to do is do your very best, study, work hard, believe in yourself, believe in your country."

As the news conference rolled on, Powell showed off the qualities that had set so many political hearts aflutter in fall 1995. But Powell encountered some friction when he started explaining why Americans were dazzled by the military again, a quarter century after the disastrous Vietnam War.

"Why that comes about," Powell said, "because of the superb performance of the armed forces of the United States in recent conflicts, beginning with the, I think, Panama invasion, and then through Desert Shield and Storm. And Americans saw that these young men and women were competent, proud, clean, patriotic, and they kind of fell in love with them again. And so it's not so much I think what--"

The voice from the back of the room suddenly broke in, an accusatory voice belonging to the man in the wheelchair. "You didn't tell the truth about the war in the Gulf, general," the man shouted.

Powell first tried to ignore the interruption, but the man persisted, hectoring Powell about the tens of thousands of civilian dead in the wars in Panama and Iraq, conflicts that brought Powell his national fame. Finally, Powell responded with a patronizing tone, but he called the dissenter by name.

"Hi, Ron, how are you? Excuse me, let me answer one question if I may."

"But why don't you tell them, why don't you tell them why--"

"The fact of the matter is--"

"My Lai--"

"I think the American people are reflecting on me the glory that really belongs to those troops," Powell continued, brushing aside the interruption.

Then, Ron Kovic's voice could be heard only in snippets beneath Powell's amplified voice. "General, let me speak--"

"I think what you're seeing is a reflection on me of what those young men and women have done in Panama, in Desert Storm, in a number of other places--"

"A hundred-and-fifty-thousand people, the bombing--"

"So it's very, it's very rewarding to see this change in attitude toward the military. It's not just Colin Powell, rock star. It's all of those wonderful men and women who do such a great job."

Born on the Fourth

Ron Kovic, a veteran of the Vietnam War, a soldier paralyzed in combat, was one of the few dissident voices at the bookstore that day. Kovic, author of the autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, which was later made into a movie, tried to warn reporters not to swallow Powell-mania.

As Powell moved off to sign copies of his own book and the reporters began to depart, too, Kovic pleaded, "Colin Powell is not the answer. He sets a very dangerous precedent for this country."

From his wheelchair, Kovic had struggled to make that case. "I want the American people to know what the general hid from the American public during the Gulf War," Kovic said. "They hid the casualties. They hid the horror. They hid the violence. We don't need any more violence in our country. We need leaders who represent cooperation. We need leadership that represents peace. We need leaders that understand the tragedy of using violence in solving our problems. We have enough violence in this country."

To Kovic, Powell lacked a truly critical eye toward war.

"Did Colin Powell really learn the lessons of the Vietnam War? Did he learn that the war was immoral? I think that he learned another lesson. He learned to be more violent, to be more ruthless. And I've come as a counterbalance to that today. I've come as an alternative voice. And I think I speak for many, many people in this country when I say that General Colin Powell is a detriment to democracy; he's a danger to our Constitution; he's a danger to our democracy."

Kovic tried to persuade the journalists that the United States should confront its Cold War past, the way other nations, both right-wing and left-wing, have begun to do.

"America has got to go through its own perestroika, its own glasnost," Kovic continued. "I came down today because I just can't allow this to continue -- this honeymoon, this love affair with someone who was part of a policy which hurt so many human beings."

But few Americans listened to the advice of Ron Kovic that day or since. Hundreds of thousands bought Powell's 1995 memoirs, My American Journey, and the national press corps accorded the retired general near-unanimous acclaim. Besides being a hero for his accomplishments as the first black American to lead the nation into war, Powell became the most celebrated U.S. military officer since Dwight Eisenhower.

In the early days of the 1996 presidential campaign, journalists pined openly for Powell's candidacy. Liberals and centrists saw Powell as a role model for young blacks. Many conservatives admired Powell's success despite his humble origins. What slight criticism there was came mostly from the far right because of Powell's avowal that he was a "Rockefeller Republican" who supported abortion rights and affirmative action.


Still, what about Kovic's questions? What is Colin Powell's unvarnished record?

What did Powell do in Vietnam? What was his role in the Iran-contra scandal? How did he rise so smoothly as a black man in a white-dominated Republican national security establishment? Were Powell's victories in Panama and Iraq excessively violent and insufficiently concerned with civilian dead?

These are questions perhaps even more relevant today as Colin Powell stands as President-elect George W. Bush's first Cabinet choice, the man who would be the nation's first African-American secretary of state. Given Bush's inexperience in foreign affairs, the former general likely will wield broad power over U.S. foreign policy.

Many Americans see Colin Powell as a reassuring figure on the national stage. Yet, the accolades have prevented any balanced analysis of his positives and his negatives. Indeed, Powell's legend has created its own mystery.

Drawing from the available public record, including Powell's own memoirs, this series will address that mystery. Who is Colin Powell?

Page 2: Vietnam Lessons