December 27, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Five
By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
The Persian Gulf victory capped Powell's rise to full-scale national hero. But, in the year that followed, some of his political compromises from the Reagan years returned to tarnish, at least slightly, the shining image.
To his dismay, Powell was not quite through with the Iran-contra affair. In testimony to Iran-contra independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, Powell had denied knowing about illegal missile shipments to Iran through Israel in 1985, though acknowledging arranging legal shipments from Defense stockpiles in 1986.
Then, in 1991, Iran-contra investigators stumbled upon Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's long-lost notes filed away in a corner of the Library of Congress. Among those papers was a note dated Oct. 3, 1985, indicating that Weinberger had received information from a National Security Agency intercept that Iran was receiving "arms transfers," a notice that would have gone through Powell, Weinberger’s military assistant. [For details, see Part Two of this series.]
The belated discovery of Weinberger's diaries led to the former defense secretary's indictment for obstruction of justice. The notes also prompted Powell to submit a pro-Weinberger affidavit that contradicted Powell's own earlier sworn testimony in which he had insisted that Weinberger maintained no "diaries."
In the new version, dated April 21, 1992, Powell argued that he regarded Weinberger's daily notes as a "personal diary" and that it was "entirely possible" that Weinberger would not have understood these personal papers to be within the scope of the Iran-contra document requests.
Beyond this apparent contradiction on the question of whether a "diary" existed or not, the greater threat to Powell's reputation was the pending Weinberger trial which was scheduled to start in January 1993. Powell was listed as a prospective witness.
At trial, the general might have to maneuver through a legal mine field created by his unlikely claims of ignorance about the illegal Iran weapons in 1985. If evidence emerged demonstrating what seemed most likely -- that Powell and Weinberger both knew about the 1985 shipments -- Powell could face questions about his own credibility and possibly charges of false testimony.
So, in late 1992, Powell joined an intense lobbying campaign to convince President George H.W. Bush to pardon Weinberger. The president had his own reasons to go along. Bush's participation in the scandal also might have been exposed to the public if the trial went forward. Bush's insistence that he was "not in the loop" on Iran-contra had been undermined by the Weinberger documents, too, damaging Bush's reelection hopes in the final weekend of the campaign.
On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush dealt a retaliatory blow to the Iran-contra investigation, granting pardons to Weinberger and five other Iran-contra defendants. The pardons effectively killed the Iran-contra probe.
Weinberger was spared a trial -- and Powell was saved from embarrassing attention over his dubious role in the whole affair.
A Press Favorite
In 1995, back in private life, Colin Powell was still remembered as the confetti-covered hero of Desert Storm. A star-struck national press corps seemed eager to hoist the four-star general onto its shoulders and into the Oval Office.
Any hint of a Powell interest in the White House made headlines. Without doubt, Powell was a good story, potentially the first black American president. But some journalists seemed to embrace Powell because they disdained his rivals, from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton.
Newsweek was one of the first publications to catch the Powell presidential wave. In its Oct. 10, 1994, issue, the magazine posed the hyperbolic query: "Can Colin Powell Save America?" Powell was portrayed as a man of consummate judgment, intelligence and grace.
Not to be outdone, Time endorsed Powell as the "ideal candidate" for president. In Time's view, Powell was "the perfect anti-victim, validating America's fondest Horacio Alger myth that a black man with few advantages can rise to the top without bitterness and without forgetting who he is." [Time, March 13, 1995]
Soon, Time was detecting near-super-human powers: Powell could defy aging and even the middle-age paunch. While Jesse Jackson had grown "older, paunchier and less energetic," Powell was "the Persian Gulf War hero who exudes strength, common sense and human values like no one else on the scene." [Time, Aug. 28, 1995]
But the newsmagazines were not alone in the accolades. Surveying the media scene, press critic Howard Kurtz marveled at how many supposedly hard-edged journalists were swooning at Powell's feet.
"Even by the standards of modern media excess, there has never been anything quite like the way the press is embracing, extolling and flat-out promoting this retired general who has never sought public office," Kurtz wrote. [Washington Post, Sept. 13, 1995]
In fall 1995, as the Republican presidential field took shape, Newsweek jumped back into the Powell love-fest. Columnist Joe Klein offered the insight that "the key to the race" was the recognition that "ideas are not important."
Instead of ideas, "stature is everything." Klein declared. "But if ideas don't matter, what does? Civility does." [Newsweek, Nov. 13, 1995]
It seemed Powell had cornered the market on stature and civility.
Even normally clear-eyed journalists had their vision clouded by Powell fever. Rolling Stone's cogent analyst William Greider reprised the theme of Powell as the nation's savior.
"Luck walks in the door, and its name is Colin Powell," Greider proclaimed. He lauded the general with descriptions such as "confident," "candid," "a tonic for the public spirit." [Rolling Stone, Nov. 16, 1995]
In one rare dissent, The New Republic's Charles Lane reviewed Powell's second year-long stint in Vietnam in 1968-69. The article focused on the letter from Americal soldier Tom Glen who complained to the U.S. high command about a pattern of atrocities against civilians, encompassing the My Lai massacre.
When Glen's letter reached Powell, the fast-rising Army major at Americal headquarters conducted a cursory investigation and dismissed the young soldier's concerns.
"In direct refutation of this portrayal," Powell told the Americal’s adjutant general, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." [For details, see Part One of this series.]
Only later did other Americal veterans, most notably Ron Ridenhour, expose the truth about My Lai and the abuse of Vietnamese civilians. "There is something missing," Lane observed, "from the legend of Colin Powell, something epitomized, perhaps, by that long-ago brush-off of Tom Glen." [The New Republic, April 17, 1995]
After Lane's article, a prominent Washington Post columnist rallied to Powell's defense. Richard Harwood, a former Post ombudsman, scolded Lane for his heresy, for trying "to deconstruct the image of Colin Powell." Harwood attacked this "revisionist view" which faulted Powell for "what he didn't do" and for reducing Powell's "life to expedient bureaucratic striving."
Harwood fretted that other reporters might join the criticism. "What will other media do with this tale?" Harwood worried. "Does it become part of a new media technique by which indictments are made on the basis of might-have-beens and should-have-dones?" [Washington Post, April 10, 1995]
But Harwood's fears were unfounded. The national media closed ranks behind Powell. Not only did the media ignore Powell's troubling actions in Vietnam, but the press turned a blind eye to Powell's dubious roles in the Iran-contra scandal and other national security foul-ups of the Reagan-Bush era.
The Book Tour
For the media, it was time for Powell-mania, a phenomenon that reached a frenzied climax in fall 1995 with the general's book tour and the will-he-or-won't-he drama about Powell running for president.
Then, in early November 1995, Powell said no to entering the presidential race and the media's balloon deflated with an almost audible whoosh. The disappointment was palpable as journalists filled a Northern Virginia banquet hall to hear Powell make the announcement.
The rest of that week, The New York Times op-ed page could have been draped in black crepe. Columnist Maureen Dowd compared her disappointment to Francesca's pining over her abortive love affair with Robert Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison County.
"The graceful, hard male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate us yet dominated us completely, in the exact way we wanted that to happen at this moment, like a fine leopard on the veld, was gone," Dowd wrote, mimicking the novel's overwrought style. "'Don't leave, Colin Powell,' I could hear myself crying from somewhere inside." [NYT, Nov. 9, 1995]
Liberal and middle-of-the-road commentators were especially crushed. Columnists Anthony Lewis, A.M. Rosenthal and Bob Herbert proved that Dowd's column was not just satire.
Lewis informed readers that Americans "across the political spectrum ... had just seen the dignity, the presence, the directness they long for in a president." Rosenthal proclaimed Powell to be "graceful, decisive, courteous, warm, also candid." Herbert hailed Powell as "honest, graceful, strong, intelligent, modest and resolute." [NYT, Nov. 10, 1995]
Though also smitten by the Powell charisma, Frank Rich recognized that political reporters were acting a lot like love-sick adolescents. "The press coverage will surely, with hindsight, make for hilarious reading," Rich observed. [NYT, Nov. 11, 1995]
In the years that followed -- as Powell remained a figure of great national respect, earning millions of dollars on the lecture circuit -- there has been little of that critical hindsight.
Thousands of words have been devoted to commenting about Colin Powell's political future, virtually all of them positive. His selection as secretary of state by President-elect George W. Bush -- as Bush's first appointment following his tainted victory -- was hailed by the news media with near universal praise.
Throughout the many years of Powell's presence on the national stage, there has been precious little interest in searching for the truth behind Colin Powell's legend.
End of the Series