Born in 1937 to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, Colin Powell seized the promise of the American Dream and held it dear to his heart for nearly all of his 84 years.
“Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many,” former Vice President Dick Cheney said. “His legacy and unparalleled record of service will never be forgotten.”
Nor should it be.
When all was said and done, Powell’s remarkable career included:
Distinguished service in the U.S. Army as a combat soldier who served twice in Vietnam and as a commander.
Appointment as the first Black national security adviser near the end of the Reagan presidency.
Appointment as the first Black, and youngest, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which he oversaw the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm. (“First we’re going to cut it off. Then we’re going to kill it,” Powell said of the Iraqi army during the Persian Gulf War, which made him a household name and an American hero).
Appointment as the first Black secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration.
His winning of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice.
And finally, his status as an elder statesman with an unshakable moral center and unwavering courage in his convictions.
But he will be remembered as much for his exceptional character as his exceptional resume.
Powell has died from complications from COVID-19, his family said on Facebook. He had been vaccinated twice but he was still particularly susceptible to the virus. He had been suffering from multiple myeloma, a type of cancer that creates malignant plasma cells in bone marrow and suppresses the body’s immune response. Those who are immunocompromised are at much greater risk from the coronavirus, even if they have been vaccinated (another argument for vaccinations, as if we needed one).
What a time to lose someone like him.
For all of his accomplishments as a soldier and as a diplomat, Powell was one of a precious few Washington leaders who also was willing to account for his mistakes.
Most notably, Powell called the ill-considered invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration based on seriously flawed intelligence a “blot” on his record.
When asked about the speech during an interview in 2005, Powell said, “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”
Powell wasn’t shy about being right, either. In 2004, he called out the awful tragedy in Darfur at the time for what it really was: a genocide. That made him the first member of any U.S. Cabinet to declare an ongoing conflict as such.
He also expressed serious misgivings as Trumpism took hold in the Republican Party and turned its politics raw and ugly.
He denounced Trump’s baseless birtherism campaign against Barack Obama. In emails leaked in 2016, Powell wrote that “the whole birther movement was racist. That’s what the 99% believe. When Trump couldn’t keep that up he said he also wanted to see if the certificate (Obama’s birth certificate) noted that he was a Muslim.” Powell went on to describe Donald Trump as “a national disgrace and international pariah.”
Following the events of the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, which he called “a national disgrace,” Powell went on to renounce his own party for drifting so far into the fringes.
“That’s why I can no longer can call myself a fellow Republican,” Powell said in an interview with CNN in January. “I’m not a fellow of anything right now.”
Throughout it all, however, Powell never lost his belief in America.
“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” Powell said of his meteoric rise from modest beginnings during his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state. “It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that (America espouses), you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”
And even in the aftermath of Jan 6, Powell’s faith in this country remained firmly intact, even optimistic..
“I have so much confidence in our country,” Powell told CNN after Jan. 6, “so much confidence that we will come through this crisis as we have come through so many other crises.”
Powell added: “Let’s argue with each other. Let’s debate each other. But let’s remember we have to love each other because that’s who we are. We’re Americans.”