Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend: A Warning
On a sunny autumn afternoon, Sept. 25, 1995, hundreds of people
lined up on a sidewalk in San Francisco to grab a glimpse of
history -- and maybe of the future. Indoors, dozens of
reporters and photographers packed into a room already 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
"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
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 which the general smoothly swatted over the fence.
Powell offered only a well-rehearsed glimpse into his private
"Writing the book," the retired general explained, "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
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
"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
As the news conference rolled on, Powell showed off the
qualities that set so many political hearts aflutter last fall--
and that still make the retired general Bob Dole's "first,
second and third choice" to be the GOP vice presidential
nominee. But trouble arose at the bookstore when Powell began
explaining why Americans again were dazzled by the military a
quarter century after the disastrous Vietnam War.
Panama & Persian Gulf
"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
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 called the dissenter by name.
"Hi, Ron, how are you? Excuse me, let me answer one question if
"But why don't you tell them, why don't you tell them why--"
"The fact of the matter is--"
"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
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 books 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
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."
Who Is Colin Powell?
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.
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? Who is Colin Powell
really? What is his unvarnished record? What did he do in
Vietnam and 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?
As Powell again steps to the center of the political stage this
summer -- amid renewed speculation that he will succumb to Bob
Dole's pleadings -- this series will try to answer those
questions. It will look at the Colin Powell who exists behind
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