By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend: The Media Icon
Colin Powell stepped from the confetti-covered parade routes of the Desert Storm victory celebrations as a full-scale media hero, a rare commodity in this age of hyper-cynical politics. For several years now, the national press corps has seemed eager to hoist the four-star general onto its shoulders and into the Oval Office.
Any hint of a Powell interest in a top post still makes headlines -- and it's certain that the media soon will be tossing his name into the early handicapping for the Republican presidential sweepstakes in the year 2000. But as this series has tried to show, this unusual mix of celebrity and political journalism has only obscured Powell's real record.
Still, there are real reasons for the press adulation. Without doubt, Powell is a good story, potentially the first black American president. Some journalists also embrace Powell because they disdain his rivals, from Newt Gingrich and the Republican right to Bill Clinton and the Democratic establishment. Others value Powell's mastery of refined Washington skills: the smooth background briefing, the suave dinner-party conversation.
But the Powell presidential wave was startling nonetheless. Newsweek was one of the first publications to catch it, more than two years ago. 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 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, lauding the general with descriptions such as "confident," "candid," "a tonic for the public spirit." [ Rolling Stone, Nov. 16, 1995]
But 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 a troubled 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, then a fast-rising Army major at Americal headquarters, Powell conducted a cursory investigation and promptly dismissed the young soldier's concerns as unfounded. "In direct refutation of this portrayal," Powell told the Americal adjutant general, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
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]
Possibly even more troubling was Powell's acknowledgement a quarter century later in his memoirs, My American Journey, that he had been aware of wanton killings of Vietnamese civilians, especially "military-age males" or MAMs. "If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him," Powell wrote. "If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so."
But a key Washington Post columnist rallied to Powell's defense after Lane's article. Richard Harwood, a former Post ombudsman, scolded Lane 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. [See earlier parts of this series.]
Francesca's Lost Love
For the media, it was time for Powell-o-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 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." [New York Times, 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 more than 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." [ New York Times, 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. [ New York Times, Nov. 11, 1995]
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