It doubtless grieved Colin Powell that what he will be most remembered for was his 2003 United Nations presentation on the case for war in Iraq. Not only because he came to have so many regrets about the position he took and the subsequent conduct of the war by the Bush administration, but also because it overshadows a public life of such consequence. Governing over diversity is hard, and some of the lesser-noticed things for which Powell deserves to be remembered are models for strengthening our republican governance. He used his stature to highlight continuing racial barriers; exhibited a quiet understanding, shaped over a decades-long study, of how Washington, D.C. worked; strengthened the institutions he led; and, most of all, brought integrity to politics and everything he did.
Powell, who died this year at 84, was a big man — physically imposing and intellectually commanding, a leader of incredible magnetism. He was the first Black secretary of state and chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he once plaintively told me he looked forward to the day when there were so many others that he might be remembered instead as the youngest chair. But Powell didn’t just achieve consequential firsts, he opened opportunities and flooded the zone with talent. That was how the American military had succeeded at racial integration, and for all his subsequent jobs and achievements, it was always soldiering that conditioned his behavior.
Yet Powell also always said that he was the face of affirmative action — that he would not have been able to rise through the military ranks without preferential selection. He wasn’t a falsely modest man; he knew very well that he was one of the best leaders of his generation. But it was important to him that he not be used by those who would argue selection systems aren’t biased, or that if he could succeed it meant that everyone had equal opportunities.
He understood that power in Washington required knowing which constituencies gave you influence. A Cabinet secretary’s power lies in their public profile, and ability to impose costs on a president. Powell led a weak State Department, but he knew his influence came from the damage he would inflict on George W. Bush if he resigned or publicly objected to the Iraq War.
In his previous role as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, his constituencies were the military and Congress. When President Bill Clinton was elected, Powell studied his policy priorities and worked quietly with Congress — the other constitutional civilian control on our military — to build blocking resistance to policies he considered detrimental. He believed one reason he was an effective chair was that he had spent a year in the Office of Management and Budget, so he understood that, to the rest of government, the Pentagon had the luxury of getting all the money it wanted. It taught him to persuade others on the terms that matter to them, not to you. So effective was Powell as chair of the Joint Chiefs that no president since has been willing to appoint as strong an independent operator.
Yet whenever Washington felt burdensome during his time as chair, he would escape it to be among soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Because Americans in harm’s way were his constituents, and representing their interests was both his job and his calling.
Powell was a devoted builder of institutions. He professionalized the National Security Council staff after the Iran Contra scandal; strengthened the Joint Staff by incentivizing the military’s most promising officers to work there; grew and developed the Foreign Service; and celebrated the leaders who rebuilt the American military after the Vietnam War. He was intensely proud that he never had an inspector general investigation of a military unit he had been involved with, because it showed he did things the right way. Every organization he was part of was better for his involvement.
Powell very likely could have been elected president of the United States, so powerful were his abilities. He just didn’t want to be. That was the answer he gave, and it might have added weight on his heart as he grieved the direction the Republican Party subsequently took. He endorsed candidate Barack Obama and candidate Joe Biden because he believed the Palin-esque and later Trump-esque turn of conservatism was bad for our country.
And that might be his greatest legacy: Modeling integrity. He did what he thought was right and took responsibility for his mistakes, knowing there would always be a price to pay.