Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, period

Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, a hero and role model for us all.

He was a man who radiated leadership and strong character. Four-star general. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State. He was someone many wanted to see run for president, except that he didn’t want to. (Which makes him preferable in my book than all those people who run for the job every four years when no one asked them. And I don’t hold it against him that he declined. He had given enough to his country, and gave more later.)

So I’m a bit bothered by the way his death was covered by many:

  • Reuters — Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, a top military officer and a national security adviser, died on Monday at age 84 due to complications from COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated, his family said.
  • CBS — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies at 84 from COVID-19 amid cancer battle
  • CNN — Colin Powell, first Black US secretary of state, dies of Covid-19 complications amid cancer battle
  • USAToday — Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 complications
  • LATimes — Colin Powell, America’s first Black secretary of State, dies at 84

And here are some headlines that were on the right track, more or less:

  • New York Times — Colin Powell, Who Shaped U.S. National Security, Dies at 84
  • BBC: Colin Powell: Former US secretary of state dies of Covid complications
  • The Washington Post — Colin L. Powell, former secretary of state and military leader, dies at 84

You can probably see where I’m going with this. Colin Powell wasn’t impressive “for a black guy.” He wasn’t great because he was black.

He was impressive for anyone. I suppose some people think there’s nothing special about earning the rank of four-star general. Such people are wrong. It’s a huge accomplishment, and worth a salute from everyone, especially us civilians. But then he went beyond that. And every job he did was a testament to standout characteristics that had nothing to do with the amount of melanin in his skin.

Was the fact that he was black and held these posts interesting, and even a testament not only to his abilities but to the country he served? You bet. As he said during confirmation as secretary of state:

“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country. 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 espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you to receive your approval.”

Don’t leave it out. Include it in the history book. For that matter, include it in the obit. Celebrate it. (And don’t forget to mention that the man who did these things was a son of immigrants, yet another reason for all of us to take pride in his accomplishments.) But don’t make it the first thing you have to say about him, please.

Because he was much more impressive than that.

11 thoughts on “Colin Powell was a very impressive guy, period

  1. Bryan Caskey

    From George W. Bush, which is exactly the right note:

    DALLAS, TEXAS – “Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Colin Powell. He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience. He was National Security Adviser under President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under my father and President Clinton, and Secretary of State during my Administration. He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”

  2. Barry

    On Tuesday, The Conservative messiah, Donald “Jesus is just alright” Trump, released a statement attacking Colin Powell.

    Conservative media was silent on Trump’s statement. For example, as 11:59pm Tuesday night, the favorite news source of Conservatives, Fox News, had not mentioned Trump’s statement or covered it at all.

  3. Ken

    So how bout having one of the US Army bases currently bearing the name of a Confederate (Bragg, Beauregard, Benning, Gordon, Hill, Hood, Lee, Pickett, Polk, Rucker) re-named in honor of Powell?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That would be great. Of course, you’d probably want to name one close to New York, where he was from — for me, that was part of the argument for renaming Fort Hood for Audie Murphy.

      But I suppose that’s not essential. The main thing would be presenting it in terms of honoring a soldier who earned such a distinction and much more — rather than couching it as “hey, let’s show those neo-Confederates down South by renaming one of ‘their’ bases after a black guy.” It shouldn’t be about Kulturkampf. It should be about a higher purpose, about honoring a soldier. But if we can turn one of the problematic — and they are problematic — “Confederate” bases into one named for this hero of the whole country, let’s do it.

    2. bud

      What a terrible idea. Powell’s disgraceful performance at the UN should preclude any naming of stuff. To his credit Powell later acknowledged that was a mistake.

  4. Ken

    Sorry, but no matter how it’s presented (and I can’t imagine the US Army presenting it any other way than as a statement of respect for the individual), the mere act of replacing the previous name does become a cultural phenomenon, a comment on who is worthy of respect and who isn’t.


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