By Madelin Shelton–
Early Monday morning, Americans woke to the news that Colin Powell, a four-star general and former Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, had passed away from complications of COVID-19.
This loss struck a chord with people across the political spectrum, as Powell was widely respected among Democrats and Republicans alike. This shared bipartisan grief points to a greater truth: America has lost the epitome of a statesman with his passing.
A trailblazer in his field, Powell became the first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State. Prior to these roles, he served in the Army for 35 years, in which he was deployed to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
While these are noteworthy accomplishments on their own, they become even more astounding when you consider from where Powell rose up to these ranks.
Born to Jamaican immigrants in a Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Powell did not come from an elite background like so many of his predecessors and successors. He was not a graduate of an ivy league college, but rather The City College of New York, in which he joined the college’s ROTC program and thus began his military career.
His story is the quintessential American Dream. But don’t take my word for it. “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx,” Powell said in his 1995 autobiography “My American Journey.” He repeatedly framed his story as one characteristic of American success.
In his various roles of soldier, diplomat and adviser, Powell shaped U.S. national security policy for decades, and he did so with stellar leadership skills that demanded respect.
Powell even came to the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center in 2001 as part of the Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series and delivered remarks famously called “The Louisville Address” by diplomats across the globe. It was the first time the United States government laid out a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Gary Gregg, PhD, the Director of the McConnell Center, remarked on the exceptional leader Powell was.
“The key to his influence was being a patriot, a statesman, a lover of his country and someone who would support the American military outside of the partisan divide,” Gregg said. “I think the other thing about him that’s really important is that as a military man, he understood the cost of using the American military. He would generally be the least hawkish in the room in terms of using military force.”
Gregg pointed to Powell’s own experience as a Vietnam veteran that likely contributed to his hesitancy to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way. Powell genuinely understood the cost of the decisions he was helping to make in U.S. national security. In his decision-making, he was consistently level-headed, straightforward and analytical. He was the exact kind of person you would want in the room when making significant decisions about the military and American force, and the United States is better today because of his service.
In addition to representing the loss of an extraordinary statesman and national hero, Powell’s death reminds us of a bygone era in American politics: an era where increasing political polarization didn’t infect every facet of American life.
Gregg said that instead of looking at this moment in terms of what we’ve lost, we should look at it in terms of what we’ve gained: a moment to reflect on our current politics. “I think we can look at this as a moment and remind ourselves that not long ago in American history, we had a national leader who could command wide respect in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to find today.”
Powell was able to get people to take off their partisan jerseys in ways that many others could not. He strived to stay above the partisan fray and served this country faithfully as an American soldier and public servant. Perhaps we can use this moment to honor an American hero, emulate his dedication to public service and seek to find more common ground with our fellow Americans.
Photo Courtesy// The New York Times