WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin L. Powell walks into this elegant conference room at the State Department as if he’s on a mission. He grasps my hand and looks at me, but not disarmingly, right in the eyes. I am gripped by an immediate awareness of this man’s power, of his prestige. He most certainly commands the room.
Somehow, though, this does not translate into intimidation. Unlike other powerful officials I have been privileged to meet, I am unafraid of this soldier-statesman.
I pose for a photo and take my seat, hands un-clammy and my voice relatively un-trembling, a departure from how I felt five minutes ago, before he walked in.
Powell is accommodating, friendly and funny. I tell him about General Norman Schwarzkopf’s visit to CSU Wednesday night and he is dismayed that I won’t be home to “say hi to Norm for me.”
I ask a tough question about Iraq and North Korea and another about the dynamic of working with President Bush. Powell starts laughing – he has a hearty, shoulder-quaking laugh – and accuses the full-time Knight Ridder reporter of prepping me with questions.
From the few inquiries I can squeeze in during my half-hour allotment (Powell lets it stretch to almost 40 minutes), including a smattering of questions about the new Security Council resolution on Iraq, the answer that strikes me the most is about the nature of decision-making in government. Powell is obviously fascinated by his country and deeply in love with it.
“How does this country work? It works on consensus,” Powell said. “And how do you achieve a consensus? By principled people fighting for their ideas and their beliefs. Clash of all these ideas and beliefs, seen in all its glory by a free press. But out of that clash of ideas and personalities and egos and people comes compromise. And from compromise you achieve consensus.”
When the secretary of state gets going about America, land that he loves, he is nothing if not eloquent.
“We had an election yesterday – strongly held views. Negative ads, positive ads, screaming, shouting, noise, press, polls, when do I announce, what’s going on, who’s gonna win, what’s Jeb gonna do…” Powell orates, arms waving.
“It’s sturm und drang and it just goes on and on … and suddenly there’s an election, and the people speak. They are conveying the American consensus for a couple of years. And the beauty of it is, they get to change their mind every two years. And the greater beauty of it is, it works. People around the world have a hard time understanding it sometimes. I try to explain it, but the magic of it is that it works.”
Not surprisingly, this blazing nationalism permeates Powell’s foreign policy approach.
To him, the United States is not a meddling, pesky global bully. It is instead a benevolent, friendly intercessor in the problems of others, which range from prosaic daily minutiae like transportation or consumer issues to big-picture dilemmas like AIDS, economic advancement and terrorism.
“Why do people come to us? People trust us, to help them and solve their problems,” Powell says. “This is a destiny we have. We cannot turn our back on the world.”
Powell has tremendous faith in his country, a result of his colorful and intriguing background. His is a uniquely American story.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Luther Powell rose from his humble beginnings in the South Bronx to become an ROTC Army cadet, a Vietnam hero, a four-star general, National Security Adviser to the President, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now the secretary of state.
Throughout his life, Powell has always emphasized the need to give back, to return to the communities that shaped him and reciprocate somehow. He has also demonstrated a deep commitment to young Americans. I was told this interview, for which I was chosen as one of two college journalists to interview Powell, was largely his idea.
In 1997, Powell founded America’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on character development and outreach for the nation’s youth.
When he decided not to run for president in 1998, Powell reiterated his dedication to public service. From the way he talks about America, I get the impression that regardless of what he does if President Bush wins reelection, this country will not have heard the last of him.
This old soldier will one day prove General Douglas MacArthur wrong. Colin Powell will never die, but he won’t fade away, either; he will be remembered as one of the premier statesmen and diplomats of our time. And I am honored to have met him.
“What is America? It is a nation of nations,” Powell said. “We are touched by every nation on the face of the Earth because of our immigrant policies.
“It’s beautiful! It’s wonderful,” he says, pounding the table. “There’s no place on the Earth like this. What’s astonishing is that it works.”