We had a Black president before Bill Clinton. His name was Colin Powell.
Powell, the moderate well-spoken Afro-Caribbean fly in the Bush 41 ointment made Black Americans swoon with his calm demeanor. Striking an image somewhere between James Earl Jones and Harry Belafonte when Colin finally came out of the Closet in 1993 as a Republican (a surprise to no one who knows anything about the military) he almost single-handedly made the GOP sexy to Black generation X and non-hawking independents.
With that kind of background it really disappoints me to hear him come out in favor of gay marriage this week. Not because of the issue itself, but because this recent pronouncement is another loud reminder of the cowardly political shell game that Powell has played with the American public for almost 20 years.
Earlier this week I made an appearance on CNN to discuss whether or not Powell’s announcement that he actually favored gay marriage would make him an unviable candidate in today’s Republican Party. I thought it was a rather interesting question because General Powell has been out of lock-step with much of the Republican Party since the 1990’s.
While his tenure with the Joint Chiefs to Staff under Bush I was fairly controversy-free, he did take several stances through the 1990’s that put him at odds with his party. Colin Powell helped make “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” a reality, which was considered a fairly progressive move at the time, even if the policy ended up backfiring in serious ways. He also favored affirmative action, which was a major hot-button issue in the 90’s, and a hot potato that most Republicans were more than happy to throw into Democratic faces.
At the end of the decade after playing footsie with a few presidential elections, the former general started a national organization dedicated to helping poor kids. Powell was the compassionate conservative long before Bush came up with the idea as a cynical way to run in 2000. With this kind of background, doesn’t endorsing gay marriage make sense for Powell? How does taking a stand on this issue now that he’s retired make him a coward?
Simple: because on the most important issue of his public life, General Colin Powell has been a historic failure.
After the 9-11 attacks it is well documented that there were major disagreements within the Bush White House on how to proceed. You had Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other chickenhawks who wanted to use this crisis to invade Iraq. Others like Condi Rice would essentially do whatever she was told.
And then you had Powell.
General Powell was on record in early 2001 stating that U.S. sanctions had pretty much prevented Iraq from being able to create weapons of mass destruction. More importantly, as it became more and more clear that the Bush administration hawks wanted to forcefully overthrow Saddam Hussein, General Powell consistently clashed with other cabinet members suggesting that a war was a bad, idea, bad policy and much more damaging than any of them were taking into consideration.
Then, two years later, when the reputation of the Bush administration across the globe was hitting a new low, Powell degraded himself in a way that no amount of pro-gay marriage, pro-affirmative action or pro-Barack Obama endorsements can make up for.
Since he was the only person in the administration with a sliver of integrity internationally, Powell took one for the team and went before the United Nations to argue that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United States and military action was needed.
A year later he was gone.
Powell could have left the Bush administration. He could have refused to speak to the U.N. There are a hundred different things he could have done to stand by his disagreement with a policy he was sure would be doomed to failure. Instead, he sold out his reputation to justify a war that he knew all along would be a military and financial boondoggle. But he did it, ever the good soldier, ever the convenient moralist.
It matters very little what a former Secretary of State with no policy influence says about an issue that is essentially decided on a state-by-state basis. Especially when he says it days after President Barack Obama has already taken the credit and the hit for such a bold stance. In the greatest single policy decision of his entire storied career, he lied and condemned this country to a never ending war. I would have more respect for him if he actually believed what he said in front of the United Nations and was just wrong – instead he chose to sell out.
Colin Powell is always the good soldier, always the moralizing statesmen after the tough decisions have been made or when they are out of his power. General Colin Powell is not the kind of advocacy that any movement in America needs. He’s made it very clear that when it comes to taking the tough stances he’ll always cave.