Colin Powell, the trailblazing soldier-diplomat who rose from humble beginnings to become the first African-American US secretary of state, has been remembered by family and friends as a principled man of humility for generations to come.
“The example of Colin Powell does not call on us to emulate his resume, which is too formidable for mere mortals,” his son Michael said in a touching tribute at his father’s funeral on Friday at Washington National Cathedral.
“It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that.”
The funeral on a sunny and chilly day drew dignitaries and friends from across the political and military spectrum. They included President Joe Biden and former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, former secretaries of state James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, former Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley.
Donald Trump’s bile
Two recent presidents did not attend – Bill Clinton, who is recovering from a severe infection, and Donald Trump, who publicly disparaged Powell after his death for having been critical of the former president.
Powell died on October 18 of complications from COVID-19 at age 84. He had been vaccinated, but his family said his immune system had been compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment.
Funeral attendees were required to wear masks. Not all did.
Madeleine Albright, who was Powell’s immediate predecessor as secretary of state, called him “a figure who almost transcended time,” and “one of the gentlest and most decent people any of us will ever meet”.
“He relished the opportunity to connect with other generations,” she said.
Powell’s view was that the US should commit its military only when it had a clear and achievable political objective, a key element of what became known as the Powell Doctrine, which embodied lessons learned from the US failure in Vietnam.
Powell would serve 35 years in uniform. Commissioned in 1958, he served around the world, including two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.
He distinguished himself at the Pentagon even before he attained flag officer rank. In the late 1970s he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defence, and in 1983 as a brigadier general he became the senior military assistant to Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
He later served in the White House as President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, and in 1989 he was promoted to four-star general. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush selected him to be the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
It was a trailblazing American dream journey that won him international acclaim and trust.
He put his credibility on the line in February 2003 when, appearing before the United Nations as secretary of state, he made the case for war against Iraq.
When it turned out that the intelligence he cited was faulty and the Iraq War became a bloody, chaotic nightmare, Powell’s stellar reputation was damaged.
Still, it wasn’t destroyed. After leaving government, he became an elder statesman on the global stage and the founder of an organisation aimed at helping young disadvantaged Americans.
Republicans wanted him to run for president. After becoming disillusioned with his party, he ended up endorsing the last three Democratic presidential candidates, who welcomed his support.