Powell death leads to bipartisan outpouring of grief

The Hill
The Hill

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell ’s death on Monday was greeted by an outpouring of grief from across the political spectrum, as Democrats and Republicans alike lauded the four-star general as a giant of public service and an African American hero.

Powell, 84, who rose from humble beginnings as the son of Jamaican immigrants to hold some of the nation’s most senior positions in military and government leadership, died of complications from COVID-19 at Walter Reed National Memorial Medical Center.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle united in hailing the nation’s first Black secretary of State, praising his leadership and integrity.

Few on Monday spent much time criticizing Powell’s biggest moment at State, when in 2003 he presented false U.S. intelligence to the United Nations that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The presentation, which led to the Iraq War and thousands of U.S., coalition and Iraqi casualties, was the black mark on Powell’s career, and one he never fully escaped.

Powell resigned as secretary of State in 2004 ahead of former President George W. Bush’s second term and described his speech to the United Nations as a personally “painful” experience and a “blot” on his career, in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in 2005.

Lawmakers and civil servants offering tributes to Powell on Monday focused more on the general’s iconic status as a trailblazer unafraid of splitting with his party. Powell served in Republican administrations and was once seen as a potential presidential candidate but endorsed Democrats Barack Obama , Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden for president.

“I feel as if I have a hole in my heart,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin . “The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken , who offered a lengthy on-camera tribute, hailed Powell for acknowledging his errors.

“He could admit mistakes. It was just another example of his integrity,” Blinken said.

Democrats who vehemently disagreed with Powell on the Iraq War said they had deep respect for his service to the country and his decency.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that he held Powell “in high regard as a man of integrity and principle.”

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he always appreciated Powell’s “perspective and how he prioritized his long-standing relationships with Congress even when there were differences of opinions.”

Prominent Black lawmakers reflected on Powell’s legacy by tying their own stories to his years of service.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the first Black chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Powell’s tenure as the first Black secretary of State an “inspiration to many,” while the Congressional Black Caucus, which consists solely of Democrats, issued a statement that Powell’s “legacy of valor, and integrity will resonate for generations to come.”

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a progressive firebrand whose district includes parts of the Bronx, said as a Black man he viewed Powell an “inspiration.”

“He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation... Rest in power sir,” Bowman tweeted.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge said she was struck by Powell’s kindness when she last saw him at President Biden ’s inauguration.

“He was sitting behind me. It reminded me of how kind he was any time I saw him,” said Fudge, who spoke in a personal capacity to The Hill about a man she deeply admired but only knew from afar.

“Understand we were not close, but he always made you feel like his friend,” she said. “He was obviously brilliant. A man of strong conviction and dearly loved his family and his country."

Powell was fully vaccinated from the coronavirus but had a history of multiple myeloma, a common blood cancer that weakens the immune system, according to his family.

Powell entered the U.S. military in the 1950s, serving two tours of Vietnam before rising through the ranks in the military. He served as national security adviser to former President Reagan, achieved the rank of a four-star Army general and holds the distinction as the youngest and first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George H.W. Bush administration.

While head of the Joint Chiefs, Powell oversaw dozens of military crises, including Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. military’s effort to push Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, and the invasion of Panama in 1989.

After he retired from uniform in 1993, his esteemed public standing had both Republicans and Democrats pressing him to consider a run for president before he decided in 1995 that he would not pursue the White House.

But Powell did not stay away from public service for long, returning in 2001 when he became the first Black secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

“He was highly respected at home and abroad,” Bush said in a statement mourning Powell’s death. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend.”

The tributes from Democrats were perhaps made easier by Powell’s public condemnations of former President Trump .

He criticized Trump, who in turn blasted Powell over his spearheading of the Iraq War, as having “drifted away” from the Constitution by enforcing a heavy police and military crackdown on the racial justice protests during the summer of 2020. He also said Trump was responsible “for one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen” after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Robert O’Brien, who served as Trump’s national security adviser, praised Powell in a tweet, saying, “He set a standard of integrity [and] professionalism for all of us who succeeded him.”

Powell’s death drew heartfelt anecdotes, including from Vice President Harris, who said she last saw and spoke with Powell in July at a dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“I was reminded then how he always showed the world the best of who we are. He upheld the highest standards, representing our nation with dignity, grace, and strength,” Harris said in a statement. “The legacy that he leaves behind — on America’s national security and on the leaders he mentored — can be seen every day across our nation and the world.”

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