Colin Powell: A man of integrity wrongly used by George W. Bush

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, died at 84 of COVID-19 complications, after serving with great honor in a variety of public capacities.

To his regret and that of his countrymen, he likely will be remembered as the man who made the case for the invasion of Iraq before the United Nations Security Council, on the false premise that ruler Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction poised attack the West. They never were found.

Powell acted on the flawed assurance of President George W. Bush, who told the nation those weapons existed, but offered only artist’s sketches of the WMDs, as they were then popularly known. Powell subsequently confessed his regret for what he labeled “a blot on my record” that remains a singular exception from a proud history of public service.

Bush, often nicknamed “Dubya” by foe and friend alike, had a flippant way of speaking, and perhaps unintentionally administered that blot which Powell characteristically accepted. In any event, it was a most unfortunate episode that on reflection dishonored Bush much more than it did Powell.

Upon Powell’s death, Bush said he and other presidents had relied on “his counsel and experience” without reference to that incident. He noted that Powell had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black person to hold that office, called him “one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed.” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah called Powell “a statesman and trailblazer, dedicated to America and the cause of liberty.”

As for George W. Bush, the son of the late President George H.W. Bush, seems destined now to be remembered as the architect of a distinctively un-American act of aggression against another foreign power. Ironically, he has surfaced again in recent days in what could be seen as an attempt to polish his own reputation in the Republican Party.

He recently endorsed Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, daughter of his old running mate. Not long ago, she was ousted from the GOP House leadership for her outspoken criticism of Donald Trump, and Bush now appears to be joining her in opposing Trump.

Former presidents traditionally have taken to the sidelines in presidential politics. In this instance, the junior Bush seems desirous of associating himself with Republicans who now believe Trump is poison to the Grand Old Party, to the Constitution and to the rule of law.

In that sense, Bush may be seeking redemption in his party for his major mistake of invading Iraq and justifying it on false pretenses.

Trump’s current assault on the American electoral system now strikes at the heart of this system. It challenges the legitimacy of the vote in key states as well as the result in the Electoral College, where a simple majority determines the election of the president.

In 2020, the Electoral College clearly validated the election of Democrat Joe Biden, who won the popular vote by 7 million ballots. But Trump called on his vice president, Mike Pence, presiding over the counting of electoral votes, to declare him the winner and so certify. To his credit, Pence declined, earning himself the open wrath of the man who four years earlier had placed him a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Such are early signs that Trump’s grip on the party may be diminishing. Nevertheless, no credible Republican of stature or promise has yet emerged to replace him. Another revered old Republican, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, once told Congress: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” No doubt some in his party now, however silently, are beginning to hope that Trump does the same.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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