October 21, 2008 – Two and a half years ago when I first interviewed John McCain, he spoke of his love for Colin Powell. Would he be in his cabinet if he ever became president? “Oh, yeah,” he said, kind of dreamily. “He’s a transcendent individual.”
But all that ended yesterday when the celebrated four-star general, who enjoys 80per cent favourability ratings in the US electorate, crossed party lines to reject his friend of 25 years and endorse Democrat Barack Obama.
For the citizen soldier and a model African-American success story, who sold the Iraq war to the American people and the world through his now famous presentation to the UN, this endorsement is a profound personal decision. His place in history on the Iraq war haunts him.
While his friends deny he is in search of rehabilitation in the eyes of the public, it’s hard not to divorce yesterday’s decision to endorse someone whose political success has been built on his opposition to the invasion.
Asked if his decision was a repudiation of the war, Powell, 71, reverts to military type, saying he supported the decision while not explicitly saying he agrees with it. A good soldier will not defy the commander-in-chief.
“I’m well aware of the role I played,” he says. “My role has been very, very straightforward. I wanted to avoid a war. The President agreed with me. We tried to do that. We couldn’t get it through the UN and when the President made the decision, I supported that decision. And I’ve never blinked from that. I’ve never said I didn’t support a decision to go to war.
“And the war looked great until April 9 (2003), when the statue fell, everybody thought it was terrific. And it was terrific. The troops had done a great job. But then we failed to understand that the war really was not over, that a new phase of the war was beginning. And we weren’t ready for it and we didn’t respond to it well enough, and things went very, very … very, very south; very bad.”
Now, Powell finds himself at another pivotal moment two weeks out from one of the most momentous presidential elections since the foundation of the US. This lifelong Republican – he says he remains a Republican – has decided to jump ship.
“I think he is a transformational figure, he is a new generation coming on to the world stage, on to the American stage, and for that reason I’ll be voting for Senator Barack Obama,” Powell says.
Powell has served in three Republican administrations, has been the chairman of the joint chief of staffs – the highest ranking military officer in the US – and a secretary of state.
Of any endorsement, this carries great weight. In one sound bite, Powell has eliminated the lack-of-experience argument against Obama and will help many moderate and independent voters still undecided about Obama for these reasons to pull the lever for the 47-year-old Illinois senator.
All the polling indicates that Powell won’t be disappointed come November 4.
But amid what some consider could be a landslide victory for Democrats, why has this lifelong Republican chosen to help usher in what some fear will be a realignment on the electoral map in the US that cements a newDemocratic hegemony not witnessed fordecades?
With just 15 days to go in the election, it prompted some cynics to suggest Powell is endorsing Obama now since he can see which way the wind is blowing, much the same way some critics argue he did not stand up enough to the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration pushing for the Iraq war.
Well, that belies Powell’s earnest and heartfelt critique yesterday of a Republican Party he says is off course. He put his cards on the table, declaring he is disappointed by the campaign tactics of his friend McCain and in the starkest terms gave weight to many doubts among traditional conservatives regarding McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, someone who has been heartily endorsed by neo-conservatives.
“She’s a very distinguished woman and she’s to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice-president,” hesays.
“And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made.”
He says rather than move the Republican Party to the centre, McCain has, since taking the nomination, overseen a party moving further to the Right and “Governor Palin has indicated a further rightward shift”.
“I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court,” he says. “But that’s what we’d be looking at in a McCain administration.
“I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, ‘Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Muslim.’ Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.
“But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
Powell is giving voice to what will likely be a deep shake-up in the Republican coalition after November 4.
Kevin Madden, a GOP veteran and a spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, has told online newspaper Politico: “Colin Powell was a proxy for our party’s ability to persuade Democrats and independents to join a centre-right coalition of ideas built around economic conservatism and a strong national defence. The endorsement is emblematic of the challenges we face as a party when it comes to winning back these voters.”
While McCain still expresses confidence in his role as an underdog and says the polls are now tightening, the electoral map looks utterly stacked against him.
He is carrying a heavy load when a poll last week indicated more than 90 per cent of the country thinks it is on the wrong track and by default most people blame the incumbent Republican Bush administration for it. For that reason it is remarkable that McCain is within eight points or so in the national polls.
But Powell implied yesterday some of that may be due to the increasingly negative attacks on Obama’s character and he has slammed McCain for it, criticising his decision to keep raising the Illinois senator’s past association on an educational board with Bill Ayers, a 1960s radical who waged a domestic anti-war terror campaign, including bombing federal buildings.
“It’s despicable,” Powell says of that terror campaign, “and I have no truck for William Ayers. But to suggest that because Barack Obama had some contacts of a very casual nature – they sat on a educational board – over time is somehow connected to his thinking or his actions, I think, is a, a terrible stretch. It’s demagoguery.
“They’re trying to connect (Obama) to some kind of terrorist feelings and I think that’s inappropriate. Now I understand what politics is all about; I know how you can go after one another. And that’s good.
“But I think this goes too far. And I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow. It’s not what the American people are looking for. And I look at these kinds of approaches to the campaign, and they trouble me. Senator McCain says he is a washed-up old terrorist: then why does he keep talking about him?” Powell asks.
The Obama team say they were not sure what Powell was going to say right up until his bombshell endorsement. Obama was in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a handy location on the day one of the US’s most respected soldiers endorses you since it is home of the army’s Fort Bragg and the 82ndAirborne.
“I’d like to acknowledge some news we learned this morning,” Obama said. “With so many brave men and women from Fayetteville serving in our military, this is a city and a state that knows something about great soldiers. And this morning, a great soldier, a great statesman and a great American has endorsed our campaign to change America.
“I have been honoured to have the benefit of his wisdom and counsel from time to time over the last few years, but today, I am beyond honoured and deeply humbled to have the support of General Colin Powell.
“General Powell has defended this nation bravely, and he has embodied our highest ideals through his long and distinguished public service.
“He knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as one nation: young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat.”
For his part McCain has tried to brush off the news.
“Well, I’ve always admired and respected General Powell,” he says. “We’re long-time friends. This doesn’t come as a surprise. But I’m also very pleased to have the endorsement of four former secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger and Alexander Haig) and I’m proud to have the endorsement of well over 200 retired army generals and admirals. I respect and continue to respect and admire secretary Powell.”
But it will hurt and perhaps history will record this as being the final nail in the coffin for team McCain, though you can never write off McCain; he’s a gritty fighter. Still, the odds look slimmer after Powell’s imprimatur forObama.
One of the problems for Obama has been making the final pitch to undecided voters.
Says Norm Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute: “The hardest task in a presidential campaign for a non-incumbent is closing the sale. A Powell endorsement now is a huge step to close that sale, to make Obama seem even safer and more attractive as a president.”
Samuel Brannen, deputy director of the CSIS International Security Program, says Powell’s endorsement reflected a generational shift.
“(Powell) comes from one of the few professions that really understands the importance of building a next generation of leaders and of changing command when the current strategy isn’t working.
“He has judged Obama ready to be a commander-in-chief and believes there is a need to change not the party in the White House but the generation.”
Republican grandee Newt Gingrich says: “What that just did in one sound bite – and I assume that sound bite will end up in an ad- is it eliminated the experience factor. How are you going to say the former chairman of the joint chiefs, the former national security adviser, former secretary of state was taken in?”