Colin Powell

November 19th, 2008

As I commented earlier, I was disappointed by the choices we had for president this year, as I have been in some earlier elections.  The greatest disappointment is that it seems many of the best among our citizens don’t run for president.  I don’t know what it is–maybe the indignity of the process, the cost to families, or the nature of the job.  It’s interesting, though, to think about great Americans who could be, or could have been, great presidents.  The first I always think of is Colin Powell.

I worked for General Powell for about six months in 1986, when he was the Commander, V Corps (pronounced “Fifth Corps” for my non-military friends) in Frankfurt, Germany. He was a lieutenant general then (three stars).

I was in charge of one of the V Corps staff sections, and I worked directly with him, in one setting or another, almost every day. I was also in his home many times on social occasions, and I got to know his wife, Alma. I wasn’t any closer to him than the other five or six principal staff colonels, and I doubt that he remembers me specifically, given the many thousands of people who worked for him over the years. But I remember him well.

V Corps consisted of about 60,000 soldiers, including an armored division, a mechanized infantry division, an armored cavalry regiment, and numerous smaller units. Commanding a corps is one of the most sought-after and rewarding assignments for an Army officer, and General Powell loved it and was very good at it.

Caspar Weinberger, then Secretary of Defense, called General Powell a couple of times and asked him to leave V Corps to return to the White House. General Powell declined, wanting to stay in his command. Then President Reagan called him and made the same request, and of course General Powell immediately agreed to do what the President asked.

Along with a small group of five or six other officers, I had lunch with General Powell after President Reagan called him. There was no question that the President’s request moved him, and there was also no question that leaving V Corps was very hard for him. It was obvious to all of us. It was a serious loss for us but a tremendous gain for the President and the country, as the coming years would prove.

In 30 years in the Army, I knew and worked with generals and admirals of all the services. They were almost all remarkable people, and I often wish the country could somehow know more about them so that their contributions could be fully appreciated. Of those officers, there was a mere handful that I actually held in awe. General Powell was foremost among them.

I’m sure everyone understands that he’s a great leader and extremely intelligent. What may not be so obvious are the other characteristics, the combination of things that makes him so unusual. Decency, honesty, fairness, respect for every person regardless of rank or position, and sincere concern for the welfare of others. And of course he’s charismatic, but in his case the charisma is quiet and understated.

I never saw General Powell yell at anyone or berate a subordinate for a mistake, and I made my share. But if you displeased him or disappointed him, you knew it, and no more needed to be said. Everyone had tremendous respect for him, and as a result no one wanted to fail him.

In my opinion, Colin Powell is the best man our country could have as President. At this point there’s little chance that he’ll ever become a candidate, but if he does, I’ll be among the first to volunteer to help him. I’d do anything I could, even if that meant just licking envelopes or even cleaning up after the horse that pulls his carriage.

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