Future generations will look forward to Colin Powell as a role model

Colin L. Powell, the visionary soldier-diplomat who ascended from humble origins to become the first Black secretary of state, was recalled on Friday by family and friends as a principled man of humility and grace whose storied record of leadership can serve as an example for future generations.

“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 service at Washington National Cathedral. “It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that.”

The burial, which took place on a beautiful but cool day, drew dignitaries and friends from many walks of life, including politicians and military personnel. Former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, former secretaries of state James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were among those there.

Bill Clinton, who is suffering from a terrible sickness, and Donald Trump, who publicly chastised Powell after his death for being critical of the former president, did not attend.

Powell, who was 84 years old when he died, died of COVID-19 complications on October 18th. His immune system had been impaired by multiple myeloma, a blood malignancy for which he had been receiving treatment, according to his family. He had been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Attendees at the funeral on Friday were required to wear masks. Not all of them did.

As guests gathered in the cavernous cathedral that has hosted the funerals of several past presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. Army Brass Quintet played a range of tunes, including “Dancing Queen” by Abba, a favorite of Powell’s.

Richard Armitage, who functioned as the State Department’s No. 2 official during Powell’s tenure as secretary of state during the Bush administration, recalled the day Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, paid Powell a visit and presented him with a complete CD set of the group’s music, knowing of Powell’s fondness for Abba.

“Colin immediately went down on one knee and sang the entire ‘Mamma Mia’ to a very amused foreign minister of Sweden and to a gob-smacked U.S. delegation. They’d never seen anything like it,” said Armitage, who described a 40-year friendship with Powell that began while both served in the Pentagon.

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.

“This morning my heart aches,” she added, “because we’ve lost a friend and our nation one of its finest and most loyal soldiers. Yet even as we contemplate the magnitude of our loss, we can almost hear a familiar voice asking us — no, commanding us — to stop feeling sad, to turn our gaze once again from the past to the future and to get on with the nation’s business while making the most of our own days on Earth, one step at a time.”

During her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Albright sometimes clashed with Powell, although they became good friends. Both have recalled the time, during his final months as Joint Chiefs chairman, when she argued for a U.S. military intervention in the Balkans, asking why the United States had built a superb military if it couldn’t be used in such circumstances. Powell recalled being so irritated by her statement, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”

Powell’s view was that the United States 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 U.S. failure in Vietnam.

The story of Powell’s rise to prominence in American life is a classic.

In his autobiography, “My American Journey,” Powell recalled a 1940s childhood in the Hunts Point section of New York City’s South Bronx, where he was a mediocre student — happy-go-lucky but aimless.

He caught the military bug during his first year at the City College of New York in 1954. Powell was inspired by seeing fellow students in uniform, and he enrolled in the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.

“I felt distinctive” in uniform, he wrote.

Although he was only 4 when the United States entered World War II, he had vivid memories of the war years. “I deployed legions of lead soldiers and directed battles on the living room rug,” he wrote — a fantasy forerunner of his Army years.

Powell would spend a total of 35 years in the military. He served across the world after being commissioned in 1958, including two deployments in Vietnam in the 1960s.

He made his mark in the Pentagon even before achieving flag officer level. He began his career at the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the late 1970s and became the senior military aide to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in 1983 as a brigadier general. He eventually became President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and was appointed to four-star general in 1989. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush appointed him as the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s first African-American chairman.

His pioneering American dream trip earned him international fame and trust.

He jeopardized that credibility in February 2003, when he presented the case for war against Iraq at the United Nations as Secretary of State. When it became clear that the information he relied on was flawed and the Iraq War devolved into a deadly, chaotic nightmare, Powell’s enviable image suffered a setback.

Nonetheless, it was not destroyed. After leaving office, he established himself as a worldwide elder statesman and founded an organization dedicated to assisting young underprivileged Americans. Republicans desired his presidential candidacy. After losing faith in his party, he ended up backing the last three Democratic presidential candidates, who enthusiastically accepted his endorsement.

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