Colin Powell's last words

It’s Alma Powell. She was with me the whole time. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Last July, while he was battling multiple myeloma cancer and dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Colin Powell, former secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff did something he’d done many times in the past.

He got on the phone for a nice long chat with journalist and author Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sakes! I’m [84] years old,” Powell told Woodward according to a partial transcript, which Woodward shared in the wake of Powell’s death Monday, reportedly as a result of Covid-19.

His days were often filled with tests and treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Powell said, but he was making the best of the situation: “I drive up in my Corvette, get out of the Corvette and go into the hospital. … I don’t advertise it but most of my friends know it.”

There’s a lot to say about Powell, and a lot of people saying it yesterday and today. (I wrote for Inc.com about his 13 Rules for Leaders, which originated in an article in Parade magazine back in 1989, and have become a staple of PowerPoint presentations ever since.)

Powell was one of the most popular and respected American statesmen—until 2003 at least, when he went to the United Nations in his role as secretary of state and argued the case for the invasion of Iraq.

It was almost all wrong, but if it matters, I think Powell did actually believe what he was saying at the time. (At least that’s what I conclude having studied this and worked on Woodward’s 2006 book State of Denial.)

It was a significant “blot” on his record, Powell conceded in later years.

Still, the man was much more than that: first Black person to be a four-star general in command of troops, first to be the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and first to be secretary of state—and married to his wife, Alma Powell, for more than 58 years.

He first became a real household name as a result of being chairman during the Persian Gulf War. As The Washington Post put it yesterday:

It was Powell — tall, robust, dressed in his desert fatigues — who captivated the cameras when he went to visit U.S. troops massing in Saudi Arabia …

It was Powell, with easel-mounted maps and a masterful style he had learned in military briefing school, who went on television most days to explain what was happening and what it all meant.

Perhaps most intriguing for me, it was also Powell who sat down for “about 50” interviews with Woodward dating back to 1989.

Just think about that for a minute. I have to be careful here because I still honor the confidences I had working for Woodward 15 years ago, but just going from things out there in the public record: That would mean about 35 hours of interviews over the years (assuming the 42-minute interview he and Woodward did this summer was typical).

Imagine some of your closest friends, your coworkers, your family. If you added it all up, have you talked with them for 35 hours in total over the years?

Even if so, how much of that time was spent asking them open-ended questions, and trying to get them to tell you what they believe, what they remember, and what they think?

Woodward did it of course because Powell never left Washington, and remained a “player” in government even when he was no longer in power.

But what a gift, now, to have that archive of what he was thinking at so many different points in history. Among the highlights Woodward shared Monday from the July interview:

Powell on North Korea:

“North Korea doesn’t bother me. Let the little jerk [Kim Jong Un] have his parades and whatnot. He’ll never try to attack us because he knows it would be assisted suicide.”

Powell on President Biden and Afghanistan:

“I thought we had to get out of there eventually. [We] can’t beat these guys. Well, let’s get it over with. Afghanistan, you’re never going to win. Afghans are going to win.” (Note: this interview was in July; the withdrawal was completed in August TK.)

Powell on the concept of truth, after Woodward described a student of his who asked in class: “What does the truth accomplish?”

“This is scary. You just scared the hell out of me if this is what our kids are saying and thinking. Where are they getting it from? Media? … Trump refuses to acknowledge that he wasn’t reelected. He has people who go along with him on that.”

And, I’ll give you one more because it’s the kind of thing I think we’d all like to be both in a position to say, and to actually say if we were asked:

Woodward: “Who was the greatest man, woman or person you have ever known? Not . . . a leader, not necessarily, but the inner person … the moral compass, the sense of propriety, the sense of the truth…”

Powell: “It’s Alma Powell. She was with me the whole time. We’ve been married 58 years. And she put up with a lot. She took care of the kids when I was, you know, running around. And she was always there for me and she’d tell me, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ She was usually right.”

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