Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama on Sunday represented his own transformative moment in a lifelong...
WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama on Sunday represented his own transformative moment in a lifelong journey through war and politics.
It was not only an embrace of a presidential candidate from the other party but also an effort to reshape a legacy that he considers tainted by his service under President Bush.
The endorsement, which came after months of conversations between Powell and Obama on a wide range of foreign- and domestic-policy issues, made clear Powell’s dismay at the Republican Party. He said he thought the party had become too conservative under Bush, and Sen. John McCain’s campaign was not good for the country or its reputation around the word.
In that sense, his remarks further stirred the brewing debate about the nature of the post-Bush Republican Party.
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“I have some concerns about the direction that the party has taken in recent years,” Powell told Tom Brokaw on “Meet the Press” on NBC as he made his endorsement of Obama. “It has moved more to the right than I would like to see it.” In recent weeks, Powell added, “the approach of the Republican Party and Mr. McCain has become narrower and narrower.”
It will be up to the next president, Powell said, “to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.”
Watch Powell endorse Obama on “Meet The Press”
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, used the word “devastating” to describe Powell’s point-by-point critique of the McCain campaign. Powell said McCain was “unsure” about economic policy, that Sarah Palin was not qualified to be vice president, and that the campaign’s effort to tie Obama to Bill Ayers was “inappropriate.”
“This is a more important endorsement than Oprah’s,” Sabato said.
Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said Powell appeals to independents who are socially liberal, fiscally conservative and moderate on defense issues. Because they shun party labels, they are more swayed by personality, and Powell is a respected national figure. Independents make as much as 9 percent of voters in swing states.
“That is why this is a prized endorsement,” MacManus said.
But others cautioned that Obama supporters should not expect a sudden surge in the polls for Obama.
“Ask the general public who Colin Powell is, and less than half could probably tell you,” said Smith, of the University of New Hampshire Survey Research
As people in both parties debated the impact of Powell’s endorsement, many thought it may have revealed less about Obama and McCain than about Powell, who 13 years ago was himself thinking of trying to become the country’s first black president.
In saying he would vote for Obama over McCain, Powell aligned himself squarely against Bush, who has been counting on a Republican victory next month to see through his strategy in Iraq, the issue, more than any other, on which the president’s legacy will rest.
Powell’s role in selling the Iraq war, despite his frequent clashes with other members of Bush’s team, has also come to dominate his own place in history. In siding with Obama, who from the start has opposed the war, he seemed to be making a clear break with the more hawkish elements of the Republican Party and signaling an attempt to reshape how he is judged on the war.
One major factor in Powell’s decision appeared to be Obama’s careful wooing of the former secretary of state. In recent months the two have had one face-to-face meeting and some half-dozen telephone conversations, all initiated by Obama.
A friend of Powell’s said Obama sought the advice of Powell before Obama’s trip in July to Europe and the Middle East, and has also had long discussions with him on Iraq, Iran and North Korea as well as education and health-care policy. The two last spoke some two weeks ago about the worldwide economic crisis, the friend said.
In contrast, McCain met with Powell, a friend of two decades, in June, and has not spoken to him since, the friend said.
Like Obama, Powell has long represented to millions of people around the world the possibilities of the American dream. The son of immigrants from Jamaica who was born in Harlem and reared in the South Bronx, Powell became a military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1983, national-security adviser under President Reagan in 1986 and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the first President Bush during the 1991 Gulf War.
By 1995 he was flirting with the idea of running for president, and a friend said he briefly considered leaving the Republican Party to run as an independent. But his wife, Alma, said she would worry about his safety. Powell finally announced he would not run in 1996 because it was “a calling that I do not yet hear.”
Powell had a tumultuous tenure as Bush’s first-term secretary of state, when he was frequently undercut by Vice President Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, in the period before the Iraq war. Although Powell had major misgivings about the war and what he considered the inadequate number of troops, he not only agreed to the invasion but also made the administration’s case for war before the U.N. Security Council in February 2003.
Much of what he said is now known to be based on false information provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Powell has been widely criticized for the appearance, including by Obama, a fact Brokaw brought up Sunday.
In many ways, Powell’s endorsement reflected the rift between the so-called pragmatists, many of whom have come to view the Iraq war or its execution as a mistake, and the neoconservatives, a competing camp whose thinking played a pivotal role in building the case for war.
Powell, who is of the pragmatist camp and has been critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, was said by friends in recent months to be disturbed by some of the neoconservatives who have surrounded McCain as foreign-policy advisers in his presidential campaign.
The McCain campaign’s top foreign-policy aide is Randy Scheunemann, who was a foreign-policy adviser to former Sens. Trent Lott and Bob Dole and who has longtime ties to neoconservatives.
In 2002, Scheunemann was a founder of the hawkish Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and was an enthusiastic supporter of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile and Pentagon favorite, who was viewed with suspicion and distaste at the State Department during Powell’s tenure.
Although Powell had some warm words for McCain on Sunday — he said that he admired him and that he would make a good president — friends say that Powell has felt cut out by McCain’s campaign foreign-policy circle and concerned that McCain speaks too off the cuff about national security and has not taken the time to do the deeper homework required of a presidential candidate.
Powell’s endorsement was such a powerful break from his past that Brokaw asked if he anticipated a role in an Obama administration, perhaps as an ambassador-at-large to Africa or in some role in Middle East peace negotiations.
Powell, in the practiced language of an old Washington hand, replied, “I served 40 years in government and I’m not looking forward to a position or an assignment. Of course, I have always said if a president asks you to do something, you have to consider it.”