• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

General Right

My American Journey

by Colin Powell, by Joseph E. Persico
Random House, 643 pp., $25.95

It would be hard to think of a more propitious year for a bright young black man of ambition, cheerful manner, and light complexion to join the United States Army than 1958. The segregation of the races within the Army had ended with a stroke of Harry Truman’s pen a decade earlier; the US military was embarked upon an era of almost permanent expansion to fight the cold war, creating a vast institutional appetite for officers. The United States Army was traditionally white at the top, and white with a southern accent at that, but the battles of the 1950s and 1960s over race in civilian life—the integration of public education in the South, the assault on Jim Crow legislation relegating blacks to the “back of the bus” in every walk of life, the struggle for voting rights—encouraged equal opportunity in the military, the one field of American life in which the executive branch of government could do the right thing without paying an immediate price at the polls. It is clear in retrospect that Colin Powell at twenty-one, a son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in the Bronx and a 1958 graduate of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the City College of New York, enjoyed something very like the favor of the Gods as he departed for his first assignment, as a platoon commander with the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany.

It is no story of struggle against oppression that Powell tells in My American Journey. There were some stinging moments at hamburger restaurants around southern military bases before passage of the civil rights acts of 1965, some long stretches of southern highway between rest stops where a black man could pee, some prideful bile silently swallowed when an insensitive white commander early in his career said, “Powell, you’re the best black lieutenant I’ve ever known.” It was Thank you, suh, the angry Powell was thinking, but what he said was, “Thank you, sir.”

Powell may have been a military man, but he was singularly noncombative when it came to race: he did not consider it his problem when the people he met responded first or only to the color of his skin. He wasn’t going to agonize over their problem. In Powell’s long and interesting book, surely among the two or three very best campaign autobiographies published in two hundred years of American presidential politics, there are many reflections on the subject of race but few suggestions that it ever got in Powell’s way as he rose through the ranks, and none that it opened doors or speeded his passage, that he was the fair child, so to speak, of affirmative action. The Gods’ favor appears to have amounted to this: Powell was black in a time and place when superiors were modestly cautious not to be detected in an act of prejudice. Powell has refused to join Republican rivals in denouncing affirmative action, saying it helped him at times, but most of the credit for his extraordinary rise to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the first black, the first graduate of ROTC, the youngest man (at fifty-two) to fill the post—must be ascribed to native ability and a run of the sort of luck in timing which has traditionally marked some men for destiny.

The entire American political establishment now awaits Powell’s decision whether to declare himself a candidate for the presidency not because he was America’s top soldier, not because he has got a political machine or big political money looming at his rear, and certainly not because he is black. What sets Powell apart is the fact that virtually the entire country knows him and likes him. Most men who aspire to be President of the United States spend a lifetime in shoving and elbowing, getting to be known and liked, after a fashion; but Powell did it during the seven months of preparation and countdown ending in the extraordinary American military victory over Iraq in 1990 and 1991—more precisely, during the twenty-seven days of air war and four days and four hours of ground war which proved that the American military could sweep the board, if properly led. There is nothing like a war to rivet the national attention, and Powell’s war was on television twenty-four hours a day. The fact that he was black was an interesting irrelevancy.

The political attention focused on Powell as I write at the beginning of October is not all PR. Random House, his publisher, is serious about earning back the amazing $6 million paid as an advance on his book, but the Time and Newsweek cover stories, the television and radio interviews, the mushrooming of “Powell for President” committees, the sale of one, two, and three thousand books in a single afternoon all point to a genuine political phenomenon. Powell has given many speeches of uplift (at fees ranging up to $60,000 a clip), but otherwise he has lain low in the two years since he retired from the Army early in the Clinton administration. He has, so far as we know, courted no string-pullers or money-raisers in the Republican establishment, where it seems increasingly clear he is finding his home, and he has been careful to keep his political beliefs to himself until sharing a few of them at last with Barbara Walters. The other men running for President in 1996 are hoarse from beating the hustings while Powell has tinkered with old Volvos, labored on his book, spent time with his wife, Alma, and their children and grandchildren, and quietly pondered his place in the political firmament, if any.

His rivals would love to be able to get away with this slow and statesmanlike progress on the road to power, so reminiscent of the anointing of Warren Gamaliel Harding, but know all too well what George Orwell used to call the “big public” will quit listening the minute they stop talking. Powell has promised to declare his intentions in the weeks before Thanksgiving, after concluding his twenty-six-city book tour in Norfolk, Virginia, on October 20. In his book he suggests that neither political party “fits me comfortably in its present state” and further hints that “the time may be at hand for a major third party.” This is persiflage, not even camouflage. The real decision facing Powell is whether to enter the Republican primaries. Powell’s main Republican rivals could not hide their intentions for five minutes. In Powell’s case the question is genuinely open; he might go for it, and he might not.

In trying to decide what Powell will do, what sort of race he might run, and what sort of President he might make, the most important single body of evidence is probably to be found in My American Journey. The man revealed in the book is an attractive person, full of optimism, sober in his sense of responsibility, slow to take offense, quick with thanks and praise, always trying to do his best. But the book has been written “with Joseph E. Persico,” a biographer of the CIA’s William Casey, the news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, and New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Persico is a fine writer with a gift for crisp simplicity and he knows plenty about what is expected in the persona of a public man. What Powell brings to the book, and what Persico has done with it, cannot easily be parsed. Still, it is Powell’s story, he has told some important parts of it to others in very similar terms,1 and this is the book he has chosen to speak for him.

He describes it as “the story of a black kid of no early promise” who rose by pluck and luck to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a latter-day version of the classic American story, and that is what we get.

Humble” is an appropriate word for Powell’s beginnings. His mother and father both worked for modest wages in New York’s garment district, and Powell grew up in a mixed neighborhood of the Bronx known as “Banana Kelly” (for the long curve of Kelly Street) until his father hit the numbers for $10,000 and bought a house in Queens. Along with black slaves brought from Africa to cut Jamaican sugar cane Powell’s ancestors include an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scot, a Jew, and (probably) an Arawak Indian. In Powell’s crowd as a teenager being black was nothing special and the doors at CCNY were equally wide. There, conscious the draft would get him eventually anyway, he joined the ROTC program and a fraternity called the Pershing Rifles.

Powell has an explanation for why he fell instantly in love with the military. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved,” he writes. It reminded him of the embrace of the Episcopal Church, the other of the twin pillars of his life. It was a growing love of soldiering in the ROTC that kept Powell in college, not his nominal course of study—at first engineering, then geology. For the first time in his life he excelled. The Army took him seriously, gave him a chance, rewarded his effort. As a platoon leader in Germany Powell had the job of stopping a Russian attack through the Fulda Gap. “Why would the Russians be coming? I did not know; the answer was above my pay grade.” This was the classic soldier’s view. The reason was whatever the reason was and that was good enough for him.

Powell’s military career lasted thirty-five years. The measure of success in the military life is not so much rank as time in grade. There is no bending the rule of “up or out”; when an officer has been twice passed over he must resign. Achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel is pretty much assured to an officer who does not pass out at the general’s Christmas party. The rank of colonel is the plateau where all but a few careers halt, but the attrition continues just as fiercely for those who cross the great divide to brigadier general. Ability has something to do with it, but so do luck and politics. One hard-nosed commander in a pissy mood can mean the end of the road. So can too many jobs working for civilians in Washington.

Powell seems to have done everything just right—picked a wife who could handle the dislocations of military life, spent two tours and earned a Purple Heart (for a poisoned bamboo spike through the foot) in Vietnam, succeeded in advanced study (an MBA at Georgetown; Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth; the National War College), and was awarded a White House Fellowship, giving him the chance to make all-important friends. He became, at forty-two, the youngest general in the Army, and finally got on the ladder of ever more important national security jobs in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

  1. 1

    See especially The Commanders by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 1991) and Colin Powell: Soldier-Statesman–Statesman-Soldier by Howard Means (Fine, 1992). Powell cooperated with both projects.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print