Near the beginning of MTV’s Be Heard: A Global Discussion With Colin Powell, a beaming Norwegian girl asked the secretary of state how he felt about representing a country perceived as the Satan of world politics. Powell leaned back slightly in his dark suit (his military bearing a bit softer than usual) and replied that he rejected her premise. He explained how the U.S. has fought for freedom all over the globe, how after World War II, it didn‘t claim Japan or Germany but helped those countries build themselves back up. “The only land we ever asked for,” he purred, “was enough land to bury our dead.”
Boy, is that man good. And as he cruised through tougher-than-usual questions about AIDS and Israel, al Qaeda and condoms (he freaked out America’s nitwit right by endorsing their use), I could only admire his fabled steadiness. Before September 11th, Powell‘s cautious multilateralism had made him something of a wallflower in a Bush administration notorious for a foreign policy about as delicate as a Pamplona bull run. Time put him on the cover with the headline, “Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?” Even after we began bombing Afghanistan, most public attention went not to the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but to rootin’-tootin‘ Donald Rumsfeld.
But Powell has a knack for outlasting flashier or more bellicose colleagues. He did so after the Gulf War, when people suddenly grasped that Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf was actually a glory-hogging gasbag. And he‘s doing so now. As Rummy’s cowboy outfit begins to fray -- revealing Dr. Strangelove, not John Wayne -- Powell‘s charismatic calm once again has come to the forefront. He still doesn’t fit comfortably into the administration‘s right-wing agenda, nor does he get to make the big foreign-policy decisions (though he surely deserves some credit for America’s measured response to the terror attacks). But faced with a world increasingly skeptical about the War on Terror, he‘s become the Bush team’s best and most plausible mouthpiece -- not least because he‘s black.
Watching Powell offer the world’s teenagers an embodiment of the Bush administration far more sensible and humane than the real one, I remembered covering the ‘88 and ’92 Democratic conventions when Jesse Jackson was trotted out to articulate the dreams and aspirations of a party that was about to betray them. As Jesse spoke, the crowd would whoop and weep and applaud -- he had the Omni swooning -- and then once the euphoria had died down, the convention would go about its business of nominating bloodless Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton. For Jackson‘s power lived and died with his words. The party wanted his passion and biblical cadenzas, not him. (Curiously, Jackson’s Paleo-Con counterpart is also black: Alan Keyes‘ manic vim, loony smile and eyelash-batting flirtatiousness make him the most entertaining presidential hopeful in decades. If the Christian right had forgotten about color and voted its heart, he might well have been the Republican nominee. As it is, Keyes now merely leaps into the mosh pit of his talk show on MSNBC.)
Although black eloquence clearly appeals to white America, it carries far less clout than its visibility might lead you to think. Aside from Martin Luther King, who turned the streets into his power base, the African-Americans who’ve gained national power are those skillful at working behind the scenes: Condoleezza Rice, the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown or silky presidential confidant (and corporate-board denizen) Vernon Jordan, whose career puts a sly spin on the term “invisible man.” Like them, Powell is a superb bureaucratic operator -- he thrived in both military and civilian organizations -- and has mastered addressing the public in a cool TV style. Not for him the rolling biblical sentences of Dr. King or Barbara Jordan; not for him the grinning snake-oil patter of Al Sharpton or J.C. Watts. No, with his quiet stolidness and enormous head, Powell has a gift for being reassuring. This, as much as his obvious intelligence, has taken him to the highest public office ever reached by an African-American. He‘s trusted by the country -- you don’t think he‘ll blow up the world to prevent the “axis of evil” from doing it -- and by a Republican administration to whom he’s proven as loyal a company man as Tiger Woods.
A classic bootstrapper, Powell exudes competence, decency, discretion. And he provides racial cover for an administration not exactly hailed for caring about people of color, inside or outside our borders. Can you picture Dick Cheney trying to convince MTV viewers in Cairo or the Bronx that the U.S. government has their interest at heart?
Conservatives often accuse African-Americans of playing the race card, but there are plenty of cards in that deck, and they‘re available to white people, too. One favorite trick is to use prominent black figures as a way of suggesting that the system is working. Such thinking was present in the post--Rodney King hiring of Willie Williams and Bernard Parks. It was there during my years teaching at Georgetown University, when looming basketball coach John Thompson and his five black starters provided camouflage for an expensive, nearly all-white Catholic university in a District of Columbia that was 70 percent African-American.