Colin Powell staged a historic gesture Sunday morning by crossing party lines and unreservedly endorsing Barack Obama, denouncing the smear tactics of the McCain campaign as “over the top” and calling boldly for a “generational change” in American politics. Powell also went where no American politician — not even Obama himself — has dared this season, on the accusations that the Democratic candidate is a Muslim by simply asking, “So what if he is?”
Powell’s words on the subject bear repeating: “The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
No question, this is Powell’s finest moment, and he has offered us one of the most dramatic and highest-toned moments in these final days of the campaign.
I’m not quite ready to grant Powell redemption, something way above my pay grade, anyway. But I’d vigorously shake his hand if given the chance.
Powell still has much to answer for to this country and to history itself. As secretary of state to George W. Bush, Powell served as “the closer” on the invasion of Iraq. The man who could have been president himself if he had so desired, the most admired of American military and diplomatic leaders, put all of his personal prestige on the line when he went before the U.N. and made the final argument for the war in Iraq.
He knew better. His most trusted analysts, his closest deputies, his most trusted staff all knew that W’s plans for Iraq were ill-conceived and probably ill-motivated. He scoured, sifted and weighed all the “evidence” he was to present before the U.N. and, previously, he had within the closed administration debates tried to act as a rational, moderate counterweight to his unhinged rivals, then–Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, and the veritable overlord of the war, Dick Cheney.
Powell, for reasons we will never fully understand, went ahead anyway. And, lo, his word was good enough. The war soon commenced. But the be-medaled former general who had overseen the first Gulf War, who had been head of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, soon had his regrets. He didn’t say much publicly — to his discredit. He was more than happy, however, to divorce himself from the second Bush administration. And we know now, in painful detail — thanks to Bob Woodward’s latest book, The War Within — that when called to a closed session before the Iraq Study Group, Powell spent 90 heated minutes unloading on the White House for the fiasco in Iraq. In public, however, he remained almost mute, as thousands of Americans and Iraqis continued to die.
Does Powell’s endorsement of Obamas cancel all this out? We report, you decide.
What I do know, to a moral certitude, is that Powell has definitively canceled John McCain’s ticket. And this time his slowness to act, his delay in coming out publicly for Obama was exquisitely timed — wittingly or otherwise. With barely two weeks to go before Election Day, and facing a mounting Democratic tsunami, the McCain-Palin strategy had come down to a rather transparent pincer movement with two thrusts aimed at Obama. As journalist Josh Marshall put it: “Stripped down to its components, McCain’s message to voters is this: ‘Don’t forget. He’s definitely black. And he may be a terrorist.’” I would probably reverse the order of that statement, but the basic idea stands.
How else to explain the nefarious nationwide robo-call assault launched directly by the McCain campaign, in which voters were told: “I’m calling for John McCain and the RNC, because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge’s home and killed Americans.” The message went on to assert that, if elected, “Democrats will enact an extreme leftist agenda.” An unrepentant McCain followed up that sleaze over the weekend in his own voice, sternly warning in a nationwide radio address that Obama would bring “socialist” policies to America. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin has been deployed to unabashedly rally the tin-foil-hat fringe of the GOP, the “real Americans” who have no hesitation to show up before the cameras with stuffed monkey dolls wearing Obama hats.
The so-called Powell Doctrine, shaped by Colin Powell during the first Gulf War can be summarized as “the exercise of overwhelming force.” That’s exactly what we saw deployed Sunday during Powell’s endorsement on Meet the Press. Talk about shock and awe. Powell didn’t come in light or half-cocked, like Rumsfeld in Iraq. He methodically marshaled all of his forces. He prepared a sweeping critique of his own party and of its presidential candidates, which included the issues of the economy, war and peace, diplomacy, America’s image in the world, religious and racial tolerance, the composition of the Supreme Court, and the need for transformational and generational change, and he dropped the whole load smack on McCain’s head.