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Remembering former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has died at 84


...With the news this morning that former Secretary of State Colin Powell has died at the age of 84. He was a son of immigrants from Jamaica. He grew up in a working-class family in the South Bronx. And he later went on to be one of the most powerful and respected people in the country. Powell was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of state. Powell's family said that he died of complications from COVID-19, though he was fully vaccinated.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea joins us with more. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: You know, Colin Powell did not travel the usual routes to the position he held. Tell us about his early life and how he made his way to becoming a four-star general.

GONYEA: He is such a fascinating figure, including in the path he took. He was never a frontline activist in the American civil rights movement - never. But his legacy at every turn is one of breaking barriers. He worked through institutions - through the military, in politics, through philanthropy, always seeking to create opportunities for those who would then follow him.

Here's a quote I'd like to play. It's from 1994. This is Colin Powell speaking to the graduating class at the historically Black Howard University.


COLIN POWELL: I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the Black men and women who have served the nation in uniform.

GONYEA: So he was always aware that he was, you know, standing on others' shoulders.


GONYEA: He used that phrase a lot. Again, how routine was it? He went to Morris High School in the Bronx - class of '54. Then he went to City University of New York. It was there that he discovered the military, though. He joined the reserve officer training program - ROTC. Eventually, he served two tours in Vietnam. He learned many, many, many lessons from the American experience in Vietnam. And he then rose through the ranks to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

DETROW: He was a national security adviser during the Reagan administration. He had moments of triumph as he broke barriers and rose through those ranks, most notably leading the successful first Gulf War. But, Don, he had moments of controversy and admitted failures. Powell helped make the case for the 2003 Iraq War with that dramatic speech at the U.N. about weapons of mass destruction that were not there. It was based on faulty intelligence. And over the years, Powell conceded later that that would likely be a key fact in his obituary. And it is.

GONYEA: Here we are. It is a moment that I think tormented him.


GONYEA: We need to say - he was far more skeptical of going into Iraq than others in the Bush administration, especially Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, and Vice President Dick Cheney. But it was Powell's credibility that prompted George W. Bush, the president, to send Powell to the United Nations and make that dramatic presentation with photos and evidence of what turned out to be all of the flawed evidence for Iraq's weapons program. Again, he was clear later in life that he regretted it. He called that intelligence wrong and deliberately misleading. But it was a very, very difficult moment to him, I'm sure, till the end of his days.

DETROW: With repercussions that lasted decades - but I want to talk about one more moment in Powell's professional life. He broke with the Republican Party in 2008 at the end of the Bush administration. He endorsed Barack Obama for president and sent a powerful message while doing so. Remind us about that moment in politics and what Powell was signaling.

GONYEA: Again, Colin Powell was a Republican, albeit, you know, a more moderate Republican than where the party was already going then. And there were a lot of questions. Will he endorse Barack Obama, or will he support his friend, another man he admired a great deal, Senator John McCain, you know, a Vietnam prisoner of war and all that? He endorsed Barack Obama. He saw it as a truly, truly important moment. And there was a moment about, you know, people who just distrusted Obama. There was talk - oh, maybe he's a secret Muslim...


GONYEA: ...And this and that. Colin Powell had a simple answer. So what if he is? And it was really a powerful moment. Of course, Barack Obama is not a Muslim. But that was a telling moment about Colin Powell, I think.

DETROW: Taking a stand against the politics of fear and otherism that unfortunately continued to grow in the years since then - Don Gonyea, national political correspondent, bringing us the news that Colin Powell, former secretary of state, has died at the age of 84. Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.