Thursday, December 30, 2010

25 Years: Reflection no. 3 on my quarter century as a columnist

The following column appeared in USA TODAY on April 29, 2004.

By DeWayne Wickham

I've always liked Colin Powell. Very soon, I will like him even more.

I liked Powell the day we first met on Aug. 17, 1989, shortly after then-president George H.W. Bush nominated him to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and, as the group's president, I introduced him that day.

In his speech, Powell made it very clear that he owed his success to the service and sacrifices of many unsung blacks. His "appointment would not be possible without the sacrifices of those black soldiers who served this great nation in war for over 200 years," he said.

I liked Powell even more in 1992, when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he interceded to get me on a military charter flight to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was a critic of the first Bush administration's policy of seizing Haitian refugees in international waters and interning them on the U.S. naval base in Cuba to keep them from reaching American soil.

While Powell surely knew I would not paint a rosy picture of what I'd find in Guantanamo Bay -- and I didn't -- he nonetheless got a reluctant military bureaucracy to allow me to make the trip. In doing so, he was probably mindful of his NABJ convention speech three years earlier, when he spoke of the special responsibility black journalists have.

"There's a dream in this land with its back against the wall," Powell had said, paraphrasing a Langston Hughes poem, "to save the dream for one, it must be saved for all."

My fondness for Powell turned to worry in 1995, when he came under a blistering attack from right-wing Republicans determined to keep him from becoming the GOP's presidential nominee.

"Colin Powell has the political convictions of Bill Clinton and the loyalty to the Republican Party of John Warner," said Michael Farris, one of a band of right-wingers who massed in Washington in November of that year to lob verbal shots at Powell from the safety of a National Press Club podium.

A few days later, Powell announced that he had decided against seeking the Republican nomination. I had mixed emotions. Powell would forgo the chance to become this nation's first black president, but he also would avoid being the standard-bearer of the party of Newt Gingrich.

My affection for Powell grew in 1996, when he gave a commencement address at Bowie State University. The speech made him sound like a Republican cut from the cloth that produced former Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke, a liberal and the first black senator since Reconstruction, and not from the gunnysack that bore Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a right-wing conservative.

In that address, Powell made a spirited defense of affirmative action.

"We must resist misguided government efforts that seek to shut it all down, efforts such as the California Civil Rights Initiative, which poses as an equal opportunity initiative, but which puts at risk every outreach program" he said. "It sets back the gains made by women, and puts the brakes on expanding opportunities for people who are in need."

And then on Dec. 16, 2000, when President-elect George W. Bush nominated him to become this nation's first black secretary of State, my warm feelings for Powell helped simmer the rage that boiled within me over the outcome of that election.

Like President Truman's secretary of State, George Marshall, Powell gave new meaning to the term citizen-soldier. In the short span of 11 years, Powell went from being the nation's top military officer to its top diplomat. Though the election of 2000 didn't give me the president I wanted, it gave me -- and the nation -- a secretary of State who, I thought, would rise above the ideological bog in which so many petty politicians dwell.

But during the past four years, Powell has struggled to meet the challenge of my expectations.

His failure to attend the international conference against racism in South Africa and the role he played in the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected president, have disappointed many blacks in this country. His mealy-mouthed defense of affirmative action, while Bush was using his bully pulpit to try to end it, exposed a frailty that Powell had not displayed earlier.

I like Colin Powell the soldier and statesman, but I have no fondness for Colin Powell the politician. That's why I rejoice at the news that he is leaving the Bush administration. Now, I think, I'll come to like him a lot more.

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