High Plains Grifter
April 12, 2001
by Corey A. Tyler
We're seeing a lot of Colin Powell these days. If the Bush
administration continues its scorched earth policy toward
international relations, chances are we'll be seeing even
more of him. Disappointingly, these appearances wont help
us learn any more about the man who is supposedly one of the
ten most admired persons in America, or even explain the reasons
behind that admiration. More likely, they'll add a few more
ghost written pages to his acclaim, for reasons no one is
really sure of.
Just a few years ago, the universe aligned itself in one of those strange,
intense patterns that happens once a decade, where the seat of the world
most powerful throne is dusted off and some fortunate soul is begged by
fate to take a load off. Colin Powell, best supporting actor in the microwaveable
mini-drama that was the Persian Gulf war, could have been President if
he wanted too, or so it was argued. But Powell, heading the concerns for
his safety coming from his wife Alma, hit the much safer guest speaker
circuit; snatching princely sums of cash from companies looking to inject
a little hero-worship into their staff in the hope that the war hero's
pearls of wisdom would replace those pesky work place critters of lethargy
and disengagement with military style precision.
If it worked or not is anyone guess. The economy did skyrocket during
his tour of talk-duty, and if he wanted to, I'm sure he could make a case
that it was the story of his up-by-the-bootstraps upbringing and his determination
to turn life-lemons into lemonade that lead directly to the increase in
worker productivity over the last eight years. I'm sure some people would
even believe it.
He won't of course. If there's one thing that can be said with certainty
about Powell is that he's simply not as steeped in conservative dogma
to feel it even necessary to take credit away from Bill Clinton and pass
it to Alan Greenspan or a to Republican congress or to any other cardboard
cutout the right would like to thank for our recently departed good times.
However, where he stands on just about anything else is anyone's guess.
Here is where the flag of praise for Powell -- flown by a sizeable portion
of every discernable demographic -- begins to unravel. Does anyone know
exactly where the former general stands on say, gun control? Mandatory
sentencing for juvenile offenders? Drug Policy? Only one person knows
for sure, and that's Powell himself. Seeing what this intense Secretary
for Complete Lack of Social Consciousness has done for his pocketbook
and his family (his son was made FCC Chairman having only the scantiest
qualifications), you begin to see why.
It is in ambiguity that Powell has turned himself into a hero to some,
a millionaire several times over, and a household name. Since riding to
fame on the heels of America's victory in the Gulf War he hasn't looked
back. Actually he has looked back -- once -- to craft a military doctrine
christened under his name and marked not for its breathtaking wisdom but
for its remarkable (surprise!) ambiguity. The Powell doctrine states in
Cliff Note clarity that America should only go to war if it knows what
it's doing and can do it.
Why an approach to combat rooted more in common sense and less in battle
tested foresight is applauded as unfettered brilliance is best left to
his admirers to answer. Coming from the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,
one would expect something a bit more incisive in its vision. But don't
expect a revised edition of the doctrine anytime soon. He is the current
undisputed champion of public appeasement -- surpassing our former President
for this most damning of honors by a yard; seamlessly portraying the grizzled
general before an audience of veterans and the mild mannered man of letters
before a group of commencing graduates.
This casual shape shifting notwithstanding, he has sailed through the
usual grilling given to public figures accused of being all things to
all people; something said through clenched teeth most recently of Al
Gore. In escaping such scrutiny, he's become the type of spotless, error
free politico the right lusts for, drafting him into their fold to use
his by-default prestige to further their harmful agenda. What may hurt
those outside of his inner circle to know is that, as far as this blatant
tokenism goes, Powell's more than happy to be in on the gig.
This brings attention to yet another largely unexamined element of Powell
regard. At what point does the appreciation for Powell's accomplishments
-- and even Powell himself -- become racially divisive? Do African Americans
see Powell as someone who stands firm in defense of their needs and desires
in the face of resistance -- often from his side of the political fence?
Do white Republicans believe that by swearing love for all things Colin
that they are absolved for supporting a party whose policies have negatively
impacted the well being of Americans of color?
Powell, it seems, couldn't care less who likes him or doesn't like him
or even why. So long as they're all there to listen to him roll off those
inspiring generalities at the company conference.
The spin that followed his refusal to run for President suggested Powell's
lack of desire to muddle himself in the process. Politics was just too
dirty, too cutthroat a business for Powell it was said. His reaction was
portrayed as that of a statesman, turning up his forthright nose to all
the lewd, petty and belittling aspects of running for public office. Add
to that the warning chorus that came from his cultural kinfolk (and most
certainly his wife Alma) that a black man begging America to make him
President was a black man begging to be shot.
In truth however, the risk for Powell and his family was not so much
the concern that his life may be in danger during say, a primary in South
Carolina, but that a run for President might deal a fatal blow to his
livelihood. Such an endeavor would demand that the former General speak
out with depth and clarity on those fissures in our nations cultural fault
line: Abortion, Gun Control, Affirmative Action and so on (chastising
delegates at the Republican National Convention last year doesn't count).
Perhaps by running, we would have been allowed a real glimpse into the
heart and head of a man of whom so little is really known. Until that
moment, the options for regarding Powell will stay at blind, unreasoned
hero worship or glib ambivalence. If, as is so often said, we can only
judge others by their behavior, than Powell's actions, or lack thereof
(absent a check), are not those of an inspiration or of a hero. They are
the actions of a political grifter.