Democratic Underground

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.


View All Articles