from The New Yorker
In 2003, when Colin Powell was Secretary of State, I invited him to the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, the annual black-tie gala where journalists bring officials as their guests to develop sources and schmooze in a noisy ballroom at the Washington Hilton. Powell was then the rock star in the Bush Administration, a group of people seen widely in Washington as aloof, inaccessible, entitled, or just boring. At pre-dinner receptions in the hotel, Powell commanded whatever room we were in. He had the authoritative bearing of a retired four-star general, but he also had an easy smile and a teasing humor, and, whatever he really thought of them, he greeted everyone with warm gentility. I had a hard time keeping pace as Powell moved among the crowds until we finally sat down for dinner. A few days later, he sent me a handwritten note with a typically humorous and fatherly tagline: “Many thanks for a lovely evening, largely because you were there.”
I’ve covered Powell since the late nineteen-eighties, when he was appointed to run the National Security Council after the disastrous arms-for-hostage affair with Iran that was brokered by his predecessors. It marked a rapid rise, especially for an African American at the time. Powell will be remembered for many things. He overcame the odds of a disadvantaged heritage and never tried to pad his credentials, as do so many in Washington. “Mine is the story of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means,” he wrote in “My American Journey,” a memoir published in 1995. He often spoke proudly of his roots: born in Harlem, the son of Jamaican parents. His father was a shipping-room foreman and his mother a seamstress. Powell acknowledged that he was, at best, a mediocre student whose life only came together after he joined the military—and realized he was good at it. If Powell hadn’t joined the Army, he once speculated, he might have ended up as a bus driver.
Powell will also be remembered for defying the rampant discrimination of his time; he was forced to use segregated bathrooms in gas stations during military training in the South, in 1957. He was a White House fellow during the Nixon Administration and later broke centuries-old racial barriers in three of America’s most powerful jobs: as national-security adviser, in the Reagan Administration; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations; and Secretary of State, in the George W. Bush Administration. Until Barack Obama took office, he was the most powerful African American in U.S. history.