Powell’s Finest Moment

What is remarkable to me about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama on Meet the Press was its sincerity and the form of its reasoning. He addressed issues, not personalities. He engaged in analysis, not demonization. After the Rove years of Goebbels-like propaganda, guilt by association, and innuendo, Powell’s appearance brought fresh air into the nation’s living rooms the way flinging the windows open in March for spring cleaning does.

The transcript is here.

Powell brings a great deal of credibility to this discussion. He gave money to the McCain campaign last year and is a lifelong Republican. Although he had a very bad experience with the Bush administration, there is no reason to think that experience would color his view of McCain (who was also badly used by Bush).

Powell presents his argument as a series of reasoned conclusions:

1. There were questions about Obama’s mettle– his experience and his judgment. What we have seen of him in this long and difficult political campaign has laid those questions to rest.

2. The two candidates’ reaction to the financial crisis tells in Obama’s favor. McCain behaved erratically and inconsistently, giving the impression that he did not know what exactly to do and perhaps that he did not even grasp the nature of the problems.

3. McCain’s choice of Palin showed a lack of judgment. She clearly is not ready to be president, which is the only real job a vice president has. Since McCain picked her, that is a demerit for his campaign.

4. In contrast, Obama “displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this”–his “intellectual vigor” indicates a “definitive way of doing business that would serve us well.” (Imagine in Rove’s America, that someone should publicly praise “intellectual vigor”!)

5. In contrast to McCain, Obama chose as his vice president a man who clearly could step easily into the presidency on the very day he was called to do so.

Powell’s analysis is issues-oriented and fact-based. How well, as a matter of character, judgment and grasp of issues, did the two candidates deal with the breaking financial crisis? And, How well did they choose their running mates?

Powell then signals his discomfort not only with what the Palin pick says about McCain’s lack of judgment but also how it positions the future of the Republican Party. That is, he reads Obama and Palin as harbingers of the future of their respective parties, since they stand for youth in each one.

Palin’s Republican Party is “becoming narrower.” He does not initially spell out what he means by this charge, but it can be inferred by his later comments and by reverse-engineering what he says about Obama. Palin’s Republican Party is rural or rurban, small-town, and ethnically homogeneous (i.e. “white”)–also, it might be said, largely Protestant. She does not bring along with her many of the youth, or ethnic America (which is heading for 51% of the population in a couple of decades), or urban populations. Rural conservative white Protestantism may be a backbone of the Republican Party, but it is not a sufficient basis for ruling a dynamic, diverse country such as the U.S.

In contrast, he says, “Mr. Obama . . . has given us a more inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations of our people. He’s crossing lines–ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines. He’s thinking about all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values. “

Powell ends with three further issues that are decisive in his conclusion. These are the implications of the Ayers theme in the McCain campaign; the issue of the Supreme Court; and the issue of Islamophobia or bigotry toward American Muslims.

The first is the decision of the McCain camp to attempt to smear Barack Obama as a close associate of Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman. This ‘guilt by association’ propaganda campaign, Powell says, makes far too much of a limited association, and distracts from a consideration of the issues about which the country is genuinely exercised.

I would suggest that one of the things that troubles Powell about the Ayers angle in the Republican campaign is that it is uncomfortably similar, and indeed, in some important ways mirrors, the 1988 Lee Atwater campaign tactic of tying Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to an African-American murderer and rapist named Willie Horton, who was let out on a prison furlough program that Dukakis had supported. The advertisement was the epitome of race-baiting in American politics, an attempt by a rightwing southern Republican strategist to characterize the whole Democratic Party as Black (and, of course, as the disreputable sort of Black), just as Nixon had painted it as pink.

Just as the Willie Horton ad linked a white ethnic liberal to black criminality, so the Ayers campaign attempts to link a Black centrist to Sixties radicalism. Anyone who knows the history of American race relations knows exactly what message McCain is trying to send about Black men when he uses the word “terrorist” and “associate” about them. It is the classical prelude to a lynching. While Powell is too statesmanlike to put it that way, I read between the lines that he sees the Ayers ads as containing a subliminal racist message.

At the very least, it is clear that Powell sees them as “demagoguery.” In Aristotelian thought, each form of government can deteriorate. The primary disease of democracy is demagoguery, in which the people are whipped up with appeals to emotion, making the public reason that must underlie healthy democracy impossible. He clearly thinks McCain has taken the low road here, and disapproves.

He points out that if McCain chose Palin for VP, that gives an indication that he has capitulated to the right wing of the Republican Party, and will likely try to please it by appointing further Antonin Scalias to the highest bench.

Finally, Powell launches into among his finest moments in a long public career, condemning the Rudi Giuliani and Mitt Romney line that appeals to anti-Muslim bigotry to garner votes for Republicans (while acknowledging that McCain is not as bad).

(See my own treatments of this issue at Salon.com: “Blowback from the GOP’s Holy War,” and also John McCain’s Arab-American Problem.”)

Here is Powell’s denunciation of anti-Muslim bigotry in this campaign:

‘ I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.’

When I complained bitterly about this anti-Muslimism last winter, I was dismissed by Marty Peretz’s New Republic as making much ado about nothing. But here is a pillar of the Republican Establishment agreeing with me that the discourse of prejudice in that party has become intolerable. (And unlike Powell, I do not exempt McCain.)

Powell does not instance, but may also have in mind issues such as the “Obsession” DVD or sort of a video Kristallnacht against American Muslims promoted by the most vicious and detestable sections of the Zionist movement (and which has a stealth anti-Obama agenda that the FEC should look into.)

Finally, Powell is among the few Washington insiders to point out in public that both Obama’s and McCain’s talking points about Iraq have been overtaken by events.

Bush has already acquiesced in a security agreement that calls for all US troops to withdraw to bases outside cities by next June, and then to be out altogether by 2011, conditions permitting. That agreement completely undercuts McCain’s hope for very long term bases, which was never realistic. The security agreement differs from Obama’s plan in only two respects, extending the presence into 2011 rather than 2010, and the ‘conditions permitting’ clause, which is anyway only common sense.

Powell said:

‘So I think whoever becomes the president, whether it’s John McCain or whether it’s Barack Obama, we’re going to see a continued drawdown. And when, you know, which day so many troops come out or what units come out, that’ll be determined by the commanders and the new president. But I think we are on a glide path to reducing our presence in Iraq over the next couple of years. Increasingly, this problem’s going to be solved by the Iraqis. They’re going to make the political decisions, their security forces are going to take over, and they’re going to have to create an environment of reconciliation where all the people can come together and make Iraq a much, much better place.’

Admittedly, the draft security agreement is running into opposition even from al-Maliki’s own Shiite coalition, but the points instanced above are not the difficulty; the relative immunity for US troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts for crimes is.

Powell made huge mistakes as Secretary of State under Bush, primarily I think because he functioned as a good soldier and even read out Scooter Libby’s stupid lies about Iraq to the UNO. Here, Powell is strong and self-assured and speaking as his own man, a refreshing return to the Powell who opposed the Gulf War unless its objectives were clear and an exit strategy was explicit.

Powell has not just endorsed a candidate. He has begun to redeem himself from his failure to resign in fall of 2003 when it became clear he had been used by the Neoconservatives. In this interview, he has exemplified the best in public political reasoning in civil life, with these remarks. He, and Obama give hope that the Rovian degeneracy can yet be overcome.

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