The Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight

Four of the five living former presidents paid tribute to Gen. Colin PowellColin PowellDefense & National Security — Biden marks Veterans Day Biden marks Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery Overnight Defense & National Security — Washington gathers for Colin Powell's funeral MORE within hours of his death on Monday.

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE was the sole exception. 

By late Monday afternoon, there was still no mention at all from Trump of the man who had become the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of State.

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The omission was hardly a surprise. Trump’s rage at anyone who declines to pay obeisance to him is well known. Just last year, Powell had accused Trump of being a habitual liar who was straining the Constitution.

Many Republicans did offer tribute to Powell, who died from complications of COVID-19 aged 84. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (R-Ky.) said the nation had “lost a trailblazing leader” whose life represented “a quintessentially American story.”

But that quintessentially American story belonged to a man who was estranged from today’s GOP. 

Nine months ago, following the Trump-inspired riot at the U.S. Capitol, Powell said that he could “no longer call myself a fellow Republican.” He castigated not just Trump but his enablers within the party.

A quarter-century before, the Republican Party’s nomination had been Powell’s for the taking — if he wanted it.

Part of Powell’s appeal at the time lay in his swashbuckling role in the first Gulf War, which had speedily evicted Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But Powell was also popular because of his life’s trajectory. 

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Born to Jamaican immigrants in Harlem, Powell was raised in the South Bronx. A mediocre student by his own account, Powell had found purpose and meaning first in the ROTC and, in due course, the Army. He served two combat tours of Vietnam and later became the youngest Army general of his generation.

Once retired, he wrote a best-selling memoir, published in 1995. Fans clamored to speak with him at his public appearances. He posed a potentially lethal threat to incumbent President Clinton as Clinton eyed a second term.

Powell decided against running for the White House the following year, in part because his wife, Alma Powell, was implacably opposed. But he nailed his colors to the Republican mast, saying he would dedicate himself to shaping the party.

“I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln,” he said. A contemporaneous New York Times report saw in those words “a clear reference to the issues of race, opportunity and social welfare that had him at odds with ranking conservative Republican ideologues.”

But in time the ideologues — and the nativists who would find their most belligerent champion in Trump — would win. 

For Powell, back then, the Republican Party could be the natural political home of working-class strivers, regardless of whether they were immigrants like his parents or native-born Americans.

The party’s appeal, as Powell saw it, lay in the promise that hard work and solid values would pay off — and that government would not stand in your way, regardless of your social class, race or country of origin.

“The Republican Party must always be the party of inclusion,” Powell told the GOP’s 1996 national convention. “The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious to us as a Mayflower descendant; the descendant of a slave or of a struggling miner in Appalachia must be as welcome — and must find as much appeal — in our party as in any other party or any other American might.”

He didn’t claim Mexico was sending rapists across the border.

Turning to race in that 1996 speech, Powell added, “Where discrimination still exists or where the scars of past discrimination still contaminate and disfigure the present, we must not close our eyes to it, declare a level playing field and hope it will go away by itself. It did not in the past. It will not in the future.”

He didn’t talk about “shithole countries” or suggest of protesters that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Powell would not break with the Republican Party for more than a decade. He spoke again at the 2000 GOP convention, and he was the first Cabinet appointee of then-President-elect George W. Bush in the weeks after that year’s contested election.

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Eight years beyond that, Powell would see the writing on the wall. He endorsed then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPolitics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats MORE (D-Ill.) over the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential election. 

Powell liked McCain personally. But he was appalled by Islamophobic whispers and slurs from within his own party that suggested Obama was secretly Muslim. To Powell, the young senator was “a transformational figure.”

Powell talked regularly with Obama during the 44th president’s term and endorsed him again in 2012. 

But Powell was also becoming a more marginal figure by then, with little influence in the party that had once courted him so avidly. In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, he said he would vote for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Ohio Senate candidate slams JD Vance over previous Trump comments Budowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion MORE. No one was shocked.

In one important way, perhaps, Powell paved the way for Trump. His February 2003 speech to the United Nations was pivotal in making the case for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. It was also wrong in its assertions about Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. 

The war that followed is widely viewed as one of the biggest foreign policy catastrophes since Vietnam.

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Powell came to rue the speech, talking about it as a “blot” on his record. He was, too, outmaneuvered within the Bush White House by vigorous advocates of war, notably former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

But Powell’s public backing of a disastrous war helped distrust of the Washington "establishment" bloom. Trump, in due course, would take advantage.

When Powell criticized Trump last year, the then-president shot back that the general was “a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.”

Powell died a decorated hero. The flag above the White House flew at half-staff in his honor Monday.

But in the war for his party’s soul, he ended up on the losing side.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.