When former Secretary of State Colin Powell learned that Tyler Perry had been cast to play him in the new Dick Cheney bio film “Vice,” he quickly reached out to the actor through their mutual friend, Quincy Jones. According to the Washington Post, the pair enjoyed a “nice conversation and even exchanged copies of their recent books.” Regarding the film production, Powell “offered his services to Mr. Perry, if he needed any or had any questions.”
For decades, Powell has sought to control and protect his public image; I know from firsthand experience. In March 2017, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom I had never met, emailed me after having read an op-ed I wrote for The Hill. The article, which noted that I was writing a biography of the general, identified lessons that H.R. McMaster, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s then new national security adviser, could learn from Powell’s 40 years of government experience.
While the article was largely positive about Powell’s performance as a public servant, it also criticized him for not cultivating a closer relationship with President George W. Bush and for failing to exercise sufficient independent judgment regarding the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. These criticisms, and not the substantive compliments, had prompted Powell to contact me.
In a 500-word email, Powell offered a sharp self-defense and he characterized my criticisms as hard hitting, naive and amusing. “Please don’t lecture me,” he wrote, “that I failed the president and country.” Several months later, he invited me into his Virginia home for an extended interview.
I suspect that Powell is largely satisfied with Tyler Perry’s portrayal of him in “Vice,” which opened on Christmas Day. The film accurately depicts the secretary of State arguing against a precipitous war with Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Instead, Powell persuaded Bush to wage a focused military campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Powell’s 2001 blocking of war hawks such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was one of his more significant policy victories.
Less accurate in “Vice,” but probably pleasing to Powell, is the suggestion that he opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion. In the film, Powell is depicted as resisting the proposal that he, as the Cabinet member most trusted by the American people, should deliver a televised speech at the United Nations Security Council to justify a war with Iraq. “I have been very vocal, very vocal about my reservations about invading Iraq,” actor Perry exclaims in the movie. “We are talking about invading a sovereign nation without any provocation. It’s a sovereign nation, Don. What’s the exit strategy? What’s the intelligence? You break it, you bought. You break it, you bought it.”
In reality, Powell did not oppose the war with Iraq. He did object to an impulsive, premature rush to war without congressional authorization or a new U.N. Security Council resolution, but that is not equivalent to opposing the war. Within the Bush administration, Powell later clarified in an interview with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, “The dissent was over the pace at which to approach the problem and how to take it to the international community.”
Powell is not featured often in “Vice,” but his infamous 2003 U.N. speech eventually takes center stage. And for all his desire to guard his image and reputation, the general has unhappily accepted that he forever will be associated with that fallacious U.N. address. The speech, after all, assured the world that Iraq presented a “clear and present danger” because it possessed vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and cultivated a “sinister nexus” with al Qaeda. Neither, of course, was true.
In his 2012 memoir, “It Worked For Me,” Powell laments about the U.N. address: “I am asked about it or read about it almost every day. Feb. 5, 2003, the day of the speech, is burned into my memory as my own birthday. The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary.” As it should, because even obituaries of admirable public leaders should never veer into hagiography.
Jeffrey J. Matthews is a professor of leadership and American history at the University of Puget Sound and the author of “Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot”(University of Notre Dame).