If we could unlock the puzzle of Colin Powell, maybe we could understand why the US cracked up. Gen Powell was the best America had to offer. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants in the South Bronx who became a hero in Vietnam and then the first African-American secretary of state. He was smart and charismatic, with an easy laugh and a Corvette Stingray. At Washington parties, even ones where Jack Nicholson dropped in, people gravitated toward Powell. He could even speak a little Yiddish, from his teenage stint as "a schlepper" at a baby furniture and toy store owned by immigrant Jews and as a Shabbos goy in the neighbourhood. He could have been president. Excitement swirled around him when he published his memoir, My American Journey, on the cusp of the 1996 race. But like another son of immigrants, Mario Cuomo, Powell shrank from a run at the last minute. It always struck me that Cuomo and Powell seemed to overanalyse whether they were worthy, while the waspy sons of privilege, such as George W Bush and Dan Quayle, just assumed they were worthy, no matter how little they knew.
Back in 1995 I wrote a column about the needlepoint-pillow rules that Powell laid out in his memoir. It is sad to read them now because he broke so many of them when he drove his tank off the cliff known as Iraq. Such as Rule No 7: "You can't make someone else's choices. You shouldn't let someone else make yours."
Rule No 1 was: "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning." But there will be no morning from here to eternity when the decision to invade Iraq will look better. Powell even failed to follow the Powell doctrine, which shunned attenuated wars in which our national security interests were not at stake. The Shakespearean tragedy of Powell is that he knew it was a rotten decision. And, unlike the draft dodgers in the Bush White House, he knew the real cost of war. He knew they weren't playing with toy soldiers.
But Powell embodied the phrase "soldiering on". He did not resign in protest, which might have stiffened the spines of Joe Biden, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, who all voted to authorise the war out of political expediency. He let Dick Cheney goad him into making the phony case for war at the United Nations; Cheney mocked Powell, asking if he was afraid to jeopardise his soaring popularity ratings, treating him like a flower child. And somehow, Powell naively thought that he and his pal George Tenet could scrub his speech of all the deceptions shoehorned in by Cheney's co-conspirators.
Powell folded, and hundreds of thousands, and counting, died
The demonic Cheney and the war-loving neocons in his posse – the ones in the Pentagon were ridiculed by Powell as a “Gestapo office” – needed an unimpeachable frontman. Once they began leeching Powell’s integrity, there was no way that they weren’t going to drain him dry.
The great man got played, turning sap for a vice-president he didn't even care for. He never trusted Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld's unhealthy "fever" about deserting Afghanistan to go after Saddam. Diplomats referred to Iraq as "The House of Broken Toys". But in the end, it was the US that was broken. I was stunned when Mary McGrory, the liberal lioness of the Washington Post, wrote that Powell "persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince". She explained that she was "clinging tightly to the toga of Colin Powell" because no one commanded such respect.
Powell later admitted it was wrong to denounce Saddam’s “web of lies” when the Bush administration was spinning its own web of half-truths and fantasies. But you can’t wipe that slate clean. The consequences were too severe. We’re still living in a world warped by the fakery of W and Cheney. We’re still shattered because W and Condi Rice ignored that intelligence report titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in US”. W was too busy mountain biking to pay attention.
If our leaders could trick us into the Iraq misadventure, how could we trust government again? And when government is not trusted, it creates fertile ground for charlatans. Donald Trump fed off – and is still feeding off – those severed ties of trust between Americans and their government. A substantial chunk of the public believes Trump's lies and conspiracies. And most of those craven House Republicans are still so frightened of Trump's power, as he ramps up for another run, that they refused to stand up for their own institution and hold Steve Bannon in contempt.
Powell is a cautionary tale for another reason. He was supposed to be the "grown-up in the room", a counterweight to W's callowness. It didn't work. Powell folded, and hundreds of thousands, and counting, died. The GOP returned to the same concept with Trump and Jim Mattis, and it also failed. And it certainly wouldn't work if Trump were re-elected. Emboldened, he'd surround himself with a full squad of Mark Meadows clones. Powell should have paid more attention to his Rule No 8: "Check small things." When UN officials covered up a tapestry of Picasso's anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, before his speech, Powell should have checked that small thing. The discordance of the secretary of state selling the bombing of Iraq in front of the shrouded image of shrieking and mutilated women, men, children, bulls and horses spoke volumes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times