You don't hear much about Colin Powell these days. A man who until
recently was featured routinely in the daily news and once courted
by both political parties as Presidential timber now passes his
time quietly in private life. Like an inactive volcano he is still
there, quiet but respected for the power he could wield if he
Karen DeYoung, a senior editor and foreign policy reporter at the
Washington Post, examines Powell's life in fascinating
detail in this book. She does her best to get inside his head and
explain some of the puzzling aspects of his personality. When you
turn her final page, you know an awful lot about Colin Powell as a
person and about his career path, but whether you truly understand
what makes the man tick is hard to say. In important respects he
remains an enormously respected enigma.
DeYoung covers the early stages of Powell's military career in
workmanlike detail, but inevitably her main focus, dominating the
last half of her 523-page text, details his four-year tenure as
George W. Bush's Secretary of State and his involvement in the
run-up to the Iraq war.
The obvious questions abound: What was his attitude toward the Iraq
venture? Did he try to derail it? Why did he not resign when his
counsel was ignored? Why did he reject the idea of running for
President himself? Is he in any sense blameworthy for the
unfortunate turn of events in Iraq? If he is not, who is?
DeYoung's portrait of Powell, buttressed by an impressive amount of
research, shows us a man trained in the military virtue of loyalty,
not by nature an activist firebrand, convinced that persuasion and
diplomacy must be tried before guns are fired, utterly repelled by
down-and-dirty politics --- and caught in the middle of fierce
ideological brawls without the means or temperament to make his own
views prevail. Her account of the "catfights" among Bush's advisers
is not pretty. Powell himself, unwillingly caught up in the
crossfire, comes across as noble yet often ineffectual.
DeYoung's book amplifies some of the points made in Powell's own
1995 memoir, MY AMERICAN JOURNEY --- but back then the big question
was simply, "Is Colin Powell a Democrat or a Republican?" Powell
himself then seemed unsure and craftily did not answer the question
in his book. Eventually he decided he was "about 55% a Republican"
--- but when in 1996 the pressure on him to run for President
demanded an answer, Powell and writer Joseph Persico actually
drafted two speeches, one saying "yes," the other "no" and
virtually up to the last minute Powell was not certain which one he
would give, comparing his vacillations to the back-and-forth of a
windshield wiper. One factor in his decision not to run was his
wife's revulsion at the idea. Another was his genuine liking for
President Clinton. A third was the idea that not since McClellan
ran against Lincoln had a general run against his
When Bush asked him to become Secretary of State in 2000, Powell
knew he was ready for the job, but he soon found himself taking
heavy fire from the cabal of hard-right conservatives who seemed to
be directing Bush's thinking and cutting Powell out of the
decision-making process. The two main villains, in DeYoung's view,
were Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld. Cheney pushed hard for the Iraq campaign while Powell
warned the President about its cost and evident dangers; Rumsfeld
lobbied for a smaller, more mobile and high-tech army against
Powell's famous doctrine of "overwhelming force."
DeYoung describes a virtual war to the death between Powell's State
Department and Rumsfeld's Defense Department for control of the
Iraq campaign. It was a struggle that State largely lost, but
Powell, ever the loyalist even to a President about whom he had
grave reservations, stayed on and kept battling.
When Bush was re-elected, Powell was ready to quit but never raised
the issue himself. The axe fell via a phone call, not from Bush but
from his Chief of Staff: Bush "wanted to make a change." Powell,
diplomat to the end, made no public fuss. When he went to the Oval
Office for his farewell visit, he felt that Bush did not know why
he was there.
Karen DeYoung has done about as good a job as anyone could of
explaining Colin Powell to the public. The Powell volcano is still
quiet. If DeYoung is right, it will doubtless never erupt again. He
has vowed never to write a tell-all book, but DeYoung has tried to
do that for him.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011