Return to Transcripts main page
Remembering Colin Powell. Aired 9-9:30a ET
Aired October 18, 2021 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: My heart breaks for General Powell's family and for the almost 750,000 other families who have suffered this kind of loss and all those who have known them.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Dr. Reiner, we thank you for being with us this morning. We're going to lean on you throughout the day. And a reminder, severe breakthrough cases of COVID are extremely rare, but expected, especially among seniors.
Our special coverage on the passing of General Colin Powell continues right now.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good Monday morning. I'm Erica Hill. We do begin with breaking news.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jim Sciutto.
The breaking new this morning, sad news, General Colin Powell, the barrier-breaking former secretary of state, as well as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during war time has died of complications from COVID-19. He was 84 years old. His family confirmed the news in a statement on Facebook saying they have lost, quote, a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and great American.
HILL: The Powell family says he was fully vaccinated. They thanked the staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment.
Powell served in multiple Republican administrations, shaping American foreign policy over the last 20 years, while also marking a number of firsts.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer honors his lifetime of service.
COLIN POWELL: I will never not be a soldier.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): Colin Powell, a soldier turned statesman, made history on many fronts. The first African-American and youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later, the first African-American secretary of state. POWELL: So I've always felt strongly that you should try to solve
conflicts in this world through negotiations, through diplomacy. Any time we can solve a problem that way and not use force and satisfy our objectives, let's push for that.
BLITZER: Powell grew up in the Bronx, New York. His parents emigrated from Jamaica. By his own admission, he was not an outstanding student.
POWELL: It's been amusing over the years to have people come up to me and say, well, General Powell, you're chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When did you go -- when did you graduate from West Point? Couldn't have gotten in.
BLITZER: He enrolled in the City College of New York. Geology was his major, but the ROTC became his passion. Powell flourished as a cadet, and after graduating, exceled as a soldier. He served two tours in Vietnam before earning a prestigious fellowship working for the office of Management and Budget during the Nixon era in 1972.
Afterwards, Powell returned to his troops, eventually becoming a general and went back to the White House in 1987 as President Reagan's national security adviser.
Then, in 1989, the general became the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military when President George H.W. Bush named him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
POWELL: Our strategy to go after this army is very, very simple. First, we're going to cut it off and then we're going to kill it.
BLITZER: Powell became a household name during the first Gulf war. His policy of overwhelming force against Iraq became known as the Powell doctrine.
POWELL: I express my sincere thanks to each and every one of you for being here to share my final day in uniform.
BLITZER: After a distinguished 35-year career, Powell retired from the Army in 1993. Ten years later, the United States would become involved in another Gulf war and Powell again played a key role.
POWELL: My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
BLITZER: Then Secretary of State Powell made a case in front of the U.N. Security Council arguing that Iraq posed a grave threat to the world because, he said, they had weapons of mass destruction.
The following month, the U.S. invasion began.
The war lasted more than eight years. No weapons of mass destruction ever turned up.
POWELL: I regret it now because the information was wrong. BLITZER: After four years as President George W. Bush's secretary of
state, Powell returned to private life. He spent his civilian years empowering youth through his projects, America's Promise Alliance and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.
POWELL: We're going to go and educate the kids who are most in need. And when I heard their stories, I said I've got to get -- this is where I belong. I'm home again.
BLITZER: General Colin Powell, a leader and a patriot, who devoted a lifetime to service.
HILL: And Wolf Blitzer joins us now.
Wolf, that lifetime dedicated to service, and what he got out of it, too, in terms of his leadership style, not just in the military, but what he brought with him to the government, and even after, that is such a key part, I think, of what people are looking at this morning.
BLITZER (via telephone): You know, it's so true, Erica, because, you know, he did devote his whole life to serving our country before he joined the military, after he was in the military, and certainly elsewhere in the U.S. government when he was secretary of state, and in the private sector ever since. You know, he just wanted to help people. And whenever I would meet with him, and we would meet occasionally, we'd have dinner once in a while, he would remind me of his roots growing up, you know, a kid who was the son of immigrants, you know, growing up in the Bronx and with not much. And he was always so appreciative of what the United States of America enabled his family to do, his country to do, and enabled, you know, him to do, and he would always say, you know, sort of like, you know, my parents would always say, only in America could something like this happen. And it was always so meaningful to me to hear that coming from someone who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a retired four-star general, someone who was later secretary of state. And, you know, it was just a true American, a true world leader who commanded such great respect. So that's why this is a really sad day for all of us who got to know him over the years.
SCIUTTO: Well, Wolf, his life, his career was a demonstration of progress, racial progress. General Mark Hertling, of course commanded forces in Iraq following the invasion, he made this note this morning, which I thought was quite telling. He said, he went from being unable to get base housing in Ft. Benning to becoming the first African- American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, of course, first African-American secretary of state. I mean that is a remarkable lifespan. He could not, because of his race, get housing at the start of his career and then went on to become -- to go to the very top.
BLITZER: And he always spoke of that. He always reminded me of that when we would talk. He would always say, you know, look at how far we've come. But then he would go on to say, we still have a long way to go. You know, we're not a perfect country yet. We're not a perfect society. We still have -- there's still racism in our country and there's still all sorts of other problems. But he would always be very proud of the achievements that he did and the inspiration that he did --
SCIUTTO: Wolf, hold your thought for a moment. This is the current defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, speaking about Powell right now.
Let's have a listen.
LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Powell family. The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed. Alma lost a great husband, and the family lost a tremendous father. And I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor. He has been my mentor for a number of years. He always made time for me. And I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel. We will certainly miss him. I feel as if I have a hole in my heart just learning of this just recently.
The first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs. First African-American secretary of state. A man who was respected around the globe and who will be, quite frankly, it is not possible to replace a Colin Powell. We will miss him.
Again, my thoughts and prayers go out to the family, and we're deeply, deeply saddened to learn of this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, guys.
All right, let's load up, guys.
SCIUTTO: Current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin there speaking about the loss, the hole in his heart, he said, following the passing of Colin Powell.
I want to go back to Wolf Blitzer.
Wolf, you -- I'm sure you heard Austin there, but you were speaking about that particular part of Powell's legacy, which is -- which is his own discussion of racial progress in the U.S. military and more broadly during his own career.
BLITZER: And he was so proud of the fact that the United States Army was really a leader in integration, and making sure that everyone who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army, you know, whatever their background, whatever their race, would have great opportunities. And look at the opportunities that he had and he took advantage of the opportunities and he rose to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And, you know, that's, obviously, at the highest, highest of levels.
But, you know, he was always talking about the Army specifically. More -- even more so than the Air Force or the Marine Corps, the Navy, it was the Army, he would always say to me, that really inspired so many young volunteers, you know, African-American volunteers to get in there because they knew they would have a great opportunity.
They knew that, you know, they would not be discriminated against. I'm sure there was some discrimination, but that there were great opportunities in that branch of the U.S. military. And he always spoke about that. And he was so proud of the fact that the Army was so special in dealing with all those issues.
And I saw it firsthand, by the way, during my years as CNN's Pentagon correspondent, you know, during the buildup, I believe, up to the -- the war, the Operation Desert Storm, the Operation Desert Shield was in the months leading up to it. And what he did really was so impressive. He, you know, he had, as I noted in the piece, the Powell doctrine, which was going to be an overwhelming force. And a lot of folks forget that in order to liberate Kuwait and Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied -- took over Kuwait and potentially could have moved in to Saudi Arabia, that was the great U.S. fear that those oil -- those oil fields in Saudi Arabia were going to come under the control of the Iraqis, he always said, you know, we're going to use overwhelming force and the U.S. and its allies deployed 540,000 troops to Saudi Arabia, six aircraft carrier, you know, battlegroups that were deployed to the Persian Gulf. And when they went in to liberate Kuwait, it was, what, six weeks, four weeks of an air war, two weeks of a ground war, Kuwait was liberated and then the U.S. got out. He always said, we have to have an exit strategy. You've got to have an overwhelming force, get it done, but then you have a -- you have to have a plan to get out. And the U.S. got out fairly quickly. And it was just part of the Colin doctrine that inspired all of that. And it was just a memory I'll never forget as a reporter who was covering it.
HILL: You know, something else we just heard from Defense Secretary Austin that stood out to me, Wolf, is, he mentioned the personal loss for him and talked about how Colin Powell, he said, always made time for me. I could go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel.
HILL: That, too, is something I feel like we're hearing, we're seeing on social media, the fact that he would make time and that he was there for so many people as a mentor, as a friend.
BLITZER: You know, Colin Powell not only made time for men and women of the U.S. military and inspired them and worked with them and helped them, mentored them and all of that. He made time for almost everyone. I mean he made time for me over the years whenever I would call him and say, you know, can we talk, can we have dinner, I just need some background, some help, he would always say, of course. And we developed, over the years, you know, a very close relationship that helped me tremendously in my journalistic career, but also helped me better explain to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world what was really going on because he had that experience, that background that could help me better appreciate the good and the bad of what was going on. And he was always very blunt, very honest, you know, would acknowledge mistakes when they were made and say we've got to learn from those mistakes and make sure we don't repeat those mistakes.
But, you know, he was just a wonderful human being. And I have to say, such a wonderful, loving family. My heart goes out to Alma, to the kids and to the whole family. And as we say, you know, I just -- you know, I just want him to rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing.
SCIUTTO: Yes. These are, of course, national losses, but they are, at the core, personal losses to his family.
Wolf Blitzer, thanks so much for sharing your own personal experience of the late Secretary of State.
And joining us now is Aaron David Miller. He advised six secretaries of state. Colin Powell the last secretary he advised.
Aaron David Miller, you saw during the obituary there that moment at the U.N. Security Council in 2003 in advance of the Iraq invasion where he made the case, right, for the invasion, the existence of WMDs in Iraq, which, of course, turned out not to be there, and then you saw him quoted later saying he regrets it because the information is wrong.
Tell us about his legacy as secretary of state.
AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST (via telephone): You know, all true, Jim. I must say, I'm deeply shocked and saddened. The fact that Colin Powell has died is -- leaves a tremendous hole. His selflessness, his courage served this country well in so many, many ways.
Funny, incredibly smart and, despite the U.N. performance, which he grew deeply to regret, he wrote in his 2012 memoir, I did not try to underplay it, that the event would earn a prominent paragraph in his obituary. I find the ironies -- a blot on his record he described it.
I find the ironies about Colin Powell here to be really quite telling. A military man who, frankly, preferred diplomacy. I remember we briefed him during the transition for three hours on the failed Camp David summit in July of 2000 and how fascinated and intrigued he was by these efforts, probing questions. He was a guy who understood the limitations of American military power when it was untethered from politically achievable objectives in Vietnam and again during the successful Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
And yet he was associated with an administration that pursued a war in Iraq, whose objectives were never clear, and whose consequences resonate negatively in many respects, Afghanistan and Iraq, to this -- to this day. And a man, Jim and Erica, of tremendous integrity, who will be forever associated with that U.N. speech, which he grew to deeply, deeply regret.
You know, last point. When I left the State Department, he was the last secretary of state for whom I worked. He told -- he gave me two pieces of advice. He said, don't ever try to come back. And I took that advice. And he was right.
But he also said it may be hard but try to avoid looking back. I rejected that advice because I felt I owed it to the country and my service to point out what we did right and what we did wrong.
And though I think Colin Powell found himself, in the years after his public service, looking back, the GOP left him. He didn't -- he didn't leave the party. And he campaigned for racial justice and for real leadership and integrity in this country. And I think he came to deeply regret his U.N. moment. I think it was deeply painful.
I -- I only worked for him for two years, but I'm going to miss him more than I can say.
HILL: We keep hearing the word integrity I think over and over as, you know, so many people who knew him well, including yourself, are reflecting on their time with him and what they saw from him.
Also his ability to connect with people in those moments, right? And there's been talk about how he would remain calm, how he was kind, how he could listen. Those leadership qualities which were so key. And even in that reflecting back, as painful as it was, to confront that head on.
MILLER: You know, it was, in some respects, his modest upbringing, his humility that gave him this power to connect. I mean I remember, I joked with former Secretary of State James Baker, took him six months to stop calling me Andy. And we laughed about it. But Colin Powell, once he connected with you, that connection endured. And that's the way I felt when I was in his presence.
One other thing, and I think he would have agreed. You know, our best leaders truly are the ones who are able to understand that the American experiment is tethered to goals broader than their own narrow ambitions and their own narcissistic impulses. Powell had an ability, like so many of our greatest leaders, to turn what I would call the "m" in me upside down so it represented a "w" in we. And that's the way I thought about him. It was deeply ingrained in the military. He was a man of service.
And, you know, I argued, my wife Lindsay and I argued of the time of that U.N. speech, why didn't Colin Powell resign? And I thought to myself, you know, only two secretaries of state in the history of the republic have ever resigned over principle, Williams Jennings Bryan, who disagreed with Wilson's policies in World War I, and Cy Vance after Carter's aborted failed rescue operation to rescue (INAUDIBLE) the Iranian hostages.
I don't think resignation was something that Powell could contemplate. I think he was simply too tethered to the notion that he had to serve. And I think in that particular instance, I think he probably still believed that he could do a better job and use his influence within the tent than outside.
Whether he came to regret that later in life, I don't know. But, again, I'm going to miss him greatly. SCIUTTO: You might say he's a man from a different time, right?
Someone who garnered the respect of Republicans and Democrats and went through his own transformation, not happy with the direction of the Republican Party. Ended up campaigning for Barack Obama for the White House.
Aaron David Miller, thanks so much for sharing your personal reflections there.
MILLER: Erica and Jim, thanks so much. Take care.
HILL: Good to have you with us.
Also with us, former ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, John Negroponte, of course was sworn in as the first director of National Intelligence. He's a long-time friend of Colin Powell.
We appreciate you being with us this morning, Mr. Ambassador.
You know, first, just on a personal level, a long-time friend of yours, many people really mourning that personal loss this morning, in addition to the fact that this is a major loss for the country.
What are -- what are your reflections this morning when it comes to your friend, Colin Powell?
JOHN NEGROPONTE, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE (via telephone): Well, first, it's a huge loss. We've lost a great American. We really have. I worked for Colin for a long time. I first met him back in the Reagan administration. I was his deputy on the National Security Council at the end of the Reagan term. He was beloved by his staff then. I've never known Colin to be other than beloved by everybody whom he touched. The National Security Council, the military, the State Department.
You should have seen -- you should have seen the line of people who wanted to say good-bye to Colin when he retired from the military. It was just incredible. Thousands of people, thousands, young enlisted men, everybody wanted to come and just be able to touch this man. That's what Colin was. He was a magnificent human being and a family man and he loved the country. He was an extraordinary soldier, too.
Shouldn't forget it, Aaron Miller said he preferred diplomacy. Yes, any smart soldier prefers diplomacy to having to go out there and risk his own or other people's lives. But he was also -- he won the Gulf war. He's the last guy we've had who could -- who achieved a decisive military victory for the united states of America, acting according to principles that he really believed in.
You remember the Powell rules about not getting into a conflict with too few troops, be prepared for what you're doing, have a clear objective, be ready to get out of there once you've won, all of those kinds of things. And, boy, was that quite an accomplishment, that Gulf war. Really, I don't know he gets enough credit for it. Oh, yes, I guess he does. I guess he does. But that was a huge accomplishment on his part.
Secretary of state? Well, he did a good job. We worked together a lot when I was at the U.N. We negotiated the inspection resolution at the United Nations, Resolution 1441. We thought we had found a pathway to possibly avoid war with Iraq by creating this enhanced inspection system. And, believe me, I may have been the one down on the floor of the Security Council shepherding this resolution through, but, believe me, he negotiated it. He had negotiated a lot of it. He was on the phone with the foreign minister of Russia, Lavrov, with the French foreign minister, Villepin. He was even walking down the aisle with his daughter when she got married and he was getting phone calls from the French foreign minister.
Colin was -- he was a phenomenon. It's shocking, his loss. It's shocking.
SCIUTTO: Ambassador, I can hear the emotion in your voice. And we appreciate you sharing your thoughts now because, of course, this is -- this is news just in the last hour and the emotions must be raw.
In your description of him and in others we've spoken to so far, I sense a certain wistfulness here, right, that here was a special man himself, but perhaps a man from a different time. I -- in terms of someone who could have the respect of all sides and the deep respect but also deep affection it seems. And I wonder, do you -- as he passes away, do you think we have his equal today?
NEGROPONTE: Oh, don't ask me. I'm sure they're -- they're out there somewhere. I've got a lot of faith in this country and I'm sure we're going to find other Colin Powells and we're going to find people who are going to help set the country right. But, you're right, he's an exceptional person and his values were impeccable. This man was brought up by two hard-working Jamaican immigrants. He grew up in the Bronx. He -- I don't know, he -- yes, everything that was good. Although he always said, and he said it in his book, that it was the Army that really gave a sense of purpose to his life and meaning. And he acted accordingly.
He should have run for president. I remember that moment. You probably do, too. He hesitated. And he was -- he was thinking about doing it, but I think family and other considerations caused him to decide not to.
And maybe that was the critical moment in his life, if you will, the crossroads. And I wonder if things might have been different if Colin had decided to actually run. I think he -- I think he would have been enormously popular and I think he would have had a good shot at winning. But, you know, that didn't happen.
SCIUTTO: He might very well have changed the course of history perhaps.
Ambassador John Negroponte, we appreciate your personal thoughts here. We send you our condolences as well because we know that this is a very personal loss for you as well.
NEGROPONTE: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to say something about a beloved man. Thank you.
SCIUTTO: Hearing that across the board.
Ahead this hour, we are going to continue to remember the remarkable career of General Colin Powell, the legacy he leaves for generations of Americans. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the news this morning, dead at the age of 84.