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Former Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State General Colin Powell Dies at 84 of COVID Complications. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired October 18, 2021 - 08:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: He served two tours in Vietnam before earning a prestigious fellowship working for the Office of Management and Budget during the Nixon 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.
COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: 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 educate the kids who are most in need. And when I heard their stories, I said this is where I belong. I'm home again.
BLITZER: General Colin Powell, a leader and a patriot, who devoted a lifetime to service.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And a trailblazer. I'm joined now by retired General Mark Hertling. General, I appreciate you being with us. You knew Colin Powell. Tell me about the man.
LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, John, what I have to say, Wolf's piece just now was very heart-wrenching. He was a terrific soldier, a phenomenal leader. And what I'll tell you is, I was a young major when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and our unit was tagged before Christmas to go to Desert Storm, a surprise that was announced, by the way, on CNN by General Powell and Secretary Cheney at the time.
And all the spouses would tell you that they trusted General Powell. We went off to war and give his briefings as the chairman and tell what was going on, he was very succinct. He understood a soldier's course. He knew what we were going through. He knew the strategy that was involved in Operation Desert Storm. And we trusted him certainly as fellow soldiers, but the families trusted him just as much. And they relied on what he said in that first war that was broadcast over CNN.
But beyond that, he was also the commander of Fifth Corps in Europe when the Cold War was still going on. He was commander of Forces Command in the United States, which is all the forces in the U.S. army that are stationed in the United States. This guy rose through the ranks, and as Wolf said in his piece, an African American, against all odds, a non-West Point graduate who rose to the very top of his profession because he was such a great student of military history, but also someone who understood the government more than most.
BERMAN: Of that generation that served in Vietnam and whose Vietnam experience no doubt colored the rest of his military career and how we thought about things, and as you point out, not only did he command in Europe, but he was chair of the joint Chiefs during the involvement in Panama, and then Desert Storm and Desert Shield which were key transformative moments after Vietnam for the U.S. military.
HERTLING: You bring up a great point, John. I came in at the end of the Vietnam War. I was at West Point when we stopped sending soldiers there, so I never served in Vietnam. But I know General Powell's generation, folks like him Donn Starry, Dennis Rhymer (ph), I could go on, Julius Becton -- I could go on and on of the general officers who cut their teeth in Vietnam and realized what they had to do to rebuild the army. And they did so in a period of time in the 80s and early 90s, and it was shown, their efforts were shown during Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm.
These were the individuals that really looked at how to modernize an army, change the doctrine, change the training, change the personnel. It was just phenomenal. And certainly he was a guy that experienced, I'm going to go back to the racial discrimination. In his book, his autobiography, he talks about reporting as a new lieutenant to Fort Benning, Georgia, where they couldn't get housing on post because he was an African American. The Army has transpired and transformed through those years into the great organization it is today.
And, as Wolf also said, he developed the Powell doctrine, which we should really relook today, which says don't go into a war unless you have overwhelming force, number one, and number two, you have an exit strategy, you know how you're going to get out. We've seemed to have ignored those over the last several decades.
BERMAN: General Powell also a man who had the ear of several presidents, from Ronald Reagan as national security adviser, from George H. W. Bush, when he was chair of the Joint Chiefs, still for Bill Clinton as chair of the Joint Chiefs overseeing for a period of time the don't ask, don't tell transformation, and then as secretary of state for George W. Bush. So influence other decades of American leadership.
HERTLING: Yes. John, what won't be mentioned a lot is he was a White House fellow. So as a younger officer, it's a program that very few get to go to. He was pulled into the White House, and I think worked at Office of Management and Budget, and he learned several lessons that he taught my generation. When you come to the Pentagon, or when you deal with the other services or with congress, you have to influence them with their language. I remember him telling me one time, he said you have to make -- you have to learn to describe your problems in a way that others can understand that are not in the Army. Don't make your problems -- think that your problems and your charges are the biggest things that are going to affect Congress. You have to talk to them in their voice to help influence them to help you solve some of your challenges.
That's the kind of mentor he was. I remember one time working with General Franks, Freddy Franks, and we were called up to General Powell's office, this was when the war in Kosovo and Albania was going on. And General Franks was asked by General Powell to lay out some maps and tell him what are the problems with going into Bosnia at the time. And General Franks and I were crawling around the floor of his office. He gave me a coin afterwards, but this is the kind of guy he was. He wanted the details of Europe. He wanted the details of the world.
And he was an individual who listened very closely to his subordinates. He mentored General Freddy Franks, but he also dealt with the very mercurial characteristics of a guy like General Schwarzkopf. Powell was just a great leader. He pulled different kinds of people together. And by the way, during Desert Storm, he was one of the individuals who pulled a coalition together. Many people forget that there were Jordanians and Egyptians fighting on the same battlefield we were when we invaded into Iraq to try and reestablish the boundaries of Kuwait. That's the kind of individual both military and political that he was, a perfect pick for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. BERMAN: And also a fairly unique figure in American history. There
aren't many people for whom there is a genuine movement to get that person to run for president and then have that person refuse to do so. So after retired as from the Joint Chiefs, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1993, for the 1996 election there were all kinds of people who wanted him to run for president, really run for president, and they urged and urged and urged him to run. But he didn't do it. And then again in 2000 they urged him to run, and he didn't do it. That's a heck of a thing to have people tell you they want you to run and say no.
HERTLING: It's because he saw the office of the president as being one of politics primarily. Certainly, looking forward to the country as a statesman, and he was a true not only a great military leader, but I would almost put him in the category of being a terrific political statesman because he understood the dynamics of government. But I don't think he wanted, and I know his wife Alma certainly did want him to run for president. They knew the headaches that were involved, that he could potentially serve in other ways. He was tagged, as you said earlier, to be the secretary of state under the second Bush administration, where, truthfully he faltered, giving the intelligence to the U.N. And he's told so many people this, that that was the worst moment of his career, the biggest mistake of his career.
But then he recovered afterwards and gave back to the country through his dynamic youth organizations, where he pulled people together to create a leadership opportunity for the next generation. He didn't think he was right to be president. He wanted to be a statesman and help our country, but he didn't feel he could enter the political arena, probably because he saw the caustic nature that was occurring at the time.
BERMAN: He was a leader no matter what job title he held. General Mark Hertling, I certainly appreciate your insight, and we're sorry for the someone who served as a mentor.
HERTLING: It's horrible for our country, John. Thank you.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I want to go ahead and bring in our Wolf blitzer who is on the phone with us now. Wolf, we just watched your very touching story about the life of Colin Powell, and I also am just wondering how are you reflecting on this? You became a household name covering the Gulf War. He became a household name overseeing Operation Desert Storm.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: It's so bad, Brianna, because I did cover him for so many years, and I got to know him. I got to know him well. We spent a lot of time together over these years, various wars, but also non-wars, because what he was doing after he left office was really so incredibly important. And I got to see that up close. My earliest remembrance was in 1990-91. I was CNN's Pentagon
correspondent during Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And he was just always available to help us reporters at the Pentagon better appreciate what was going on, the enormity of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, what that meant, and how the United States was going to liberate Kuwait.
And it took months, September, October, November, December. Finally in January the war began. By then by the end of February, it was over, Kuwait had been liberated. And I remember his words when that war started in January, 1991. He said first we're going to cut it off, then we're going to kill it. And he was just so powerful, so smart, and such a wonderful human being. I'm sure, like so many other journalists who covered him, I'm very sad to hear the news that's now passed away, and my deepest, deepest condolences to his loving family and his friends. And as we say, may he rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing.
KEILAR: His contributions as a trailblazer, Wolf, are going from, as we just heard from General Hertling, unable to get housing on post at Fort Benning because he was black to being the first black secretary of state, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is someone who cleared the road for so many behind him.
BLITZER: He certainly did. And he was so, so strong in asserting that role that he obviously had as a leader and as someone who could really make a difference in the U.S. military. And he was so proud of the U.S. army. He was a product of the U.S. army, was so inspirational and so forthcoming in removing those barriers to minorities and African Americans, Hispanics, and others.
And you could really get ahead in the U.S. army, whether you were white or black or whatever, and he showed that. And so many other generals now can thank, African American generals in particular, can thank Colin Powell for the leadership he showed. Lloyd Austin, who is now the secretary of defense, African American, it was Colin Powell who worked to create that opportunity. And I remember personally eye- witnessing it all the time, how he did it, how he commanded respect in his leadership as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then as secretary of state, for that matter. But he was just a wonderful, wonderful human being, and I think all of us are going to miss him tremendously. It's so sad that he has now passed away. And I see the headline on CNN, on the screen, "General Colin Powell dies at 84 of COVID complications." It's just such a sad, tragic moment.
KEILAR: I think we know the number of how many Americans have died from coronavirus, and his family pointing out that he was fully vaccinated, but he died due to complications from COVID-19. I think, Wolf, it really punctuates the cost of coronavirus to this country, right?
KEILAR: So many people, and here we see someone with such a legacy, one of all these people who we've lost. BLITZER: And the military plays such an incredibly important role in
our lives in protecting our country and securing all of us. And the young men and women who risk their lives, who volunteer, no draft anymore, they just volunteer to go serve in the U.S., as you personally know, Brianna, from your own family.
And they look to leadership like Colin -- like General Colin Powell to inspire them, and I'm sure he played such a -- just by being where he was and saying what he was saying, doing what he was doing. I think he inspired so many young men and women to enlist and volunteer, to serve our nation, and to the rest of their own lives, to get the job done to secure us.
And that always came through to me when I was watching him, and especially, I would go out with him to various U.S. military bases around the U.S. and indeed, around the world and he would always make a point of wanting to speak to the young troops, and answer their questions and get them involved and hear his story.
And it was such a powerful story. It's such a wonderful opportunity can get these people inspired to do what they had to do. And, you know, look, the war in Iraq, the first Gulf War, then the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan. You know, all of that, you know, we're so sad in many respects because so many young men and women were killed and so many young Americans came home without limbs and are suffering to this day from posttraumatic stress and shock.
And, you know, he did what he certainly thought was the right thing at the time. He acknowledged later as you heard that there were no weapons of mass -- serious weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that was an Intelligence blunder that the U.S. had, and he admitted, he acknowledged that, and he moved on from that to try to make sure that we learned from those mistakes so that we don't repeat them down the road.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I think that's part -- I think that's part of leadership, Wolf, where, you know, he did make a mistake, he will forever be remembered for that moment before the U.N., but also the way that he handled that later, admitting that he had made a mistake, and also how he evolved even politically as well.
This was someone who would, you know, speak out when they felt that it was necessary on what he thought was very important to the country. He did that as well, even recently, when it came to politics.
BLITZER: Right. And, you know, he made it clear that, yes, you know, he was a Republican, but he was certainly not going to support, you know, Donald Trump when he was running for President or his bid for re-election. He was very, very patriotic in that sense. He was going to do what he felt was really right for the country.
You know, in the past several months. You know, I didn't know -- I've invited him on my show, I'm sure you have as well, many times, but he was, you know, reluctant to come on, for whatever reason. But I think now we're beginning to appreciate, he may have been suffering for some health related issues in recent months and that may have may have been, you know, a factor, and then the COVID complications, obviously were the end result of all of that.
It's just a sad story. And as I look back, Brianna, on all of the interviews I did on CNN with General Powell and I always called him General Powell, even though he was Secretary of State. For me as the former Pentagon correspondent who covered him when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was always General Powell, he knew that and we spoke about it.
And he was very proud of the fact that he was a United States General -- retired U.S. General. He was also proud of the fact that he was a former Secretary of State, but I always referred to him as General Powell, not Mr. Secretary, because that's where I got to know him.
And it's just heartbreaking to see that he has passed away because, you know, like so many, not just journalists, but Americans, we're going to miss him tremendously.
He was just an inspiration, a powerful figure, and just a wonderful guy. He loved joking around. He loved having fun. We spoke about, you know, growing -- you know, he was growing up in the Bronx and you know, it was just -- it was just a wonderful opportunity that I had as a journalist, I was grateful to be a journalist to be able to cover someone like him.
KEILAR: Well, thank you so much. We really appreciate you lending your voice to this today, as this country says goodbye to General Colin Powell, as you are someone who covered him so closely. Thank you.
BLITZER: Thank you.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We're joined now by Jamie Gangel who covered a number of presidential administrations. And Jamie, as we noted, Colin Powell -- General Powell was somebody who had the ear of several different Presidents and someone who can truly be considered and really, almost in his own category, a true statesman, to whom so many around the country looked up to.
I remember being in the room when he endorsed George W. Bush for President when he was then Governor of Texas and there was no question who had the greater stature at that point. Everyone in the room was looking -- I'm sure George W. Bush would say the same thing -- was looking up to Colin Powell in that room.
JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, John, it's interesting that you say that because my first memory of Colin Powell is when he was working in the Reagan administration, and he came in to work on the National Security staff.
He was very young in his career then. But even then, he was larger than life. He really had a presence, a charisma about him that was true even at the beginning of his career.
I just want to say that I just heard from his longtime Chief of Staff, Peggy Cifrino who just sent me a note that said that they are all heartbroken, understandably. This is also, John -- Colin Powell is one of those people in Washington who touched to your point, he served in so many administrations, he touched so many lives.
And my phone is just, you know, being inundated with texts of people from the Pentagon, from the State Department, former White House people, former Central Intelligence Agency officials who worked with him over the years, and are just absolutely in shock over this.
The last time I interviewed General Powell, and like Wolf, even though he was Secretary of State, I also always called him, General Powell, and I interviewed him a couple of years ago because we were preparing a documentary about former President George H.W. Bush.
And I am just looking back at that interview, and he was talking about the days leading up to Desert Storm. And he said to me, "I don't like war, and if we can avoid war, we avoid war." But he wanted, quote, "To make sure he had a clear understanding of what it would take and what the mission would be."
And that just resonates with me, because once he had the mission, he was all in. But I remember time and time, again, he is saying that, you know, he wanted diplomacy, he was hoping everything else would work.
But that once he knew what his mission was, he was all in.
And forgive me, I am just speechless. He was, as Wolf just described, he was someone we really got to know over the years, his sense of humor, always first thing you saw, a smile on his face. And he was also very generous with young reporters, explaining things, taking time being available, and it's just a tragic loss.
BERMAN: Kindness matters. I mean, I can hear it in your voice, and I can hear it in Wolf's. I didn't cover him nearly as closely as either of you. But in my interactions with him, that was the same thing. Someone who is generous in spirit and really does shine through, a very long career that covered all kinds of different administrations.
But I suppose in some ways, the two pinnacles of his service were in the George H.W. Bush administration, as you said, as Chair of the Joint Chiefs during Desert Storm, and then as Secretary of State under George W. Bush during September 11th, during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Talk to me about his evolution between those two administrations, Jamie.
GANGEL: So I think one of the things that is true and this is true of a lot of people in Washington, he was very ambitious. He wanted to be Secretary of State. I think it was very important to him.
I talked to him over the years about whether he might even run for President and he considered that and his wife, Alma did not want him to do that. And I think that had a big -- that was the deciding factor in the end.
But one of the things I just want to mention as we talk about the evolution of his career is also the evolution of his public political career and that is that he was a Republican. But in these last few years, he spoke out very early about former President Donald Trump, and he was very clear about that, and made -- went public when a lot of people did not go public.
GANGEL: I would say that when you talk about the difference between serving Bush 41 and Bush 43, as we discussed earlier in the show, obviously, the weapons of mass destruction, his appearance in front of the U.N. putting his credibility on the line, backing up the policy to go back in was the thing that will be most memorable from the second Bush administration.
But as we saw in both obituaries, when he was asked about it later on, he said, very simply very straightforward, as he would always do, I made a mistake.
BERMAN: Which is rare. It is rare to see that in Washington, rare to see that from someone of his stature and politically, you talk about the political evolution, and it is something that I think is forgotten now because it has just become accepted.
He endorsed Barack Obama before his first election when John McCain was the Republican nominee. So here you have Colin Powell, who, to some extent is the bastion, a symbolic figurehead of the military Republican establishment, he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008.
GANGEL: Correct. I think that the thing to remember about Colin Powell was that he was very much a centrist, whether he was in the Republican Party or when he left the Republican Party in the end because of Donald Trump.
But when he endorsed Barack Obama, I think that there was no question -- I'm not sure that it was actually a difficult decision for him because he saw it as a historic moment, and there was just my understanding from talking to him afterwards, there wasn't a question in his mind that he would endorse Barack Obama.
I think that the other thing to keep in mind is that -- I always wondered when Barack Obama won how Colin Powell felt about it, because so many people thought that he might be the first African-American President, John.
I just want to -- on a personal note -- add one thing. The last interview I did with him, which was about former President Bush 41. We usually saw Colin Powell as very calm, even -- in that interview, he actually broke down and cried when he talked about Bush 41, and about what that group was like, the top officials working together.
But he really had -- they had a very special relationship because he had worked with former President Bush from the time former President Bush was Vice President. And he told me that he made some mistakes along the way and that former President Bush always said to him, "Don't worry about it." And he really looked up to him, and I think he always felt that he learned a tremendous amount from him about leadership.
BERMAN: No doubt, I think George H.W. Bush would say he learned a lot from Colin Powell as well.
GANGEL: That's true.
BERMAN: They learned a lot from each other. Jamie Gangel, I really appreciate you sharing your memories and sharing your reporting with us.
GANGEL: Thank you, John.
BERMAN: I'm joined now by CNN senior political analyst, John Avlon. Two things I want to bring up again and Jamie touched on them, if you were not there in 1996, it is easy to forget. How many people wanted Colin Powell to run for President?
This wasn't some groundswell. There was a serious concerted movement to get him to run, and all he had to do is say yes. I don't know if you would have won. But he would have been a formidable candidate, and there were a lot of people who wanted him.
JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The polling at the time suggested that he would have won and it's not a stretch to say American history would have been fundamentally different.
He was a man whose evident integrity became an avatar for what he called the sensible center in American politics.