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Remembering Colin Powell; Cedric Leighton Remembers Powell; Charlie Dent Remembers Powell; Christiane Amanpour Remembers Powell; Anita McBride Remembers Powell. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired October 18, 2021 - 08:30   ET



JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: History would have been fundamentally different. He was a man whose imminent integrity became an avatar for what he called the sensible center in American politics. Something that seems increasingly lost.

But because he came out of that non-partisan military tradition, and he was a problem solver first, a patriot who always put country over party, through his decisions in recent years to leave the Republican Party over Donald Trump and what he called his constant lies, that power was self-evident and had a direct appeal to independent voters in particular.

Now, there's no redos. He decide not to run. But American history would have been very different. But what he did at every step of his career is really be a strong voice for that sensible center, for bringing people together. And a lot of the wisdom he articulated, from the Powell doctrine in the military, which I think has been validated by recent history, overwhelming force, clear national interest, a clear exit strategy, to his own rules for leadership, which are in a book that I actually keep by my bed where he talks about the importance of remaining calm and being kind and how optimism is a force multiplier. These are real lessons and gifts he gave generations of Americans in addition to the arc of his own life that I think showed for a lot of people, gave evidence that the American dream was still very much real.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Look, he's the walking embodiment --


BERMAN: Was the walking embodiment of the American dream, growing up in the Bronx, ROTC, you know, not West Point.

AVLON: Son of immigrants.

BERMAN: Reaching the chair of the Joint Chiefs and then secretary of state.

It is interesting, you talked politically about what might have happened had he won. You know, politics left Colin Powell, though. Politics --

AVLON: The Republican Party did.

BERMAN: that center that he stood for doesn't exist anymore in quite the same fashion. Maybe he saw that. Maybe he saw that he couldn't play or didn't want to play in this new reality.

I think what he saw was, you know, it wasn't John McCain, it was Sarah Palin, was the increasing rightward drift of the Republican Party. That decision validated by the rise of the Tea Party. His endorsement, as you said, of Barack Obama, but also Joe Biden. And I think seeing in those leaders a continuation of that tradition from George H.W. Bush and, you know, the politics of even Brent Scowcroft of the national security side, which had been left by the Republican Party certainly a long time ago. But Colin Powell remains steadfast, even as the Republican Party moved further and further right.

BERMAN: And I just want people to know, you know, Colin Powell, there was never a room that Colin Powell was in --


BERMAN: At least that I was anywhere near or covering where people weren't looking to him. He was the guy that everyone in the room was turning to, to find out what he thought about something. And that goes from -- from, you know, interns to journalists, to presidents.

AVLON: And he was so generous with -- he was a real wise man. I remember, as a college student, he gave a bunch of college students time on a Pentagon tour. And he was so incredibly thoughtful with a real sweep of history. But he was a genuine wise man of American politics and he had the charisma of competence, and that self-evident integrity that is something that we need endless amounts of in a self- governing society.

BERMAN: We need Colin Powell now more than ever.

AVLON: We do. We do.

BERMAN: At least the ideas that he espoused.

John Avlon, thank you very much.

Again, the news this morning, General Colin Powell, former secretary of state, a pioneer in so many ways, has passed away at the age of 84, complications from COVID. We're finding out more information. We're going to take a quick break. Much more of our special coverage, next.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: More now on our breaking news.

General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black secretary of state, has died at the age of 84. We're told by his family that he died from COVID complications even as he was fully vaccinated.

Reaction just in now from former President George W. Bush. He says, quote, Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Colin Powell. He was a great public servant starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. Many presidents relied on General Powell's counsel and experience. He was national security adviser under President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under my father, and President Clinton, and secretary of state during my administration. He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And, most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.

We're joined now by retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton.

And I know that you have a reflection. When you were a young captain, you had an interaction with Colin Powell.


Good morning.

And, you know, it's absolutely a sad day with -- this country has lost a great leader like Colin Powell.

I met him when I was at Special Operations Command. He came down to do the retirement ceremony for our commander in chief, General Carl Stiner (ph), another American hero. And he gave this amazing speech, General Powell did, that I still remember today talking about General Steiner's Tennessee roots and how he was able to, you know, go from basically nothing to a four-star general in the Army. And the way he did it was just so amazing. He was a wordsmith. He was a -- but a warm person who was able to put together not only a great turn of phrase, but also to show the empathy that he had for fellow general officer. But that empathy also transcended rank. It transcended not only, you know, the general officer ranks, but it came down to people like me.

I was at the time a very young captain. My very first dealings with him were actually before that, in a message that I had written as the very first thing I did in a new job I had down there at Special Operations Command and a few years later I was able to see that message, the copy that the chairman had received and it had the initial CP on it, and the CP that Colin Powell himself had seen it. And, you know, so I knew I had a little bit of an impact on a decision that General Powell made.


And he was one of those people that you were proud to serve. And that -- that was, I think, his lasting legacy for us in the military.

KEILAR: Yes, look, he's, you know, he's someone who was iconic as we are remembering the contributions of him to our nation today. A trailblazer in so many ways. And also, you know, Colonel, he was a warrior diplomat, right? The fact that he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was someone with a storied military career and then he went on to be secretary of state, the intersection of diplomacy and defense.

LEIGHTON: Yes, and I think the only parallel that we have in modern American history to the achievements of general Powell would be General George Marshall from World War II, who also was -- well, he was the chief of staff of the Army during World War II, but then he became both secretary of defense and secretary of state. And that kind of leader, someone who can work well in the military realm and in the diplomatic realm was something that, you know, those of us who touched those particular spheres of American power, we emulated that. We thought that that was the best model to follow.

And General Powell, I think, refined the model from General Marshall and did it in such a way that not only modernized that but also humanized it. And you knew that with General Powell you'd get a fair hearing. You would also be able to follow any direction that he gave because he was first and foremost, you know, a great leader, but also a wonderful human being. And that, you know, that kind of permeated everything that you did with him. And he was -- he was genuinely a great soldier and a great statesman.

KEILAR: You know, of course we all know that Colin Powell was the first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but I was remembered, as I was going back through his bio, he was also the youngest, right? So there was also the fact that he brought his youth, I think, to his -- to his roles.

LEIGHTON: Yes, absolutely. You know, the admiral that he replaced, Admiral Crowe, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before General Powell came to that position, you know, was a much different person. You know, he too had, you know, come up through the ranks, of course, in his case in the Navy, but he was far, far older. I think he was in his 60s, late 60s by the time he retired from his chairmanship as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And General Powell, you know, like you said, brought that -- that breath of youth into a role that, you know, could be seen as a province of, you know, quite frankly, stodgy, old men.

General Powell was not stodgy and he was not old. He was one of those people who could, you know, take a problem and dissect it in a way that made it manageable. And I think everybody who served with him benefitted from his abilities that way. It was truly a great experience, even to serve him from a distance. And, you know, that was, I think, one of the greatest legacies of General Powell's life, it was the fact that he did that for so many people in the military.

KEILAR: Colonel, I want to thank you so much, as we are reflecting on the legacy of Colin Powell on this day where we have learned that he has passed away at the age of 84.

Colonel, thank you again.


LEIGHTON: You bet, Brianna.

BERMAN: All right, joining me now is Charley Dent, former Republican congressman.

Charlie, I appreciate you being with us.

And, you know, you can't say this about everyone. This is a loss for America. The death of Colin Powell is a loss for America.

CHARLIE DENT, FORMER REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN: Yes, John, absolutely. Boy, you know, this man was not only a statesman, but he was a titan. When you really think about it, you know, just given his life story, he came from a very modest background, rising to the highest levels in uniform military, secretary of state.

I had the opportunity to meet with him on a few occasions. I was elected to Congress in 2004. And even after he was secretary of state, I remember being in a meeting with him and we would just pick his brain just to get his world view, just to get his thoughts. I mean he was -- he was just one of those people that, you know, you knew you were in the presence of, you know, of an awesome man. And there was such a -- such a respect for this elder statesman.

BERMAN: Charlie --

DENT: And it's a big loss.

BERMAN: Charlie, if you will stand by for a minute, if you can, because Christiane Amanpour joins me now.

And, Christiane, obviously you covered events for Colin Powell, was a central player for decades. And we're not saying he was perfect. He himself acknowledged some of the mistakes he made, particularly in 2003. But the role he played and the influence he had over decades, it's hard to match in American history.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (via telephone): Well, I think that's true. And it's for both good and potentially not so good, as you've all indicated. There are two sides to this guy who actually was a titan and was a giant. He was the youngest ever chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by President George H.W. Bush in '89, and he was the first African-American, the first black official officer to become and to hold that high, high office. And then, of course, as you know, he went on to hold higher office and eventually secretary of state under George W. Bush.

Now, I first came across Colin Powell when I did my first war coverage, which was in the first Gulf war, so Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm. And, you know, because it's written all over the obits, that at first he was extremely cautious. And the Powell doctrine became known as a doctrine of caution. And he really became the architect of, unless you can have overwhelming force on the ground, well then we don't really want to go there as Americans. And so the first Gulf war did prove that the doctrine of overwhelming

force was the successful one. There were a U.S.-led coalition of some 500,000 allied troops that gathered under Operation Desert Shield in the Saudi, you know, sands, and went after Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in 1990 and successfully drove him out. And this included armies from places like, you know, Syria and other countries which are now, as you know, not allies of the United States.

The problem with that is that when it then came to wars that were smaller and not as massive, it didn't involve a leader invading another leader. But, nonetheless, was massively important to the United States, such as Bosnia, which I also covered. Colin Powell's caution and his refusal to engage militarily, to drive back the Bosnian Serbs who were committing ethnic cleansing and genocide, that led to a delay by the United States and allied forces in stopping this genocide. It led to a potentially three-year delay and therefore we saw Sebrinita (ph), we saw American influence and power and its moral imperative questioned a shaky for the first time because it didn't intervene to stop a genocide until, frankly, it was very late and the genocide had already happened in 1995.

Finally, when they did intervene, they did actually stop the Bosnian Serbs and the United States used its diplomatic heft to create or rather convene all sides to go to Dayton and have the Dayton Peace Accords that -- that, as you know, led to what is still an enduring peace.

And I believe that Colin Powell wouldn't have also approved of the intervention in Kosovo or even the U.K. intervention in Sierra Leone, also in the '90s, which did prevent a genocide and did put those two countries back on a road that was -- it was one of peace and the ability to move forward without the horrors that we witnessed in Bosnia.

So he's a very, very complicated figure who operated as the highest levels of American power and influence. And then, of course, and you probably all discussed this a lot, his reputation then took a major beating when he was the moral face of the W. Bush administration and went to the Security Council, if you remember, with that bag of white powder and put his name on the line, and his face on a policy of trying to, you know, go to war against Saddam Hussein again to try to, you know, prevent him from having weapons of mass destruction. Turned out he didn't have weapons of mass destruction at that time and Colin Powell, you know, unfortunately, this was one of his lasting legacies that he had put his good name to that -- what we now know to be a false policy built on some very specious, what is the right word, some very specious gathering and interpreting of intelligence to basically prove a point that the administration wanted to make.

So a very complicated figure who I had the opportunity to interview many times and ask him many of these questions. But, yes, he's going to be missed in terms of the real sort of questions about what American power is for (ph). And very famously had an encounter with Madeleine Albright when she was President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations over Bosnia. She said to him, what is the point of having this fantastic military if we cannot deploy it in really important cases.


Colin Powell, in his memoir, responded, I nearly had an aneurysm. Apparently it was a very heated debate amongst the principles, the National Security principles, a he said, American soldiers, they are not toy soldiers to be moved around a global game board. And that was his position. That was his position. And, sadly, it led to, you know, as much good in the -- in the first Gulf was, as much death and -- and avoidable consequences in Bosnia and then Rwanda and, in the end, a moral failure in Iraq.

BERMAN: Christiane Amanpour reflecting on the long legacy and career of Colin Powell in service to this nation and how he is seen in the United States and truly around the world.

Christine, thank you so much for being with us.

I'm joined now by Anita McBride, who worked in many different roles inside the Bush administration, including for Colin Powell at the State Department.

Anita, I really appreciate you being with us.

I am sorry for your loss and for the loss of the country.

If you will, reflect on General Powell, the General Powell that you knew.

ANITA MCBRIDE, WORKED FOR COLIN POWELL AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT (via telephone): Well, thank you very much for the opportunity to say a word about this incredible, larger than life figure in American history, and frankly in world history. I mean just -- he was respected for his counsel and his steady hand and he cared about the life and career of the people under his command, whether that was in the military or in the civilian, you know, and foreign service capacity of the diplomatic role that he held at the State Department.

And that really was a care and nurturing -- or the care and feeding of the people who served the country that everyone knew. And I -- and as a White House liaison at the State Department, working with the secretary and his team on presidential appointments, he really did care about bringing in people who would manage their teams well, and would respect them. And I'll always admire that.

I was just recently at the Bush 41 Library in College Station and looking at the exhibits, you know, there. And the presence of Colin Powell was enormous for President Bush 41 as well, a steady hand through the Gulf War when he was at national security office, but then also at DOD. So it just felt over many decades, his presence. And an example that I think others in the military and in the civil service will always look up to.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, you could you look at any exhibit that covers American history from the '80s, '90s or early 2000s and it would have to include something on General Powell, because he played such a major role in U.S. history over decades.

MCBRIDE: Right. Yes, he did. And his -- his presence -- and walking through the West Wing of the White House from the Reagan days, to the State Department at the George W. Bush days. That -- it was a, you know, a person who you knew you were in the presence of a deeply committed, you know, servant to the country. And we -- it's to be admired. And I think we all feel his loss, but also look to that example.

BERMAN: He was already larger than life in some ways by the time he served in the George W. Bush administration.


BERMAN: Had already worked several careers and had several roles of enormous influence. How was he perceived during that administration, as almost, you know, not an island onto himself, but someone for whom, you know, was held in great esteem.

MCBRIDE: No, sure. Well, listen, when you are, he was helping President Bush lead the country, make decisions in a time of great peril and great challenge to our country. An unprecedented attack on our country. And the president valued his presence and his stature. Ultimately, the president has to make the decisions, and maybe they're not always the ones that all of his advisers agree on, but that doesn't diminish that his counsel -- that General Powell's counsel and his experience and his advice was not valued. So, I don't think any of us that had the privilege of working with Secretary Powell, General Powell, would ever question his integrity, and the frankness of his advice.

BERMAN: It was truly a lifetime of service.

MCBRIDE: A great American story. A great American story of the ranks to which he -- he rose in our -- in our -- serving our country.


It's really a great loss.

BERMAN: Anita McBride, again, I thank you for your comments this morning. Sorry for your loss.

MCBRIDE: Thank you. Thank you.

BERMAN: And as I've said, sorry for the loss that the United States of America suffers by the passing of Colin Powell.

MCBRIDE: But they also benefits -- they benefitted from him, too, and that's the good point.

BERMAN: That is.

MCBRIDE: Thank you.

BERMAN: I'm going to play the moment that General Powell endorsed Joe Biden. It happened on CNN. This was in June of 2020, just after Donald Trump held up that Bible in Lafayette Square.

Watch this.


COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Yes, I'm very happy with what General Allen said and all the other generals, admirals are saying, and diplomats are saying. We have a Constitution and we have to follow that Constitution. And the president has drifted away from it.

I'm so proud of what these generals and admirals have done, and others have done. But, you know, I didn't write a letter because I made my point with respect to Trump's performance some four years ago when he was running for office. And when I heard some of the things he was saying, it made it clear that I could not possibly vote for this individual.

The first thing that troubled me is the whole birthers movement. And birthers movement had to do with the fact that the president of the United States, President Obama, was a black man. That was part of it. And then I was deeply troubled by the way in which he was going around insulting everybody, insulting gold star mothers, insulting John McCain, insulting immigrants, and I'm the son of immigrants, insulting anybody who dared to speak against him. And that is dangerous for our democracy. It's dangerous for our country. And I think what we're seeing now, those massive protest movement I have ever seen in my life, I think this suggests that the country is getting wise to this and we're not going to put up with it anymore.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And former Defense Secretary General Mattis said, quote, Donald Trump is the first president in my life time who does not try to unite the American people, does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.

It sounds like you agree with that.

POWELL: You have to agree with it. I mean look at what he has done to divide us. Forget immigrants. Let's put up a fence to Mexico. Forget this, let's do this. He is insulting us throughout the world. He is being offensive to our allies. He is not taking into account what our foreign policy is and how it's being affected by his actions.

So, yes, I agree with General Allen. I agree with all of my former colleagues.

And, remember, I've been out of the military now for 25 years. And so I'm watching them closely because they all were junior officers when I left. And I'm proud of what they're doing. I'm proud that they were willing to take the risk of speaking honestly and speaking truth to those who are not speaking the truth.

I couldn't vote for him in '96 and I certainly cannot in any way support President Trump this year.

TAPPER: So, yes, I know you didn't vote for him in 2016. I assume, based on the fact that you approved Joe Biden when senator -- then Senator Obama picked him to be his running mate in 2008, I assume you're going to be voting for Joe Biden?

POWELL: I'm very close to Joe Biden on a social matter and on a political matter. I've worked with him for 35, 40 years and he is now the candidate and I will be voting for him.


BERMAN: You could see how angry General Powell was there about what was going on during the Trump administration.

KEILAR: Yes, I don't think that -- those were comments that were made lightly, but he believed very strongly in protecting the independence of the military, which is something that has been challenged so much here recently in years and it is integral to the stability of our country.

I do want to get now to Dr. Jonathan Reiner.

You know, this is a reminder of how much COVID has taken from us. He was fully vaccinated, Dr. Reiner, and still died from COVID complications.

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Right. First of all, my condolences to General Powell's family. He was a role model for everyone in this country.

We've lost almost three-quarters of a million people in this country. And our most vulnerable Americans still remain vulnerable, which is why we need to continue to try to vaccinate, you know, the 20 percent of adults who now are eligible but continue to refuse to protect themselves and their communities.

You know, we've lost our parents and our grandparents and our brothers and sisters and even horribly our children. I -- there are very few Americans now who don't know somebody who has succumbed to this virus. And we need to finally come together as a country, link our arms, and put this virus away. We can do it. We have the ability to do it. We have incredibly safe and effective vaccines that can prevent people from dying. No one needs to die anymore.


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.