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CNN Live Event/Special

The Funeral of Colin Powell. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired November 05, 2021 - 11:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): Intention to run for the presidency, that he was going to deliver at his beloved alma mater, City College of New York, and one in which he announced he was not going to run, ended up, Nia-Malika Henderson, delivering that second speech, saying that running for office was not for him.


TAPPER (voice over): There's Alma Powell, his widow, who, we should note, also suffered from COVID, as did her late husband. Thankfully, her recovery came.

But, General Hertling, you know Alma Powell. Tell us --

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST (voice over): Well, my wife knows her because she was very involved in spouses in all of the branches of the military. But what I'm thinking of when I see her waling in, the reflection she has today of not only, you know, the loss of her husband but I'm sure she's reflecting back on those 40-plus years in the military, the moves that we put all our families through, the challenges that she had when she was raising three children.

And Mrs. Powell was not the kind of person who would display her husband's rank. There are some military spouses that do. She definitely was not one of those. She was a down to Earth person, much like her husband. Her smile would light up the universe. She had a heart as big as Texas. And as much as we loved him, all the spouses loved her.

TAPPER (voice over): They'd been married since 1962, 1962. And a lot of marriages in the military don't last that long. It is a tough life. A lot of marriages in politics don't last that long.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): They absolutely had a true love story. And Gloria was talking about one of the reasons he didn't run for president. Another is that his wife just wasn't enthusiastic about it. I think that's probably an understatement.


BASH (voice over): But as we see these family and the friends, I was texting with Debbie Dingell, a member of Congress, who is going to be at the funeral today, one of the few members of Congress who will be there. And she was talking about, you know, her late husband, John Dingell, and they were together at a time, mentioned that this is talked a lot about at funerals, there's a reason it happens at funerals, because it is a time of the past.

They were together at a time where they were raising their children together across party lines with military families, you had Republicans, you had Democrats, they lived in Washington, they lived in suburban Washington, and they really got to know each other as people, which is why you see the outpouring that you do across party lines today.

TAPPER (voice over): And, Nia-Malika Henderson, General Powell was asked one time, of all the people he had met in his lifetime of service as secretary of state, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, soldier, who was the best person he ever met? And he said, unequivocally, Alma Powell.

HENDERSON (voice over): Yes, his wife.

BORGER (voice over): Good answer.

HENDERSON (voice over): Yes, it's the only answer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We learned from that.

TAPPER (voice over): Truly sincere, though. I think he really meant that.

HENDERSON (voice over): I think that's right. And, you know, I only got to meet Colin Powell once, and it was one of the first times I came to CNN. And there he was in the green room. He was one of the people who my parents admired more than anyone. He really was someone who people believed could be the first black president and wanted to be the first black president even if they were Democrats, because he'd navigated the halls of power, he had reached such heights and stayed connected to African-Americans.

And when I met him, that sense of humanity, that sense of decency, that sense of a common touch was so much there, and you could see it. You know, even beamed on the television screen, there was just a kind of decency that he radiated.

TAPPER (voice over): Commander?

TED JOHNSON, FORMER U.S. NAVY COMMANDER (voice over): Yes, absolutely. I think about his -- the military is deemed to be the most meritocratic institution in America. And it reminds me of something my drill instructors used to say, which is push-ups don't care about your race or your ethnicity. And watching General Powell achieve things in the military that no other black person had done before was an incredible inspiration.

He tells the story when he visited with my class of White House fellows about squirrels and President Reagan. It's a story that ultimately made it into a book on leadership. The story goes that the president had set out nuts for some squirrels earlier and Powell stopped by to complain about some interagency issue.

And in the middle of it, Reagan just jumps up and said, look, Colin, they're eating the nuts I sent out. And the lesson General Powell took from it was that Reagan would listen to him complain about issues as long as he wanted to but it wasn't his problem to solve. It was a lesson in delegation and empowering your staff, basically telling General Powell, go figure it out, the squirrels are eating the nuts I set out.

So, it's those kind of humanizing moments and, again, for a star- struck young naval officer, you see the man General Powell and not just the legacy that he left for the country and certainly for a cohort of folks serving in the military over the decades.


TAPPER (voice over): You were talking about your -- General Hertling, you're talking about -- your son wrote a paper about him?

HERTLING (voice over): Yes. I was working for a four-star general by the name of Fred Franks, who was another individual contributing to Desert Storm. We were down in Southern Virginia. And General Powell was going through the challenges that President Clinton had laid on him about what to do about the Balkans. So, he asked General Franks, hey, come on up and let's talk -- you have a lot of experience in Europe, let's talk about what you think I should do.

So, Franks pulled me into the helicopter. We fly out. And the night before our sixth grade son had written his black history month's homework assignment on General Powell. So he gave it to me the night before. I said I'm seeing Powell tomorrow. I'll show it to him. I gave it to General Franks. Franks read it in the helicopter and he just thought it was hilarious, so he gave it to General Powell.

And after the meeting about the Balkans and all this serious talk, Powell, one of the few times I met him, said, hey, Hertling, come here a minute. And he says, your son's probably a better writer than you are. He had signed the paper and said, to Scott, great job, you should get an A-plus on this.

And then he handed me -- I brought this along just as a remembrance. We talk a lot about President Biden giving the coin to the pope last week. This is a coin that General Powell gave me that day, one of the tokens. And he gave to me much like the president gave to the pope and said, you better have this the next time I see you or you're buying the drinks. And it's just the traditions and, again, going back to the character that he had.

TAPPER (voice over): A beloved patriot. Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): Yes. It's really -- already we can see very, very moving what's going on here at the National Cathedral, Jake. The presidential motorcade will be arriving very soon. President Biden will be here, of course.

Jamie, as we watch all of this unfold, all of us over these years, we got to know Colin Powell, a great American, a great man. But tell us a little bit about your personal experiences with him because they were so, so powerful.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I'm smiling because the first time I met him, I have to say, he was very young then, it was back in the Reagan administration. But I remember him walking into the room. I remember he was larger than life. I said, this is a superstar. And he immediately said to me, where are you from? And I said I'm from New York. And he said, I'm from New York too. And he also somehow quickly figured out that I was Jewish, and he starts speaking to me in Yiddish.

Now, he knew more Yiddish than I did and I don't think this was the first time he had pulled this on people. You could see sort of looking at him and he's black and he's speaking Yiddish. And he said, Jamie, I'm from the Bronx, of course, I speak Yiddish. And, again, just to go back to -- he knew how to connect to people immediately.

If I could just say one thing about Alma Powell, they were married for 58 years. They met in 1961. They were set up on a blind date that neither one of them wanted to go to. And Alma wore weird clothing on purpose and a lot of sort of strange makeup. And then she saw him before she came into the restaurant, she said, oh, he's interesting. And she went back and she sort of changed her clothes and took off some of the makeup. And he was smitten on date and the rest is history.

BLITZER: Yes, very impressive. You and I got to meet him during the first Gulf War.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATOINAL CORRESPONDENT: And Jamie makes an important point. How do you rise from a young black guy as a White House fellow, a junior officer, to not only the pinnacle of American power but to the friends of presidents? Not just a staffer, not just a cabinet member, but a friend of George W. Bush, a friend of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. How do you do that, the connection part?

I met him during the Gulf War. I traveled with him, Secretary Cheney and General Powell, when they were building support for the Gulf War around the region. We refuel, and Shannon Island (ph) and you're having a Guinness while they refueled the plane to fly home. And not a long conversation, don't want to overstate it, but we're talking about race, and I said I grew up, went to school in Boston during (INAUDIBLE). He looked at me and said, public schools? I said, yes. That gave me credibility.

He asked about military service in the family. I mentioned my dad was in the army but at the end of Korea, he was in Germany, never had to go to Korea. But I had an uncle who did some hard combat in Korea, and he winced when I explained. He asked what unit. So, he took the time, it was a minute, two-minute conversation, but he took time to ask about you.

And to the point Tim Naftali made earlier about the transformational figure, I just remembered traveling with him in those days, and then a trip we took after the horrible Southeast Asian tsunami when he was secretary of state.


When you went to Oman, when you went to Egypt, when you went to Saudi Arabia, the officials in the government and the troops in the field would light up, that this black man was at the pinnacle of American power, the four stars on the uniform when he was general, the secretary of state after the tsunami, he went with Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush as president, and they traveled.

And, again, you were in the poorest places in the world, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand. They had lost everything. It was the most devastating thing I've seen in my life. And there was this larger than life black man.

And you could just see it in the children. He just lit up because it was -- to Tim Naftali's point about how transformational he was that a black man from the Bronx could rise to such American power, this is in the case of the Gulf War, 18 years before Barack Obama. And I think that was what people saw in him.

And he changed the image of America around the world. I remember him going through the desert. There were troops from all over the world there. And people would just look at Colin Powell and say, wow.

BLITZER: Yes. He was a hero. He was really so, so special and especially those of us who are journalists, he would always get involved, always called me and said, I want to make sure you say the right thing, I want to make sure you look good, and we were always grateful to him for getting involved the way he did.

So, we're watching the arrivals. They continue, almost done. The president, President Biden, will be here momentarily. He will arrive and this funeral service will begin.

Suzanne Malveaux, I know you and your family had a special relationship, especially your dad, with General Powell.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Well, that's right. I mean, I had the opportunity to cover General Powell but also really just the privilege to know him through my father. They were good friends. They were professional colleagues and good friends for decades, more than 35 years through social circles and through Howard University, the board of Howard University. It is really an intimate and a small and tight-knit professional black community here in Washington, D.C.

You would see General Powell, his wife, Alma, at many of the functions and activities, whether it was the boules or the links or Jack and Jill or any one of those black service organizations that would bring all of us together on many, many occasions.

Wolf, the first time that I met Secretary Powell, really, I mean, it speaks to his charm. It was 28 years ago. He was the commencement speaker at Harvard University. I was just a young reporter at the time. He was very controversial about the don't ask, don't tell policy in the military that was prohibiting gays from openly serving in the military. There was, of course, that negotiation that took place, the don't ask, don't tell policy through Clinton.

And I remember seeing him. There were protests that were swarming around the campus. I convinced my photographer to jump over a set of bushes to get to him. And when we cleared the bushes, I arrived right in front of him, startled him, I couldn't speak. He looked at me. I looked at him. And he just said, well, hello. And it really just floored me because I couldn't speak at all. I had all my questions and I froze at that moment looking at this kind of brilliant smile and very imposing figure. But he just smiled at me. And, eventually, I got my thoughts together, was able to challenge him a little bit on that policy, which he had since repealed, the don't ask, don't tell policy.

But he really did have that kind of electric charm and smile, if you will. But, Wolf, I do want to tell you, I'd be remiss not to comment at least about the program that's taking place right now. This is the organ and brass prelude. And you hear the U.S. Army Brass Quintet.

So, if you look at what is on the menu for those to listen to, Going Home, Band of Brothers, Amazing Grace, but also Dancing Queen. Yes, Dancing Queen. That might come as a surprise to many people, but he was a tremendous Abba fan. He loved Abba more than anything else. He loved Calypso and, of course, Bob Marley, reggae from his Jamaican roots, but Abba was his favorite.

And I talked to his longtime Peggy Cifrino, his longtime chief of staff, recently, and she told me this wonderful story about the premiere of Mama Mia, 22 songs, of course, Abba favorites. And he went to the premiere and there was Benjamin Netanyahu on one side and Donny Osmond sitting right next to him on the other side.

And the music played. He went -- he got up out of his seat, went down the aisle, sashayed dancing to Dancing Queen. And just to the shock of all those who were there, they were not allowed to take pictures, so there's really not much documentation of the story.


But the funny thing about it was that at the time nobody paid any attention to Donny Osmond, couldn't care less, and General Powell knew all the words to the songs. And so he just really was a lot of fun, very eclectic taste in music, entertainment and really, very accessible to folks who knew him.

When he was in New York and he was visiting with the U.N., he did not go to those fancy restaurants. He always took his staff and he went down to the local hotdog stand, and that is what he did. He got a hotdog with mustard and relish and he talked to the immigrants who were there selling those hotdogs, talking to them about their stories, because it was his story, his American story as well. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. You're absolutely right. Those of us who knew him, when knew he loved those hotdogs in Manhattan, in New York City, not just Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn as well. He loved Abba. I have something in common with him. I loved Abba as well. Jamie, he also -- and this is a part of his life and a lot of folks -- you and I know this, John knows this, and certainly Suzanne knows, he loves cars and his Volvo. Tell us about that.

GANGEL: I think -- I read that over the years he repaired 35 or 40 cars, especially Volvos. If you had a broken Volvo, he was the man to go to, and he loved to do it. It's also, I think, just a tribute to him and the family. This is maybe not a traditional state funeral, but, of course, we have former presidents here and dignitaries, VIPs, secretaries of state, former secretary of state, but actually President Biden is not going to speak today, none of the former presidents are going to speak today. It's at the same time a very personal service that the family has planned out.

BLITZER: And we're going to hear from his son, Michael, as well. And Michael has had -- still has his own distinguished career.

GANGEL: Absolutely. I actually remember this is -- it has happy ending, but it was scary and sad at the time. When Michael was in the service, he was in a car accident. John may remember. And he was really hurt and everyone was worried. And I remember talking to -- I still call him General Powell --

BLITZER: Me too.

GANGEL: -- at the time. And he was so worried about him. This was a very, very close family.

So, I didn't know that Michael was going to be giving the eulogy until we all found out late last night, but I'm not surprised.

BLITZER: Yes. He's an amazing guy, Michael. We got to know him well over the years.

John, when -- you see the presidential motorcade will be arriving very soon -- the clergy walking in, this is a real, real, I guess, national funeral that we're watching.

KING: A tribute to somebody whose career arched through so many transformational moments in the country, someone who was a trail blazer himself, and someone who I think whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or an independent or anyone watching around the world, the power of optimism.

Powell used to tell this funny story when he left public service and he was thinking about whether or not to run for president, he traveled, did some speeches, he also wrote a book and he was traveling around. And I was a political reporter at the time. I thought, is this guy going to run for president?

So, I snuck around the country to sneak into a couple of those events. And he tells this funny story about sitting across the table from Gorbachev. He's a member of the Regan National Security Team. And Gorbachev says, I'm done, we're going to fold the Soviet Union. And Reagan is excited, Jim Baker is excited, George Schultz is excited. Colin Powell said his first thought was, oh my God, no, you cannot do this, I spent my entire life training for the Soviet Union, to fight the Soviets. Now, what do I do? It's my entire training. It's my entire life. And what did he do? What did he do? He learned to deal with a new challenge.

Tim mentioned this earlier. We don't focus on good news. It doesn't get enough attention. Think about what happened. The Soviet Union collapsed. The iron curtain fell. Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, go and on and on, and nothing happened, nothing bad happened, right? Because this remarkable national security team managed the world from the Reagan administration into the Bush administration, and he was part of that because he was optimistic. But he used to always joke, all my training was suddenly useless. But he learned and he adapted.

BLITZER: Jake, we're looking at former Presidents Obama and Bush, former first ladies, Hillary Clinton is there as well. Bill Clinton, I'm sure, would have wanted to have been here, but as we know a few weeks ago, he was in the hospital. So he's recovering. I'm sure he's fine. But I suspect out of an abundance of caution he decided that maybe he shouldn't attend this funeral of General Powell.


TAPPER: That's right, Wolf. And we continue watch the events going on inside the National Cathedral and as we remember and celebrate the life of Colin Powell.

And, Historian Tim Naftali, I was recalling the other day, I had read Colin Powell's autobiography, and there was this moment in 1957 where he was a member of ROTC at City College in New York, and he went down to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. And there were two things that really struck me, and they both happened in the same trip. One is he excelled. He excelled down there, and that's really where he felt his calling. He didn't know what -- what to -- what to do before he joined ROTC. He didn't have any direction in his life.

And then the second thing was it was the first time he really encountered racism, where he realized that the southern members of the military in Ft. Bragg were not going to recognize his excellence. And on the way back, it was the first time he had ever seen at a gas station separate restrooms for blacks. And he said he didn't feel safe until he got north of Baltimore. That's a lot to experience in one trip and yet that was the life of Colin Powell, both excellence in the military and also reckoning with racism.

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, Colin Powell's life, which began in the depression, is an American journey with importance to all of us.

Imagine how hard it is to be the first of anything. I've thought a lot about that in the last few days. If you mess up, think of the hopes of the people who want you to succeed, how they'll be dashed (ph), and think of the people who don't want you to succeed, how they will take advantage of the fact that you failed. He was the first in so many different aspects of our American life, and he succeeded each and every time. I -- when I think of characters, that the general mentions, Mark mentioned, I think of the character of someone who is willing to put up discrimination not accepted, put up with it, defy it and succeed on his terms and the terms everybody of whatever background would agree to. That was Colin Powell. And that's what makes him heroic to someone like me. It's -- it's not just the resume. It's the fact that he succeeded each time he was the first and that meant he opened the door. He actually blew open the door for others after him.

HERTLING: And I think it's because he was a good person. There's a great line in an American novel called, Once an Eagle, where the main character turns to the son of a friend and says, if it comes to a choice between being a good soldier or a good human being, be a good human being, because that will make you a great soldier.

TAPPER: And we're hearing some songs from popular culture as well. We just heard American Tune by Simon & Garfunkel.

JONSON: Yes. So, Colin Powell is what I call a superlative citizen. He is someone who exceeded the duties of citizenship even when the nation was in the breach of the social contract in terms of delivering democracy and equality to him.

He -- again, these experiences that he had in North Carolina and Georgia, he's defending a nation that's telling the world, we're here to make the world safe for democracy and then he travels and the world in uniform and can't taste that democracy, that freedom in certain parts of the very nation he's willing to die for.

This is the epitome of what a superlative citizen is and, frankly, the kind of example that more Americans should follow.

HENDERSON: Yes. He knew what it meant to live as an average black man. Many black men had that same experience. And he was also brave enough to confront his own party, to push it to be more inclusive. And this goes back to, you know, the '90s when he was criticizing Reagan, he was criticizing the first president, Bush, for not being sensitive enough to issues of racism. And then, of course, we see in 2008 he chooses Barack Obama to vote for partly because of the way the Republican Party always behaving towards Barack Obama in some of the things and sort of themes in racial dog whistling that were going on during that campaign..

TAPPER (voice over): And if I could just take a note here, we're listening to Bob Marley's Three Bill Birds. Colin Powell, obviously -- there's President Joe Biden walking in. Colin Powell obviously the son of Jamaican immigrants, very, very proud of his culture, and the Jamaican people very, very proud of Colin Powell.

Here's President Biden walking in to honor Colin Powell, First Lady Jill Biden as well.

BORGER (voice over): It's not ruffles and flourishes.

TAPPER (voice over): Let's talk about the speakers that we're going to hear from, because we're going to hear from three, both Michael Powell, who is the son, the only son of Colin Powell, and he is a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.


President Biden meeting his predecessors and First Lady Jill Biden saying hello to the predecessors.

BASH (voice over): And we've kind of gotten used to seeing this image because we've had several state funerals. John McCain's was like a state funeral and, of course, we've had former president and others in recent years, but this is really unusual for somebody like Colin Powell to have this kind of funeral at the National Cathedral. There are just a few non-presidents who have had this kind of event at the National Cathedral.

TAPPER (voice over): This is Dancing Queen by Abba. We know one of General Powell's favorites. Let's take a listen.

HERTLING: And knowing these guys in the Army Quartet, they love doing this. They love to get away from the songs that they normally play.

TAPPER (voice over): President Biden sitting near his former boss, President Barack Obama.

But, anyway, we were talking about the speakers, Michael Powell, Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state. Obviously, Colin Powell was secretary of state for a Republican administration, Albright for a Democratic one, and his former deputy at the Department of State, Richard Armitage.

BORGER: Well, Madeleine Albright speaking is so interesting to me because, obviously, they were both firsts, and they argued. They were not aligned in many, many meetings, and she has talked about this. And she's famous for having said to Colin Powell if we have a military, why don't we use it.

And so they came at issues very differently. And she has talked about how, look, you know, she was from -- her views were formed being a child in Czechoslovakia. His were formed by Vietnam and different senses of when you should use force, what the thresholds should be, how much force you should use. And so they went at each other in meetings. I don't know whether they were in the situation room, whether they were in the Oval Office.

TAPPER (voice over): He opposed involvement in the Bosnian War.

BORGER (voice over): That's right.

TAPPER (voice over): But also can I just say he also did two tours in Vietnam --

BORGER (voice over): That's right.

TAPPER (voice over): -- which can make somebody reluctant to send other men.

BORGER (voice over): Reluctant, and he spoke about that a lot, you know. So, they became great friends but it wasn't borne out of fact that they shared the same views on the use of force. And she has said the arguments were great because they did come from such different places. And now today, I don't know if she will speak about that or not, but she has been asked to speak at his funeral.

HENDERSON (voice over): And to hear from his son, Michael Powell, who served in the Clinton administration, who served in the army. What was it like to have to share your father with the world and what kind of personal stories will we hear today?

TAPPER (voice over): We're looking right now at the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Domestic Policy -- the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Dr. Susan Rice.

Go ahead, I'm sorry.

HENDERSON (voice over): Yes. I mean, what was it like to share your father with the world? What kind of father was he? I imagine he was away a lot. He may not have, in some ways, in his mind, lived up to the kind of father he wanted to be. So, it will be fascinating to hear the remembrances of his son, who had to share his father with the world for much of his life.

TAPPER: And, Dana, I don't know how much we're going to hear about this from the former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, who was Powell's deputy at the Department of State during the Bush years. But Powell has been rather candid about how his testimony before the United Nations was, in his words, a blot on his record and how he became increasingly isolated among the Bush foreign policy team in the buildup and waging of the war in Iraq.

BASH: Yes. I mean, General Hertling, all of you have talked about the character of Colin Powell, and it's hard to think of something that speaks to that as somebody who stands up and says flatly, I was wrong. I was wrong in such a big way when we went to the United Nations and argued that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and there weren't.


TAPPER (voice over): Yes. I mean, he said he was misled by the intelligence community.

BASH: Yes, he did. And he talked a lot about how and how that happened and why that happened, but ultimately.