From unknown successes to personal disillusionment: What the public doesn’t know about Colin Powell
Find the unedited version of our conversation with Retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson here.
Colin Powell, four-star general, former national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. secretary of state, died on Monday. He was 84.
Powell served in American public life for more than 40 years. The soldier, diplomat, and statesman is one of the major figures of 20th century U.S. history.
For more than a decade, Retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson stood at Powell’s side.
Wilkerson served as Powell’s chief of staff both at the Joint Chiefs, and from 2002 to 2005, when Powell was Secretary of State.
As Wilkerson puts it, he and Powell were in hourly contact for years. There are few people who were closer to Powell during that period.
In an exclusive conversation, Wilkerson shares what the public doesn’t know about Colin Powell, including major diplomatic successes that never made it into the public eye. He also shares Powell’s internal conflict, blind spots, and disillusionment over his role in the Iraq war.
Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002 — 2005). Served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.
Full Show Transcript
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Colin Powell, four-star general, former national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and United States secretary of State, died on Monday. He was 84. Powell served in American public life for more than 40 years. The soldier, diplomat and statesman is one of the major figures of 20th century U.S. history. And for more than a decade, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson stood at Powell’s side. Wilkerson served as chief of staff, both at the Joint Chiefs and from 2002 to 2005, when Powell was secretary of state.
As Wilkerson puts it, he and Powell were in hourly contact for years. So there are few people who were closer to Powell during that period. Today, in an exclusive conversation, Wilkerson shares what the public doesn’t know about Colin Powell. Including major diplomatic successes that never made it into the public eye. And Powell’s internal conflict, blind spots and disillusionment over his role in the Iraq War. Larry Wilkerson begins with his very first meeting with Powell, just before Wilkerson became his chief of staff in 1989.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Here we are in this dungeon in the Pentagon. He’s a three-star general, getting ready to pin on a four-star, and for two hours we interviewed. And he asked me such telling questions as, Can you write a speech for a Black Baptist church? And then he smiled that broad grin of his. He said, I can do that. Don’t worry. To the point where he asked me, toward the end of a two hour or so interview, do you want the job? And I said no. Without even thinking about it, really. I said no, because I’m very happy where I am.
The interview terminated shortly thereafter, and I went back to Newport thinking I’d never hear from him. And when I did, I was amazed because he wanted me to take the job. Almost a year later, working for him, he would tell me that one of the reasons he hired me was because he did not want any ‘lean and hungry look’ Cassius around him. He didn’t want ambitious people around him who were more interested in their own career than his.
CHAKRABARTI: So what does that tell you about the kind of leader he was?
WILKERSON: I learned, first of all, that I could say almost anything to him, as long as I was logical, sincere and honest. I could tell him, for example, when he said Ronald Reagan wanted the military to be more involved in the drug war. I could tell him, General, why would you want to join a war we can’t win? And he would look back at me with a perplexed expression on his face, What do you mean? And I would say, it’s like the war on poverty. There will always be poverty, there will always be drugs. So why would the military want to contaminate itself in a struggle that it can’t possibly win? Oh, well, he said. That’s all well and good, and I knew at that moment he agreed with me in logical terms, real terms. But he knew the president wanted the military involved in the drug war.
CHAKRABARTI: How did Colin Powell feel about that, when you were having those conversations? Because that is ideally not the way the nation ought to use the military.
WILKERSON: You’re absolutely right. And he knew that. He knew that in his heart of heart, in his soul of souls, he knew that. You know in that little dark part of your mind that visit you at 2 a.m. in the morning when you can’t sleep that you have to make a lot of compromises, too. You have to go along to get along, as we used to say in the military. And while Colin Powell did that less than anyone I’ve ever worked for, that is to say he tried his best to forge the best path. He did accommodate from time to time. And the most egregious example of that, of course, was the presentation at the United Nations.
CHAKRABARTI: Particularly during that time when he was secretary of state, and he said that he had enemies all over the administration. Can you describe to me how Colin Powell handled those toughest moments? I mean, in other words, when things got tough, what was he like? What did he do? What did he say?
WILKERSON: That’s a good question. It was so bad by the third year that the deputy secretary of state, Rich Armitage, was calling the vice president’s office the Gestapo, the Nazis, regularly. And everyone seemed to be aligned against us, the president, the vice president, the national security adviser and the secretary of defense, who was joined at the hip with the vice president. Powell was constantly confronted with a situation where not only was he losing the bureaucratic struggle — he was, and he knew it — losing the bigger struggle for the issue at hand.
The only place where this did not occur, which was really fascinating to watch, and no one’s really covered this very well in the literature, was China. And he won the battles on China. As Rumsfeld and Cheney were ardently trying to create a new Cold War with China, Powell was keeping them from doing it. They were using, fundamentally, Taipei and Taiwan in general to do that. But Powell was very adroitly, bureaucratically and otherwise maneuvering behind them. In order to keep at that time, Chen Shui-bian in Taipei, from effecting a referendum for independence. Which was a red line with Beijing. He would [thwart] them, again and again and again.
But I quickly ascertain why he was able to do that, in the way that he was able to do it, not only his own personal skill, bureaucratic and otherwise. Bush was on his side. Bush knew the importance of the relationship with China to our economy. And he was not going to let Cheney and Rumsfeld, no matter how adroitly they maneuvered around him — and they tried it all the time — ruin that relationship. So he gave Powell his head on China, and that way the most important strategic relationship America has in the world today, and had then, was handled very smoothly, and very carefully and very wisely by Colin Powell.
And to a certain extent, George Bush. But the other issues, George Bush usually wound up being on Cheney and Rumsfeld’s side. One time Powell came back from a national security meeting, and he said to me … a metaphor that I’ll never forget. He said, You know, LW, Cheney knows how to get the president to pull his 45 out and start shooting. And I just haven’t figured out how to get him to put it back in its holster. But to your question, his constant work to keep the U.S.-China relationship on an even keel was just impressive to watch.
You may recall that in April of 2001, we had an incident in the South China Sea, where a Chinese pilot of an F-8 fighter aircraft was doing his standard hurrah things, and he got a little bit close to the EP-3 that he was harassing, and he hit it. That crisis was immediately exploited by the vice president to do what I referred to earlier. Make sure there was a Cold War going, and it was going at full speed ahead. Powell took over that crisis in a nanosecond. As I recall, he actually called on his cell phone to the Chinese Leadership Party, which was traveling in South America at that time. Got one of the most able Chinese diplomats who knew America really well, Qian Qichen, on the phone and within literally an hour or two pallets off a crisis.
And things were copacetic, Chinese would apologize in English and we would apologize in Chinese. And it would be disseminated to our various audiences. We would get our aircraft back and things would go back to a reasonable relationship. So that was an incredible feat by him, for which he got little credit. And watching him do that was watching a quintessentially superb diplomat and soldier do what he did.
CHAKRABARTI: He’s one of those figures in American history who if you look at the circumstances of life into which he was born, right? It’s not exactly the suite of things that you would say, Well, this is a person who’s going to go on to become one of the most influential Americans in the 20th century, for sure, right? Like, he kind of had the cards stacked against him, as you know, born Black in the United States. And Colonel Wilkerson, as you know, it’s something he often talked about. I mean, for example, here’s Powell in 1994 in a commencement speech at Howard University.
COLIN POWELL [Archival Tape]: I stand here today as a direct descendant of those Buffalo soldiers and of the Tuskegee Airmen and all the Black men and women who have served the nation in uniform. All of whom, all of whom, who served in their time and in their way, and with whatever opportunity existed at that time to break down the walls of discrimination and racism, to make the path easier for those of us who came after them. I took advantage of the sacrifice they made to reach the top of my chosen profession to become chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I will never forget my debt to them. I didn’t just show up. I climbed on the backs of those who never had the kind of opportunity that I had.
CHAKRABARTI: So what was it about him that helped you understand? How did he become the Colin Powell that we all later saw on the world stage?
WILKERSON: You put your finger on the essence of Colin Powell, really, whether you call it a Horatio Alger story or the American dream come true. He did name his book that, My American Journey. And you also put your finger on his dilemma of character, if you will. And he said, if you work hard, and you’re honest, and decent and you care for other people, and especially those beneath you, you’ll progress. It will happen. And if you have energy, and adroitness, and skill, and talent and brains, you’ll go even faster. And indeed, the Old America was alive, still enough for it to push him up. And all the more consequential because Blackness is an impediment to that. And yet he made it. And you have to understand that about him, I think.
WILKERSON: I was recently looking at reading John le Carré’s latest and final book Silverview. And the cover flap has a sentence on it that is telling: How can you be patriotic in a country you no longer recognize? Colin Powell came, especially on January 6th with the events at the Capitol … to realize the validity of that statement. How can you be patriotic to a country you no longer recognize? Well, that country, that country put Colin Powell, allowed Colin Powell to use his personal abilities, his character, his standards, his honesty, his decency to get where he got to. And so how do you look back on that and not have some tremendous regrets when you see that country no longer recognizable? And frankly, I would say in that sense, I’m happy that he passed. Because he didn’t need to see any more than that.
POWELL [Archival Tape]: One of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq’s biological weapons is the existence of mobile production facilities used to make biological agents. Let me take you inside that intelligence file and share with you what we know from eyewitness accounts. We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories, on wheels and on rails.
CHAKRABARTI: The late Secretary of State Colin Powell making the case for war against Iraq at the United Nations Security Council on February 5th, 2003. The administration of President George W. Bush considered Powell’s respect on the world stage and his credibility with the American people critical to paving the way for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. It worked. The U.S. bombed Baghdad, March 2003. However, later that year it was revealed that much of the intelligence provided to Powell for his U.N. speech was at best faulty and at worst outright lies.
CHAKRABARTI: Powell would later call the speech a painful, forever blot on his record. Well, how did that blot come to pass? No one knows better than retired Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff. Wilkerson was in charge of assembling the U.S. intelligence used in Powell’s address. He’s often since said that he regrets what he calls probably the biggest mistake of his life.
CHAKRABARTI: In our conversation, Larry Wilkerson shared more details about the making of that speech than I’ve ever heard before. You’ll hear references to important names: George Tenet, then director of Central Intelligence, and John McLaughlin, then No. 2 under Tenet at the CIA. Wilkerson described the moment Powell first told him he was going to make the Bush administration’s case to the U.N.
WILKERSON: He walked into my office in late January 2003. And he said, throwing a script down on my desk of about 48 pages or so, he said, This is the script I’ll use to present at the United Nations on February 5th to advance the case of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. I sat down in his presence, I normally don’t sit down in the secretary’s presence, even though I’ve known him for a long time. I sat down in my chair and said, Are you kidding me, sir? And he said, Nope. You’re going to have to do it. Now, he’d stuck me with these kinds of missions lots of times in my life. But this one was beyond the pale, as far as I was concerned.
WILKERSON: What I became, because I did not resign, I wrote out my resignation. Dear Mr. President, blah blah blah, I resign. I didn’t submit it because I called my wife and she told me, You got to stay with it. You got to stay with it. These are really dark times. You got to stay with it. So I put it in my center drawer and I assembled a team. I was presented with Mr. Tenet, Mr. McLaughlin, Robert Walpole and Larry Gershwin. The last two were analysts at the CIA, and I should have been wary immediately because they were the only people I was presented with. No one else was allowed to get to me or to get to Powell. And this is what I did. I orchestrated the logistics and the technical aspects of that presentation.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel, forgive me for interrupting. So the technical aspects, meaning the intelligence that was presented?
WILKERSON: No. Meaning when Powell said, I want that NSA intercept, I want that piece of material intelligence, I want that piece of signals intelligence or whatever. I then did things like for the NSA intercepts, coordinate the translation from Arabic, or Farsi or Urdu or whatever they were, into English. And do multiple translations in separate spaces so that I could then check them to make sure that they were indeed accurate translations. Or as accurate as possible. And then synchronize them with the Urdu, Arabic or whatever text on the screen. And make sure the English came across understandable for the majority of the audience that will be watching. Those kind of things are what we had to do.
WILKERSON: I also pored over satellite photography in the basement of the Pentagon till I was blind. We actually did something that probably few people in America have ever achieved. We actually moved satellites, because it’s so expensive to move them. And took subsequent looks at places that I said we needed to look at again. It perplexed me that Saddam Hussein was doing what he was doing. Because he was giving us all the signatures that a particular point — ammunition supply point, in most cases — had chemical weapons or biological weapons.
WILKERSON: To this day, I don’t know why he was doing that, unless he was afraid. If he didn’t do it, if he didn’t convince the United States that he still had them, he couldn’t convince his enemies that he still had them. And he was showing us things on the ground through our satellites that were not actually accurate. But they were spoofing us, in other words. Like the North Koreans did, for example, with their basketball court that we said was a rocket engine test bed until we saw a bunch of soldiers out there playing basketball on it.
Most of the countries in the world know our satellite capabilities and use them to spoof us and to fool us sometimes. So I had to do all these things in five days and five nights. And get this presentation ready for roughly an hour and 25 minutes in front of the U.N. Security Council.
CHAKRABARTI: Were there debates, though? Or disputes at the time before Secretary Powell gave his speech on February 5th about the reliability of the information that you’re talking about?
WILKERSON: Absolutely. One of the most dramatic was when he actually accosted me physically. He’d never done that before. He grabbed me, as we say in the military, by the stacking swivel. My shirt, my coat. And he shoved me into a room in the National Intelligence Council spaces, slammed the door shut, sat me down in the chair and said, I guess we’re private here. And I said, trying to make some humor, It is the CIA, boss. He was not amused. He said, I am sick and tired of this crap. He didn’t use the word crap. It was a little rougher than that, on terrorism and terrorists. [He said], I’m not going to present it. I refuse to present this stuff. I think he thought I was going to object. I looked at him and I said, Good, boss. We’ll throw it out. No, he looked at me and he said, You agree? I said, Absolutely, let’s throw it out. It stinks.
I also knew that was probably going to be the most powerful part with the American people, connecting Saddam Hussein with al Qaeda. So I went to Lynne Davidson, who was the writer, she was putting it together at the computer. And I said, Lynne, we’re going to take all of this out. I didn’t see John McLaughlin, the deputy DCI CIA head, leaning against the door. The true, the true devil at the CIA. John McLaughlin disappeared then. He disappeared with Tenet, I’m absolutely certain, because we resumed the rehearsal about 30 minutes, 40 minutes later.
And Powell is going through a rather perfunctory rehearsal, because we’re not too far down the road at this point. And all of a sudden Tenet gets up and leaves. And I’m sitting beside Powell, Tenet was on his right, I was on his left. And I’m thinking, Where is George going at this important moment? And I got my answer. About 15, 20 minutes later, he comes back in.
He sits down besides Powell, and this is a direct quote, as my memory will allow me to quote it: ‘We’ve just learned from a high level al Qaeda operatives interrogation of significant contacts between al Qaeda and the Mukhabarat [the Iraqi secret police] to include the Mukhabarat training al Qaeda operatives in the use of chemical and biological weapons.’ End of quote. Powell turns to me and says, LW put it back in. And we did. We put all that back in.
POWELL [Archival Tape]: I can trace the story of a senior terrorist operative telling how Iraq provided training in these weapons to al Qaeda. Fortunately, this operative is now detained and he has told his story. I will relate it to you now, as he himself described it. This senior al Qaeda terrorist was responsible for one of al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. His information comes firsthand from his personal involvement at senior levels of al Qaeda. He says Bin Laden and his top deputy in Afghanistan, deceased al Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef, did not believe that al Qaeda labs in Afghanistan were capable enough to manufacture these chemical or biological agents. They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help. Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq.
WILKERSON: Much later, I learned that this was Shaykh al-Libi, that he was tortured in Egypt, that no U.S. intelligence personnel were present during the torture and that indeed al-Libi himself recanted a week or two afterwards, saying he would have said anything to stop the torture. Fast forward, al-Libi is murdered in a Libyan prison later on. Don’t ask me why, but this changed everything. It changed everything in terms of that presentations impact on the American people. Because go back and watch it, Powell says Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda are connected and in a time of 9/11, you know, implying that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda knew all about 9/11. And Saddam Hussein was supportive.
POWELL [Archival Tape]: Iraqi officials deny accusations of ties with al Qaeda. These denials are simply not credible. Last year, an al Qaeda associate bragged that the situation in Iraq was, quote, good.
WILKERSON: This was the most powerful part of the presentation, and it was based on a lie. A lie that George Tenet communicated to Powell in front of my face. Later, I would find out from other CIA operatives who were cognizant of what had happened that that was indeed the case. It was a bald faced lie. They knew. The DIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, put out a burn notice on al-Libi’s testimony within two weeks of his having recanted.
But Tenet never showed us that burn notice, and when I later asked George why, he said it was a computer glitch. Come on, George. A computer glitch? You didn’t show the secretary of state information that would have made him throw out that part of his testimony, for sure. I mean, he’d already thrown it out. You got him to put it back in. This is what happened. These sorts of things happened again and again and again.
WILKERSON: Every pillar in his presentation at the U.N., occasion to call over that summer, John McLaughlin, Tenet’s deputy or Tenet himself, or someone, essentially informing him that the latest pillar of his presentation had just collapsed, had just fallen apart. The mobile biological labs were the last leg, as I recall, and Tenet actually called him on that. And he stormed into my office and he said, Call up the CIA’s website, call it up. You’ll see they’ve still got pictures of those labs on their web site. God bless America. They turned around and walked back into his office. He knew. He knew that we had done a dastardly deed, if you will. And he was very irritated about it, and he knew I was irritated about it as sort of the technical architect of putting it together. And so we had, increasingly, a difficult time.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Colonel Wilkerson, as you well know, it was just a couple of years later, first in 2005 and then again and again for a long time, that Secretary Powell talked about his regret. Here’s one example in Al Jazeera in 2011.
POWELL [Archival Tape]: I understood the consequences of that, of that failure. And as I’ve said on many occasions, I deeply regret that the information, some of the information, not all of it. Some of the information I presented, which was multi-source, was wrong, and it is a blot on my record.
CHAKRABARTI: Before February 5th, 2003, did Secretary of State Colin Powell think the United States should invade Iraq?
WILKERSON: I don’t think so. Based on the conversations that I’ve had with him, no. He did think that if there were occasion for Saddam to do something again that threatened one of his neighbors, that it needed to be dealt with with military force. But the occasion wasn’t there, and there were so many reasons the occasion wasn’t there. He gave many of them to the president in the hour, hour and a half presentation he gave the president.
WILKERSON: One of them he knew very well, as did I, because of what we’d done when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We had, under President H.W. Bush, and then Clinton, even more so, cut the military. And he knew that you could not do the war in Afghanistan and invade Iraq. You couldn’t. But that was one of the most important reasons that he as a military professional knew that we shouldn’t be doing another war. And we damn sure shouldn’t be doing it when we didn’t actually need to at the time.
And so he used that military expertise to advise the president, even though the vice president had told him repeatedly, Don’t be talking like you’re chairman anymore. You’re secretary of state now. So he is defying the vice president in that regard. Now, over the subsequent months, and weeks and time after his presentation, he rationalized it more and more. And I think wound up trying to believe that there was a reason to go to war with Saddam Hussein to get rid of him, even if there weren’t any WMD because he was a malevolent individual. And sooner or later would probably have done something that we’d had to react to. I think that was more rationalization than anything else.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, Colonel Wilkerson, back in 2006, you gave an interview on PBS, and in that interview you said that your participation in the February U.N. presentation constituted the lowest point of your professional life. That you participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the U.N. Security Council. In the months after February 5th, 2003, how did Powell himself look back on that speech? What did he tell you about how he felt about having done it?
WILKERSON: We never talked about it. He wouldn’t talk about it with me. It was that issue between us at the end that, I mean, I’m standing there when he’s giving me an award at the end of his time as secretary of state, in my time as his chief of staff. And it’s all I can do to even stand there and hold the award in my hand. And all I think he could do to be there beside me. Understanding what we did about how things had come to just a bottomless pit at the end of the four years. It was so difficult, we couldn’t talk about it. It was just too hard. It was too hard for us to discuss it. And especially for him, I think.
CHAKRABARTI: This is the great tragedy, right? I mean, because I think Secretary Powell himself at one time was quoted as saying he knows that that speech is going to be in his obituary. And for a man who served his country, what does it make you feel that that one day, that one speech is such a central part of his public biography now?
WILKERSON: It’s the way we do things in America. And it’s certainly the way we do things these days. A whole life of honor, and dignity, and good works, and capability and so forth can be ruined by a single mistake that gets the media frenzy, if you will, that such mistakes get and doesn’t die down. And haunt you, in particular, if you are somewhat aware of the avenues you could have taken, perhaps to escape it and didn’t take.
WILKERSON: One of those now is not having resigned and prevent the war, that was absolute nonsense. We both knew that if he resigned, Condi would come in and we go to war anyway. They were intent on having their war. And Colin Powell’s resignation, the flames from it would’ve lasted about a week and then bang, we’d have gone right on to war. But the rationalization that if I’m not here, then the person who replaces me will not be as dedicated to preventing bad things from happening as I am, is there. It’s always there. And it catches you, and keeps you from doing what everyone, afterwards, in perfect hindsight, says you should have done. Resign your office.
I was thinking about that the other day when General Milley was testifying on Afghanistan in the Congress. And stentorian Senator Tom Cotton asking him, Why haven’t you resigned? Or something to that effect. And had I been Milley, here’s what I would have said back to Senator Cotton. Why haven’t you? Because the most egregiously responsible entity in the American government for the past 20 years of stupid, endless war is the Congress of the United States. Who have surrendered the constitutional war power to the executive branch.
WILKERSON: Powell, as reluctant as he might have been, came at the end to appreciate the validity of that sentiment. That it’s not the same country. It’s a country whose raison d’être, reason for existing, is to make war on other countries. It’s a country whose military industrial complex makes so much money off war that it perpetuates that war. And did he come late to that realization? Of course he did. He came up through that hierarchy and it put him in the highest office in the land in the military. The most powerful military in the world. And he was a Black man. He did all that. How could he then say, I doubt the process through which I ascended? He couldn’t. Humanly impossible. But I know he had his doubts at the end.
CHAKRABARTI: Colonel Wilkerson, you talked about the end of your time serving as Powell’s chief of staff. So I wonder if you could tell us about the end of Powell’s service as secretary of state. He resigned after the 2004 election, and that wasn’t unexpected. And in his resignation letter, dated November 12th, 2004, he wrote, quote: ‘I am especially honored to have led the dedicated men and women of the Department of State. They nobly serve the American people and the cause of freedom around the world every day.’ But what happened privately right before he left the Bush administration?
WILKERSON: I had just been briefed by the chief of staff at the White House, Andy Card, that there would be a procedure. And it involved everything from cabinet officers who wanted to resign would resign, but not all at once. The cabinet officers wanted a different position or whatever would let it be known to the president. So I briefed Powell on all of this, it was a very disciplined way of handling reelection. Well, the reelection came.
WILKERSON: Oh, by the way, when I walked into Rich’s office, Rich Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, after the election results were known. He was grumbling and I said, Rich, what’s the problem? And he said, We won. I said, Did you want to win? And he said, Hell, no, I want to get out of here. So that was sort of the atmosphere. But at any rate, here we are with this discipline replacement process. And all of a sudden he gets a call from a functionary at the White House, a functionary telling him to submit his letter of resignation.
He was so angry we didn’t see him for a week. Rich actually asked me if we should cut orders, appointing him acting secretary of state, because we didn’t have a secretary of state. And then one morning after about a week, I noticed his elevator light come on. And he was back in the building. It was very difficult to talk to him after that. Very difficult for him to talk to me. It was a difficult time, very difficult time, and they treated him terribly, absolutely terribly. To top it all, his out call on the president of the United States was scheduled for a certain day in January that got preempted because of the tsunami in Indonesia.
WILKERSON: And here’s another story for you. I’m in London. I get a telephone call from the doyen of the ambassador corps, the ambassador from Singapore, who batted 10 miles above her weight. She was a brilliant woman. And she says to me, Larry, you have to get your boss. You have to get your boss to Indonesia. He’s the only one they trust. I said, Thank you, Madam Ambassador. I call state ops and they put him on the phone. And before I could say anything, he said, I’ve got my ticket. LW, I’ve got my ticket. I’m going to Aceh province. So already, you know, he knew.
Who was I to tell him what to do? So that postponed his out call on the president. Well, I’m getting calls all during the week prior to the new date for his out call. I think it was January 11th or something like that. So I knew that they knew when it was and where it was. Well, he goes for his out call on the president. And the president asked him Colin, Why are you here? I’m here for my out call with you, Mr. President, I’m leaving. And Bush goes, Andy! Andy, get in here! Referring to Andy Card, the chief of staff. Who did that? I don’t know. Did Cheney do that? Was it just an error, colossal error in protocol and in scheduling? Anyway, that’s how badly they treated him towards the end.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So to be clear, for people who don’t understand the protocol, is it that the president didn’t know?
WILKERSON: He didn’t know he was coming.
CHAKRABARTI: At all? But he knew of his resignation, though.
WILKERSON: Well, I don’t even know that. I assume he did. And maybe the president was playing them all for fools. Who knows?
CHAKRABARTI: What do you think the American people don’t know or don’t understand about the Colin Powell that you knew?
WILKERSON: What a warm, loving, caring individual he was. You know, your subordinates need morale, enlisted men and women need morale. They need you to look after their morale. That was Powell. It wasn’t him in terms of his fellow officers. He looked after them, too. But he did feel like he owed the major portion of his attention to his subordinates and to those less fortunate than he. That’s why he devoted so much of his time to the D.C. school system, for example. Or to kids in general, to Boys & Girls clubs across America and so forth. He really loved young people and loved helping young people. People don’t remember that about him, except those like me who were close to him and knew him so well. But he was incredible in that regard.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Colonel Wilkerson, if I may, I’d like to play a moment from an interview that Powell did with his daughter Linda, just last month. It’s probably the last interview he ever gave. And Linda Powell asks her father to share a story about how he got involved again with his alma mater, the City College of New York. And he talks about a time when he visited, sat down at a table with a group of young people, and asked them a question.
COLIN POWELL [Archival Tape]: I said to the kids, tell me who you are and where you all came from. And they went around the table quickly, didn’t tell me everything. And so I came back to them and I said, OK, each of you tell me where you’re from, where your parents are from and what’s your future. Each one of them, 12, I think, each one of them did that. And —
LINDA POWELL: They reminded you of yourself.
COLIN POWELL: To this day. Every one of them had something they wanted to do. I was as emotional then as I am now. That’s when I decided I had to do more than just show up every now and again. It was a principle, the president of the schools idea.
LINDA POWELL: To take over the school, become the Colin Powell School.
COLIN POWELL: What became the Colin Powell School. And once it became that I had to be a part of it. … I can’t tell you what each one of them said. But the reason I’m crying is I looked at them. And they were me. And they came from an immigrant background like me. And they came from some borough in the Bronx and they were smiling.
LINDA POWELL: It’s an American journey.
COLIN POWELL: They were all on an American journey.
CHAKRABARTI: The late secretary of state, Colin Powell, talking with his daughter, Linda Powell, in an interview posted on September 30th. Powell died just two and a half weeks later … on October 18th. Colonel Wilkerson, if I may, just one last question. What impact did Colin Powell have on you, on your life?
WILKERSON: Changed my life completely. Absolutely changed my life completely. I feel like I had the opportunity to work for a Black Eisenhower or, for that matter, for a Black George Washington. Which is really a stretch of the imagination, if you will. I knew that there were people who whispered behind his back that it was his Blackness that got him to where he was. But I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that that was false. Basically, he was the most competent military officer, and the most caring and empathetic with a brilliant sense of humor individual I ever met.
WILKERSON: If he had one flaw that I would point out and say it almost was his undoing, it was his naiveté. He thought other people, until they proved otherwise, were as decent as he. And it was often not the case, and it was late that he realized that. And it got him in trouble from time to time. And interestingly, when I first went to work for him, I met with a young lady from Nevada, Marybel Batjer, who had been with him for a while. And I was asking her questions about him because I didn’t know him at all. And she said, there’s one thing I would warn you about. Beware of his naiveté. And I said, What do you mean, Marybel? And she said, Well, sometimes about other people around him, he can be terribly naïve. He wanted to believe other people were as dedicated to the role they were in, in a sense of competence, and so forth, as he was. And it was often not the case.
CHAKRABARTI: Is there anything else that you want to say about him? Any other questions? Well, there’s a billion questions I should have asked.
WILKERSON: USA Today asked me to write an op-ed, and other than you, that’s the only thing I’ve done. And I realized as I submitted it yesterday that they probably won’t print it. Because I tried to say, what I was so inarticulate at trying to get across … and that is that if you are a Black man, and you have risen to the pinnacle of power in your country and you know all that means as a Black man, as well as a military officer, and later a diplomat. And you constantly talk about, to young people and others, as if it were your sole message to them of consequence, that if you do what I have done, you, too, will realize the dream. And then suddenly come to the end and don’t recognize that dream anymore. Horrible. I mean, for a man like him, horrible. For a man like me it’s horrible. But for a man like him, double so.
CHAKRABARTI: In terms of the failures of the nation now?
WILKERSON: Yes. He was so confident, for example, that the military, as a social entity, if you will, had solved the race problem. That he was an exemplar of that. And then all of a sudden he looked around and he saw the promotion boards no longer putting Black officers forward. And Chuck Hagel called him and said, What’s happening, Colin? What’s wrong? What’s happening, Colin?
Well, you can’t have that sort of thing occurring around you and not began to realize, even if you’re somewhat naïve, that it’s not the same republic. And I really, my heart went out to him in the last year or so, because I understood that he was beginning to grasp the things that I had arrived at much sooner. Slow. I mean, I should have been smarter and realized it much earlier than I did. I realized that he was finally beginning to come around to realizing what I was realizing. That statement by the blurb on the cover. How can you be a patriot in a country you no longer recognize?
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, but don’t we have to be at that point more than ever?
WILKERSON: Well, that’s what he would say.
Larry Wilkerson served with the late Colin Powell for 12 years, including as special assistant at the Joint Chiefs and as Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department. Wilkerson is also a 31 year veteran of the U.S. Army. He’s currently at the Eisenhower Media Network. We spoke with Larry Wilkerson for more than an hour, and he told us many more stories about his years with Colin Powell. You can hear our full conversation here.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.