[AllPolitics - RNC '96 Players]

Colin Powell

On Nov. 8, 1995, retired Gen. Colin Powell, long mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, announced that he would not seek the White House, ending months of fevered speculation about his political future. Despite numerous entreaties to run as Robert Dole's vice president, Powell has said no. Finally, just weeks before the Republican national convention, Powell agreed to speak on national TV, a sure boost to the Dole campaign and the Republican party.

In that spirit, here's a brief bio of the non-candidate.

NON-CANDIDATE: Colin L. Powell
DATE NOT ANNOUNCED: November 8, 1995
BORN: April 5, 1937 in New York
RELIGION: Episcopal

The Early Days

[A young Powell]

Colin Powell was born to Luther and Maud Powell (Jamaican immigrants) in New York City on April 5, 1937. Both parents made modest wages in New York's garment district, and lived in a mixed neighborhood of the Bronx known as "Banana Kelly" (for the long curve of Kelly Street.) When Colin's father won $10,000 by "hitting the numbers" (an illegal but common gambling habit at the time), he moved the family to Queens and put a down payment on a small house.

Educated in New York City public schools, Powell was an average if somewhat indifferent student. He graduated from Morris High School and enrolled at City College of New York (CCNY). Powell studied engineering for a semester, but got his degree in geology. Powell discovered ROTC during his first semester, and, at long last, he'd found something he looked forward to, enjoyed, and excelled in. Powell received A's in his ROTC classes, which helped him achieve a C average overall, and most agree that it was the military kept Powell in college. Powell joined the college ROTC program fraternity called the Pershing Rifles -- an elite group within his ROTC unit. Powell says he fell instantly in love with the military: "The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved." He writes that it reminded him of the other pillar of his life, the Episcopal church. The Army kept Powell in college (not his course work), and it was the first time he excelled, the first time he was taken seriously. Powell graduated in June 1958 and was commissioned in the Army as a second lieutenant.

Powell did his basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia (Phil Gramm's birth place) and had his first brush with segregation. He learned he could buy what he wanted at the local Woolworth but couldn't eat there or use the restroom. Powell made a decision not to let racism cripple him emotionally and set his sights, above all, on succeeding in his military career. After Fort Benning, Powell served as a platoon leader in the 48th Infantry, based in West Germany. After three years when his ROTC obligation was fulfilled, Powell opted to stay in the Army. His parents were surprised, but Powell explained, "I did not know anything but soldiering....and for a black, no other avenue in American society offered so much opportunity."

[The Powell's wedding]

Powell met Alma Vivian Johnson in Boston on a blind date in the fall of 1961. Powell was stationed at Fort Devon, and Alma was working as an audiologist at the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. Powell asked to see her again the day after the first date, and they soon began seeing each other regularly. They were married the following summer, Aug. 25. 1962, in Birmingham, Alabama, Alma's hometown. Alma was the daughter of a school principal, which put her family on a much higher-class rung than Powell's. Powell felt he had to prove himself worthy to Alma's father.

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In summer 1962 Powell learned he would be one of the several thousand advisers sent to South Vietnam by President Kennedy -- he arrived in Saigon on Christmas morning of the same year, sad about leaving his new wife. Powell was to help the South Vietnamese unit protect an airstrip and prevent the Viet Cong from moving through the A Shau Valley to the coastal provinces.

[Powell and Vietnam]

Powell was initially supportive of the Vietnam War, "a worldwide communist conspiracy was out there, and we had to stop it wherever it occurred." However, he later (and still) grapples with the meaning of the war.

After a few weeks in Shau, Powell joined a 400-man battalion as U.S. adviser (it had a South Vietnamese commander) that went on foot patrol through the A Shau Valley, his first combat experience. The battalion was ambushed repeatedly by the Viet Cong and lost men. He wrote, "The exhilaration of a cocky 25-year-old American had evaporated in a single burst of gunfire." However, Powell eventually won the battalion's trust. Among other things, he convinced them to wear "flack jackets" which could stop bullets from small arms fire. Six months later, Powell stepped into a punji trap and a poisoned bamboo spike ran through his right foot. The injury won him a Purple Heart. He recovered quickly and fully, but his days of combat were over. He was reassigned to the 1st ARVN Division Headquarters in Hue and worked as an assistant adviser on operations -- a job that gave him a bird's-eye view of the war.

Powell disagreed with the "official" contention that the U.S. was winning the war. "Beating them? Most of the time we couldn't even find them." He accepted the they were pursuing one size-fits-all policy of anti-communism, which only worked in part of Vietnam. He agreed that the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism and civil strife beyond the East-West conflict. On his second tour of duty (1968-1969) Powell loaded a wounded soldier onto a helicopter. The soldier had stepped on a land mine which had punctured his chest and almost severed his leg, and Powell wrote that he kept trying to speak, but the words would not come. He said the soldier eyes seemed to be saying, Why?, and Powell wrote, "I did not have an answer, then or now." During his second tour of duty Powell survived a helicopter crash landing, going back into the smoking wreckage to pull out his commanding general and two others.

Powell is criticized by some for not using his position to report or stop the massacre at My Lai. He was custodian of the operational journals of the Americal Division, which was involved in the massacre. In his book "My American Journey," Powell points out he was not with the division at the time of the massacre and cooperated with the inspector general's staff investigator, who asked him to produce the journal for the date of the massacre. Powell writes that at the time he was questioned, he was mystified about what was going on and did not learn what the visit was about until two years later.

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White House Fellow

[A White House Fellow]

Powell returned to the U.S. in September 1969; graduated second in his class at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth that same year; received a Masters of Business Administration from George Washington University in 1971 (paid for by the Army, but the former C student made mostly A's); and served on the Army staff for a year before being selected as a White House Fellow in 1972. White House Fellows are young professionals selected to spend a year working in executive branch -- alumni include Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, Robert McFarlane, former Senator Tim Wirth and CNN President Tom Johnson. Assigned to the Office of Management and Budget, Powell became protege and friend to Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. Important friends to a career military man. In 1991, Powell told the Los Angeles Times the fellowship was a "defining experience" that taught him that Washington is "greased by compromise and consensus." Powell is regarded by those who have worked with him as a straight broker but one who never ruffles feathers, even when they desperately deserve to be ruffled.

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From 1973 to 1974 Powell served as a battalion commander in Korea. Some argue that the crisis Powell inherited in Korea is the one episode of his career that best resembles the challenges he would face dealing with America's racial problems as President. Powell, now a lieutenant colonel, took over the Second Infantry Division after blacks had essentially seceded from the unit, and, in one riot, had almost killed a white officer.

The Korean commanding general, Hank Emerson, ordered a crackdown on the black militants and Powell carried it out. He discharged one soldier, who he remembers now only as "Private Odom," after learning of his clandestine meetings. Powell and the other battalion commanders then started working the men so hard they were too tired to fight with one another. Powell has often said that his year whipping his Korean battalion into shape was his most satisying ever. James Kitfield, an expert on military culture, said Powell was "first and foremost an Army officer." Powell felt the military had always given blacks a relatively fair shake and was trying to do even better.

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Back to Washington

While Powell was in Korea, five generals had met in Washington to decide which officers would go to the National War College, the Harvard of military education -- Powell's mentor, Lieutenant General Julius Becton, was president of the selection board. Powell was selected. Powell returned to the United States in September 1974, and worked at the Pentagon for nine months preparing a report for Congress on military manpower needs. It was the first time he worked with career Pentagon civilians. At the War College, Powell was introduced a book which would help shape his military philosophy, Karl Von Clausewitz's "On War," written in 1830. Powell has noted Von Clausewitz two rules often. Rule one: "No one starts a war...without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to achieve it;" Rule two: Political leaders set a war's objectives, while armies achieve them.

Powell then spent a few tours in the field, spent four years in Jimmy Carter's Pentagon (where he cut his teeth on national security), then a year as a senior aide in the Energy Department.

In November 1980, Powell, wanting to register his preference for commander in chief, checked his absentee ballot for Ronald Reagan (but he had no problem splitting his ticket). Powell had little respect for Carter's handling of foreign affairs. Reagan appointed Caspar Weinberger Defense Secretary. Weinberger remembered Powell's performance as White House Fellow. In January 1981, Powell met the man who was to become his closest confident, Richard Armitage. Armitage, a former Dole staffer who had served in Vietnam, was one of Weinberger's first staffers to hit the Pentagon. Powell also met Marybel Batjer around the same time, another key Weinberger staffer who would become a close friend to Powell, and serve as his executive assistant in 1987-88 (when he was national security adviser).

Powell's next assignment almost derailed his career. In the summer of 1981, Powell was sent to Fort Carson, Colorado, to be an assistant division commander (he knew he had to get out of Washington if he wanted to keep moving forward in the Army). Powell was a now a brigadier general, but he wanted the ultimate command, his own division (each division had 10,000 to 20,000 men). Powell had conflicts with his direct boss, Major General John Hudachek (in one occasion, he failed to tell him a high-ranking foreign official was visiting the base), and for the first time was rated "average" on his efficiency report. Most devastating, Powell was not recommended to command his own division. For most, such a poor recommendation would spell early retirement, but Powell was saved by his friends in Washington.

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Once More to Washington

In 1983, Gen. John Wickman became chief of staff of the Army, and having worked with Powell for six years, didn't look at his latest efficiency report. Wickman pushed Powell to be military assistant to the secretary of defense -- essentially the secretary's chief of staff, and considered one of the most powerful military jobs in the Pentagon. It is here where he developed his close friendship with Richard Armitage, then assistant secretary of defense. Armitage would come to work at 5:00 AM, gather the overnight news, and brief Powell when he awoke at 6:00 AM. By 7:00 AM, Powell knew more than anyone in his Pentagon office.

Powell pleased his bosses (Caspar Weinberger and General Wickham) so much it almost cost him his goal of gaining his own division. Powell's division was set aside for him in Germany, but Wickman convinced him that he was needed in the Pentagon, and if he waited, he would recieve a V Corps command in Europe (a three-star general position in charge of three divisions). Powell waited. Wickman also suggested to Powell that his remarkable political and interpersonal skills would make him ideal for other lines of work after the military, perhaps politics.

Powell held his V Corps position for five months when the White House called. Frank Carlucci, the new Reagan national security adviser after the Iran-Contra scandal, wanted Powell to become the deputy national security adviser. Powell initially rejected the offer, but after being called by Armitage, Wickman (who told him, "the answer you give them is yes"), and finally Reagan himself, accepted. Powell now sat in the White House closet-sized office with his back to the White House driveway.

[Powell with Norman]

Powell served three Presidents (Reagan, Bush and Clinton) at the very top of the national security establishment; first as deputy national security adviser, then National Security Adviser and finally Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993. Powell helped shape American defense and foreign policy during a period of historical change -- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the downsizing of the military, the 1989 invasion of Panama, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1992-93 engagment in Somalia and the crisis in Bosnia.

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Potential Problems

Some are critical of Powell's cautious style in the Gulf War (and perhaps jealous of the overnight stardom the conflict gave him) and Bosnia. President Bill Clinton felt Powell was "trying to figure out how I want (questions) answered," and called Powell's predecessor for advice on Somalia. Admiral Crowe said of Clinton's description of Powell, "Mr. President, you've just broken the code." Others question Powell's role in Iran-Contra. (As Defense Secretary Weinberger's chief military advisor, Powell knew of the initiative to approach the "moderates" in Iran and, later, of the directive to send U.S. missiles from the Defense Department to the C.I.A., which had arranged to get them to Israel and eventually to Iran. What neither Powell or Weinberger knew was that Admiral Poindexter's National Security Adviser's office (and Oliver North) had arranged to inflate the price of the missiles and divert the extra money to the Nicaraguan Contras. That is the "illegal" part of the Iran-Contra scandal.


Powell blamed the Somalia debacle on Clinton Administration Defense Secretary Les Aspin, whom he considered a defense intellectual but a poor manager who knew or cared little about defense operations. (Aspin blamed Powell for taking a "victory lap" before his retirement and not paying enough attention to the crisis). However, there is still little doubt among those who had worked with Powell that he is indeed presidential material.

Powell decided to write his memoirs when he retired in September 1993. He was not asked to write them, he volunteered, and systematically studied the business of writing and selling books.

[Powell at a graduation]

Powell has three grown children. Michael, 32 years old; and two younger daughters, Annemarie and Linda. All three attended the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Michael's military career was ended by an auto accident that fractured his pelvis. Powell writes of his glowing pride in his son's determination to come back from the injury. Powell is also close to his extended family, including Bruce Llewellyn. Llewellyn has made a fortune in numerous business ventures, and included Powell in a deal to purchase a television station in Buffalo New York with other black celebrities, including O.J. Simpson. The deal took advantage of a now-repealed provision of the tax code that gave a tax break to minority owned television and radio stations.

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