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Colin Powell

A soldier turned diplomat faces new war on terrorism

State Department staffers applauded Powell when he took over as secretary of state.

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(CNN) -- Colin Powell accumulated four stars as a general, rising to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country's top military post. Now the career soldier is a diplomat, lending his credibility and experience to his role as secretary of state. The former strategist of the Persian Gulf War is playing a different role in America's battle against terrorism.

On September 11, Powell was in South America to promote democracy and anti-drug trafficking efforts in the region. After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, he rushed back to Washington, appearing on five morning newscasts the following day. Since then he visited Pakistan in mid-October and has taken a step toward Mideast peace negotiations.

"We will find out who is responsible for this and they will pay for it," Powell said. "This has got to be a full scale assault by the civilized community against terrorism."

It was not the first time that the warrior statesman has bolstered the administration of President George W. Bush. Powell's nomination as secretary of state was the first Cabinet announcement made by the president-elect, who headed into office without much international experience or the mandate of the popular vote.

"Powell is a man of independent stature," said U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He has built a reputation based on the force of his personality. He has what the military folks call a 'command presence.'"

But Powell's "presence" was shifted to the back burner during the early months of the Bush administration. Washington pundits said that Powell was too moderate for Bush's hawkish inner circle, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Just a week before the September 11 attacks, Time magazine declared Powell "the odd man out."

"For a time, Colin Powell was finding himself in the position where, in the minds of lots of other people, he wasn't the preeminent voice of American foreign policy," said Time correspondent Johanna McGeary.

Since the terror attacks, Powell has stepped from the wings, bringing his 35 years of military experience and coalition building skills to the forefront.

Programmed for success

Powell's journey to the corridors of power in Washington began in the tough streets of New York. He was born in Harlem on April 5, 1937 and raised in the South Bronx, where his Jamaican-immigrant parents settled.

"Frankly, it was a very fine upbringing I had in the South Bronx," Powell said, despite the neighborhood's problems of drugs, crime and poverty.

His mother, Maud, worked as a seamstress and his father, Luther, was a shipping clerk foreman. They came to New York with a dream of giving their children a bright future.

"We came from a family that raised you and sort of programmed you for success," said Marilyn Berns, Powell's sister. "The expectations were there that you would go forth and achieve."

Although the young Colin was only an average student in school, the melting pot of 1940s New York educated him in other ways.

"I learned a great deal about myself on the streets of New York and grew up with people and went to school with people of all different ethnic origins and backgrounds and religions," Powell said.

Powell's childhood friend Gene Norman described the South Bronx as "a neighborhood that let's you see the world through many different eyes."

"We all picked up a little Yiddish, we all picked up a little German, Spanish, Italian," added Tony Grant, another childhood friend.

Although racism was a fact of life, Powell's parents refused to let their children think of themselves as second-class citizens.

"My parents kept telling me, and the adults in my life kept telling me, 'don't worry about that. Don't care what people say about you or how they point to you and think you're different. You're not different,'" Powell recalled.

Powell finds his passion

After squeaking through high school, Powell entered the City College of New York with a "C" grade average. Although academics were not his thing, he found his passion in the college's ROTC program.

"I liked the structure and the discipline of the military," he said. "I felt somewhat distinctive wearing a uniform. I hadn't been distinctive in much else."

"He used to love prancing up and down the block, practicing his marching, calling out cadence to himself," Grant said. "He thoroughly enjoyed it."

Powell became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1958 after he received his bachelor's degree.

"The army was the way out for me, the way out of the city," Powell said. "It was an opportunity when there weren't many other opportunities for young blacks, even young blacks who had completed college."

But when Powell reported for duty at Fort Benning, Georgia, he came up against an unexpected roadblock -- segregation.

Powell put aside his exasperation and anger and focused on his job performance. He told Joe Persico, the collaborator on his 1995 autobiography, "I was not going to let other people's opinions of me become my opinion of myself.'"

In 1962, the 25-year-old Powell was shipped to Vietnam. His initial excitement about the chance to serve in combat soon turned to frustration as he realized that the United States had no clearly defined mission in Vietnam and no plans for getting out.

"I came away from that experience with the belief that if we're going to send young men and women into harm's way, we should make sure they have a clear purpose that they are fighting for, they understand that purpose, the American people understand it, and the American people are supporting them in what they do," Powell later said.

Winning over Washington

Powell returned home to a nation torn by anti-war protests and the civil rights movement. But the newly promoted captain managed to create a stable home life in the midst of the turmoil when he married Alma Vivian Johnson.

Alma Powell "accepted her sometimes very difficult role as a mother on her own, and also an Army wife who was expected to be charming, tactful and entertaining," Persico said. "She carried out that role rather beautifully for 35 years and I think part of his rise is due to the fact that he had this suitable wife."

President Ronald Reagan appointed Powell national security adviser in 1987.  

Powell returned to school with a firm purpose, earning straight A's in his MBA courses at George Washington University and at the prestigious National War College -- a graduate school for military officers.

"The beautiful part about the Army is that they were always giving me something that was beyond me," Powell said. "They were always testing me. And by being pushed, I grew fast."

Powell was accepted into the White House fellows program during the Ford administration. He once again rose to the challenge.

Powell was named military assistant, then secretary of defense, exposing him to decision making at the highest levels.

"You gave him a project, it got done. It got done effectively," said former Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. "It was easy to spot him as a rising talent at that time."

Powell moved up to deputy national security adviser in the Reagan administration and then was named national security adviser -- a first for an African-American.

Gulf War hero

When George Bush was elected president, he kept Powell close by, naming him to the highest military rank in the country -- chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His biggest challenge came in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Although Powell was initially reluctant to commit U.S. troops, he became one of the administration's most trusted spokesmen when the assault on Saddam Hussein's army finally came.

"First we are going to cut it off. Then we are going to kill it," Powell told a news conference.

By the time the war was over, Powell was a national hero.

His term extended into the Clinton administration, where he argued against U.S. military action in Bosnia. His policy of restraint, known as the "Powell Doctrine," delayed intervention by the United States, despite the bloodshed in the Balkan state.

"I have been characterized as the reluctant warrior. Guilty!" Powell said. "But I follow in a long tradition of American generals who have always been reluctant warriors."

When Powell's term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs ended in 1993, a publisher offered him a $6 million advance to write his memoirs.

"My American Journey," published in 1995, was a runaway bestseller and his poll ratings went through the roof. Both Republicans and Democrats courted Powell as a potential presidential candidate but he said he did not yet have the "passion and commitment" for political life.

Verbal warrior

Although he joined the Republican Party, Powell often sounded like a liberal. On the issue of welfare reform, he told delegates at the 1996 Republican Convention: "Corporate welfare and welfare for the wealthy must be first in line for elimination."

At the 2000 Republican Convention, Powell once again blasted the conservatives, this time on affirmative action.

"Some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but you hardly hear a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax code with preferences for special interests," he said.

Despite his differences with the right wing, Powell's credibility with the public made him a natural choice for the George W. Bush administration. The State Department staff literally cheered when Powell took command.

And now the retired general who was sometimes considered too cautious, too reluctant a warrior, is using words as his weapon to cultivate allies and disarm his critics as America faces what promises to be a long and difficult conflict.

"One of the things that people have always felt about Colin Powell is that he's a man of such great promise," said Time magazine's Joanna McGeary. "What you want to see is that promise used to do great things. And if he has ever had a chance to show that to us, he has a chance to show it to us now."

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