After months of intense media hype about Colin Powell, pundit Joe Klein carried the prevalent spin to its dizzying conclusion.
"The key to the race" for the presidency in 1996, Klein wrote (Newsweek, 11/13/95), is that "ideas are not important. Stature is everything." He added: "But if ideas don't matter, what does? Civility does."
Mesmerized by Colin Powell's "stature" and "civility," and showing a remarkable disdain for "ideas," the news media pumped up Powellmania. As early as 1994, Newsweek (10/10/94) was asking the question "Can Colin Powell Save America?" and declaring him "the most respected figure in American public life." Such superlatives were routine in coverage of the Powell boom in the fall of 1995, with journalists regularly treating the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the personification of integrity.
Early last year, Time magazine (3/13/95) helped set the tone by dubbing the retired general the "ideal candidate" and "the perfect anti-victim, validating America's fondest Horatio Alger myth that a black man with few advantages can rise to the top without bitterness and without forgetting who he is."
As Powell seemed poised to enter the 1996 presidential race, he took on near super-human qualities, while others were just faded mortals. Time (8/28/95) depicted Jesse Jackson as having grown "older, paunchier and less energetic," but described Powell as "the Persian Gulf War hero who exudes strength, common sense and human values like no one else on the scene."
Even clear-eyed journalists had their vision clouded by Powell fever. In Rolling Stone (11/16/95), William Greider virtually proclaimed Powell the nation's savior. After recounting America's mounting troubles and acrid politics, Greider wrote that "luck walks in the door, and its name is Colin Powell." Without any critique of Powell's 35-year record, Greider lauded the general with words like "confident," "candid," "a tonic for the public spirit."
"Even by the standards of modern media excess, there has never been anything quite like the way the press is embracing, extolling and flat-out promoting this retired general who has never sought public office," marveled Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (9/13/95).
Reporters of Madison County
When the Powell-for-president balloon suddenly deflated in early November, the media's disappointment was palpable.
Subdued journalists filled an Alexandria, Va. banquet hall as the four-star general, in a dark blue suit, stepped to a podium to make official the decision that had been leaked by his aides earlier in the day. He would not run for president.
That moment of disappointment--and the nine weeks of best-selling book-tour flirtation that led up to it--reminded New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd of Francesca's abortive love affair with Robert Kincaid in The Bridges of Madison County.
As Dowd observed, there was something passionate, even desperate, about the political press corps' obsession with Colin Powell. "The graceful, hard male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate us yet dominated us completely, in the exact way we wanted that to happen at this moment, like a fine leopard on the veld, was gone," Dowd wrote (11/9/95), satirizing the novel's overwrought style. "'Don't leave, Colin Powell,' I could hear myself crying from somewhere inside."
Liberal and middle-of-the-road commentators seemed especially crushed by Powell's decision. Columnists Anthony Lewis, Bob Herbert and A.M. Rosenthal turned the November 10 New York Times op-ed page into a place of mourning--somberly employing terms that Dowd had used satirically the day before.
Lacquering praise on Gen. Powell as exemplary presidential timber, Lewis informed readers that Americans "across the political spectrum....had just seen the dignity, the presence, the directness they long for in a president." Herbert asserted that Powell had looked "more presidential than anyone we have seen in ages," describing the general as "honest, graceful, strong, intelligent, modest and resolute." Rosenthal opted for "graceful, decisive, courteous, warm, also candid."
The Times was surely not alone; its op-ed page only mirrored the fuzzy glow of soft media lenses nationwide. Another Times columnist, Frank Rich, though also smitten by the Powell charisma, recognized that the media had lost its heart and head. "The press coverage will surely, with hindsight, make for hilarious reading," Rich wrote (11/11/95).
Many in the Washington press corps went overboard in embracing Powell because they disdained his rivals, from the grinchism of the Republican right to the mushy waffling of President Clinton. (Few seemed to notice that in his attempts to straddle the most divisive issues, Powell resembled no one so much as the media's last big crush: Gov. Bill Clinton, circa January 1992.)
Others saw in Powell a great story, possibly the first black American president. Still others valued Powell as a longtime source or even a personal friend; CNN's Bernard Shaw and NBC Pentagon correspondent Fred Francis counted themselves in the latter category (Washington Post, 9/13/95).
Perhaps the most common refrain was that Powell could help the nation bind its racial wounds as no one else could. "Powell's appeal to whites is not sentimental or guilty but, one might say, national," conservative Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post (10/13/95). Front-page headlines like "Moral Authority: Many Voters Believe Powell Could Bridge Nation's Racial Divide" (Wall Street Journal, 11/7/95) added to such expectations.
Venturing into outright fantasy, 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney theorized that elevating Powell to the White House would succeed in disproving the existence of white racism. "If we could ever elect a black president as good as Colin Powell seems to be, it would erase all the hate and pent-up anger so many black people have for white Americans," Rooney wrote (syndicated column, 10/24/95). "It would be the end of their being able to claim discrimination or suppression, and it would go a long way toward eliminating this internal black/white war we've been fighting for so long."
USA Today columnist Barbara Reynolds was one of the few skeptics about Powell as the peacemaker in America's racial strife. "No black man--except those who sing, dance or play sports--has been as readily embraced by whites," Reynolds commented (9/29/95). "Many blacks suspect that whites like Powell because he's their Great Black Hope--a man whose success can be used as a reason for blacks to stop pushing for civil rights and make it on their own, as he did." And Reynolds challenged Powell's widely accepted description of the present-day Army as "blind to race"; she cited extensive reports of "monumental discrimination in the armed services."
Other critics were hard to find. The news media showed almost no inclination to engage in serious journalistic inquiry about Powell's record. While the media repeatedly praised Powell's honesty and candor, a straight-forward examination of his record left another impression.
For example, Powell knew, by January 1986, about the illegal replenishment of Israeli weapons stockpiles for the 1985 Iran-Contra arms shipments. This replenishment, a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, was an Iran-Contra secret that threatened the Reagan presidency. As usual, Powell kept quiet and offered only limited cooperation to investigators, later acknowledging his involvement in testimony that special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh deemed "questionable." (David Corn of the Nation was one of the few journalists who noted Powell's pattern of misleading testimony to Congress--Nation, 10/23/95.)
Powell also stood to look like anything but a straight shooter if his former boss, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, had faced trial in January 1993 on charges of obstructing the Iran-Contra investigation. But Powell helped spare himself and his image by lobbying President Bush to pardon Weinberger (Colin Powell, My American Journey, p. 343). A month before leaving office, Bush issued that pardon, blocking a trial that would have shown how the Iran-Contra cover-up had succeeded with Powell's apparent assistance.
In addition, there was almost no serious debate about Powell's military doctrine of using overwhelming violence in total war against enemy forces and civilians alike. Writing in the Washington Post (10/3/95), Colman McCarthy broke a virtual taboo in mass media by considering the civilian victims of Gen. Powell's greatest triumphs, the Panama invasion and the Gulf War.
McCarthy summarized Powell's approach: "In the name of peace, kill as many women and children as get in the way of U.S. policies.... He has lived in the closed, hierarchal and hyper-masculine world of carrying out orders from above and enforcing them on those below.... It is his journey, after all, and whom he and his superiors trample on the way to fame and glory counts for squat. Some journey."
The national press corps, too, might have reviewed Powell's role in arm-twisting members of Congress and coercing Central American presidents to support military aid to the Nicaraguan contras (New York Times, 1/14/88). Despite the contras' record of human rights atrocities and the condemnation of the World Court, Powell defends his hardline pro-contra actions to this day--as when we asked him at a Sept. 25 news conference in San Francisco if he had any regrets about his role in the war against Nicaragua.
"Working for Ronald Reagan as his deputy national security adviser and national security adviser," Powell replied, "I worked very hard, fought very hard to get adequate support to the contras, the freedom fighters, who were resisting the communist government of the Ortegas in Nicaragua.... I have no regrets about my role."
Whitewashing My Lai
Another rare case of critical journalism was Charles Lane's article "The Legend of Colin Powell" in the New Republic (4/17/95). Focusing on Powell's second year-long stint in Vietnam, the article highlighted research done by British authors Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim in their book, Four Hours in My Lai (Penguin, 1993). The authors had discovered in the National Archives a letter from specialist fourth class Tom Glen, who was a young soldier in the Americal Division.
In November 1968, Glen wrote a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams about the Americal's extreme abuse of Vietnamese civilians and captured Viet Cong suspects. Glen's overall complaints encompassed some of the atrocities later dubbed the My Lai massacre (which had occurred on March 16, 1968). Though Glen included no specific reference to My Lai, he expressed deep concern about American troops who "without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves."
In early December 1968, Glen's heart-felt letter landed on the desk of a fast-rising officer in the Americal's 11th Brigade, which included the unit that had carried out the My Lai slaughter. The officer, Major Colin Powell, conducted a cursory investigation and then--without even contacting Glen or urging that anyone else do so--dismissed the young soldier's concerns as unfounded. Powell's memo, dated Dec. 13, 1968, was to serve as the basis for the Army's official dismissive reply to Glen's letter. Powell wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
In his account of these events, Lane noted that "there is something missing...from the legend of Colin Powell, something epitomized, perhaps, by that long-ago bureaucratic brush-off of Tom Glen."
Waving Off the Press
But the national media paid little heed--and in one notable instance, moved quickly to pooh-pooh the substantive questions raised by Lane's article. In a Washington Post column (4/10/95), Richard Harwood chastised Lane for trying "to deconstruct the image of Colin Powell." Objecting to this "revisionist view," Harwood criticized Lane for faulting Powell over "what he didn't do" and for reducing Powell's "life to expedient bureaucratic striving."
In effect, Harwood was waving the press off the story. "What will other media do with this tale?" Harwood asked in print. "Does it become part of a new media technique by which indictments are made on the basis of might-have-beens and should-have-dones?"
Ironically, the column by Harwood--a former ombudsman at the Washington Post--was slipshod and misleading. Twice it stated, incorrectly, that Glen's letter had been addressed to Gen. William Westmoreland (rather than to Abrams). More importantly, Harwood's column gave the false impression that Glen was unhappy with Lane's New Republic article. Harwood quoted Glen as saying: "I don't see Powell involved, and [Lane] shouldn't have drawn that conclusion."
But when we interviewed Glen in November 1995, Glen defended Lane's article, calling it "pretty reasonably well done." In contrast, Glen was critical of Harwood. "I was not real pleased with what [Harwood] did in his article," Glen said. "I felt he kind of put some slants on things. I don't think he handled it in a very ethical way."
Kill Them All
Clearly, in the months that followed, the media afforded Powell none of the tough treatment that Harwood had feared. If Powell had run for president, of course, that might have changed. But contrary to Harwood's assertion that a person should not be held accountable for the "should-have-dones," in fact, historical figures are often judged for the moments when they stood silently in the face of wrongdoing or, worse, helped cover it up.
In the case of Tom Glen, Powell also did more than just avert his eyes. He submitted a memo to his superiors that protected a widely known pattern of murderous behavior by Americal Division units. Though Powell had arrived at the Americal Division after the My Lai massacre, his own memoirs reveal that he was aware of exactly the sort of abuses that Tom Glen's letter described.
"I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male," Powell wrote (My American Journey, p. 144):
Powell's justification for the cold-blooded murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians is chilling. It is not only "brutal"--no need for a question mark--to murder an unarmed civilian in the manner Powell described; it is a war crime. Further, the killing is not excused by the fact that American soldiers, including Powell's friends, were dying in combat. The death of American soldiers was exactly the rationale used by Lt. William Calley for the slaughter of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers, including babies, in My Lai.
The Powell memoirs offer similar defenses for the practice of applying Zippo lighters to the hooches of Vietnamese civilians during his first tour in Vietnam, as an adviser to South Vietnam's army, in 1963. But when journalists who yearned for Colin Powell read his memoirs, they took almost no note of Powell's stunning lack of compassion when civilians were dying: whether Vietnamese, Nicaraguan, Panamanian or Iraqi.
But little if any of this has intruded on the Powell legend. Instead, the nation's opinion leaders continue to pine for Powell even after his withdrawal. Krauthammer (Washington Post, 11/17/95) tried to pump up a new Powell-for-president balloon, in which Sen. Bob Dole would make Powell both vice president and secretary of state in 1997 and thus clear the way for Powell's ultimate destiny in the year 2000.
Krauthammer explained that this route could spare Powell "the assaults on his character, record and family," as if Powell's record in government is not a fair topic of press scrutiny. After all, Krauthammer continued, "what Powell shrank from in his fateful decision was not the presidency but the pursuit of the presidency.... I doubt Powell feels he is not up to the former."
Though Powell understandably might want as little criticism as possible en route to the nation's highest office, the reality is that so far he has avoided nearly all the media "assaults" that his fans are perpetually fearing. Still, Washington Post editorial page editor Meg Greenfield saw a press divided over Colin Powell: "The Gushers vs. the Trashers, you could call it," she wrote amid her own praise of the general's charm and wit (11/13/95). "I have been one of the gushers and I expect I will continue to be."
But if the Colin Powell story was a contest between the Gushers and Trashers, the Gushers won in a flood--with journalism lost in the deluge.