Gen. Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state and a trailblazing figure in Washington, D.C., and around the world, died on Monday of complications from COVID-19. He was 84.
According to a statement from his family posted to Facebook, Powell had been fully vaccinated and was being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
He was also being treated for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that suppresses immunity, a spokesperson told CNN.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the statement read. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
Powell is survived by his wife, Alma, whom he married in 1962, and three children.
Powell, who was wounded in Vietnam, served as national security adviser under President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and secretary of state under President George W. Bush, breaking the color barrier each time.
“I think it shows to the world what is possible in this country,” Powell said of his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state in 2001. “It shows to the world that: Follow our model, and over a period of time from our beginning, if you believe in the values that espouse, you can see things as miraculous as me sitting before you.”
Despite serving under three Republican presidents, Powell became disillusioned with the direction of the GOP later in his life.
In 2008, he broke with the Republican Party and endorsed Democrat Barack Obama, who would become the nation’s first Black president.
Powell also endorsed Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden over Donald Trump, whom he called a “national disgrace and an international pariah.”
Following the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that was incited by Trump, Powell told CNN he didn’t consider himself a Republican.
“I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican,” he said. “I’m not a fellow of anything right now.”
A complicated legacy
Powell will forever be associated with his role in pushing faulty intelligence under President George W. Bush to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
During a controversial presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February of that year, Powell made the case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical and biological weapons. But that intelligence turned out to be erroneous.
Powell later admitted it represented a “blot” that would always be a part of his record.
“My instincts failed me,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir. “It was by no means my first, but it was one of my most momentous failures, the one with the widest-ranging impact.
“The event will earn a prominent paragraph in my obituary,” he added.
Reactions pour in
In a statement, George W. Bush said he was “deeply saddened” by news of Powell’s death.
“He was a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam,” Bush said. “Many presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience. He was National Security Adviser under President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under my father and President Clinton, and Secretary of State during my Administration.
“He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice,” Bush continued. “He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
“He upheld the highest standards, representing our nation with dignity, grace, and strength,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement. “The legacy that he leaves behind — on America’s national security and on the leaders he mentored — can be seen every day across our nation and the world.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the former Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama in 2012, said, “The nation lost a man of undaunted courage and a champion of character.”
Georgia Democrat and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams tweeted that Powell “led with integrity, admitted fallibility and defended democracy.”
“As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter. “He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation. Sending love, strength and prayer to the family and friends of Secretary Powell. Rest in power sir.”
“Though we disagreed on many issues, I always respected him and was proud of his achievements,” tweeted the Rev. Al Sharpton. “When he and I ran into each other and conversed, I always left feeling he was a sincere and committed man to what he believed in.”
“Secretary Powell was, simply and completely, a leader,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in remarks at the State Department. “He treated people the way he expected them to treat each other. He made sure that they knew that he would always have their back. The result was that his people would walk through walls for him.”
Speaking to reporters on an overseas trip earlier Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first Black defense secretary, reflected on Powell’s death.
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin said. “Alma lost a great husband, and the family lost a tremendous father. I lost a tremendous personal friend and mentor.
“He always made time for me, and I could always go to him for tough issues,” Austin added. “I feel as if I have a hole in my heart.”
'One of our great Americans'
President Biden released a lengthy statement calling Powell a “patriot of unmatched honor and dignity”:
He believed in the promise of America because he lived it. And he devoted much of his life to making that promise a reality for so many others.
As a Senator, I worked closely with him when he served as National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as Secretary of State. Over our many years working together — even in disagreement — Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect.
Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity. From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people.
Having repeatedly broken racial barriers, blazing a trail for others to follow in Federal Government service, Colin was committed throughout his life to investing in the next generation of leadership. Whether through his care for the women and men serving under his command and the diplomats he led, or through the work he shared with his wife Alma at the America’s Promise Alliance to lift up young people, or through his years leading the Eisenhower Fellowships, Colin’s leadership always included a focus on future.
Above all, Colin was my friend. Easy to share a laugh with. A trusted confidant in good and hard times. He could drive his Corvette Stingray like nobody’s business — something I learned firsthand on the race track when I was Vice President. And I am forever grateful for his support of my candidacy for president and for our shared battle for the soul of the nation. I will miss being able to call on his wisdom in the future.
Jill and I are sending all our love and strength to Alma, their children, Linda, Annemarie, and Michael, their grandchildren, and the entire Powell family. Our nation mourns with you.
Colin Powell was a good man.
He will be remembered as one of our great Americans.
Biden ordered flags to be flown at half-staff at the White House and all federal buildings in Powell's honor through Oct. 22.
Obama also paid tribute to Powell in an equally lengthy statement:
Years ago, when he was asked to reflect on his own life, General Colin Powell described himself as “first and foremost a problem-solver.” It was true, of course. But he was far more than that.
General Powell was an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot. He was at the center of some of the most consequential events of our lifetimes — serving two decorated tours in Vietnam; guiding U.S. strategy in the Gulf War; serving as National Security Advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State; offering counsel to four presidents; and helping shape American foreign policy for decades. Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute. And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served.
Along the way, General Powell helped a generation of young people set their sights higher. He never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly. But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow. It was the way Colin Powell saw the world — not as a starry-eyed idealist, but as someone with deep and abiding faith in this country and what it stands for — that made him such a central figure.
On a personal level, I was deeply appreciative that someone like General Powell, who had been associated with Republican administrations in the past, was willing to endorse me in 2008. But what impressed me even more was how he did it. At a time when conspiracy theories were swirling, with some questioning my faith, General Powell took the opportunity to get to the heart of the matter in a way only he could.
“The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian,” General Powell said. “But the really right answer is, ‘What if he is?’ Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?”
That’s who Colin Powell was. He understood what was best in this country, and tried to bring his own life, career, and public statements in line with that ideal. It’s why, for all the battles he fought and problems he solved, Michelle and I will always look to General Powell as an example of what America — and Americans — can and should be if we wish to remain the last, best hope of earth.
Our family sends our thoughts to Alma, their three children and grandchildren, and everyone mourning his loss today.
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