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Condoleezza Rice: Colin Powell’s greatest legacy is in the people he inspired

Condoleezza Rice, director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.


“General Powell would like to invite you to lunch.” The call from his secretary was a thunderbolt: Colin was the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. I was a 31-year-old Council on Foreign Relations fellow serving a year with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Mostly what I remember about that lunch is how my initial nervousness dissolved into a certain level of comfort with the tall, elegant and already famous Colin L. Powell. He was inspiring but not intimidating. “I’m sure we’ll see each other many times in the future,” he said. He was, of course, right. Our professional and personal lives crossed and intertwined numerous times — and I am grateful for that.

Tributes to Colin will rightly cite his impact as a statesman and a soldier. They will note that he changed how we think about the use of military force. The Powell Doctrine holds that if you use military force, use it overwhelmingly to get the job done.
Some will cite his role in controversial decisions concerning the Balkans or, most certainly, Iraq. No one spends so many decades in public life — confronted with difficult and consequential choices — without criticism.
But tributes must acknowledge his tireless work as the country’s chief diplomat: strengthening relations with allies at difficult times; ending the civil war in Sudan; and leaving the State Department stronger and more efficient than when he arrived.
And it should be beyond question that Colin was a man of integrity. He was deeply principled, shaped by bedrock beliefs that guided him throughout his life.
Colin was, first and foremost, a military man who believed in the institution and its place in democracy. At a 1990 conference for military officers from all over Europe, I saw his passion on display.
When it came time for Colin to speak, he put aside his prepared remarks and talked about what it meant to be a military officer in a democracy. It was a magnificent moment — and the right message for young Eastern European officers who were about to experience democratic change.
Colin loved soldiers and always held them to the highest standards. Yet he also took time to understand their struggles — personal and professional — and to comfort them when they suffered. The U.S. military was his second family, and he cherished the opportunities that it had given him and many others.
Still, Colin was not blind to America’s many challenges. He saw those flaws firsthand. Colin’s wife, the former Alma Johnson, was the daughter of R.C. Johnson, the principal of the largest Black high school in Birmingham, Ala. Her uncle was principal of the second largest, Ullman High School, where my father was the guidance counselor. Alma and I were children of the segregated South. Colin was shocked at encountering Jim Crow Alabama when he visited Alma. But he knew that racism stained American life well beyond the South.
In 2003, sitting in Buckingham Palace during President George W. Bush’s state visit to Britain, Alma, Colin and I drank a toast to our ancestors. “They would never have believed it,” I said. “No, but they are smiling now,” he said.
Colin believed that his life and all that he achieved were an affirmation of America’s possibilities. He didn’t take his success for granted and recounted stories of people he knew who never got out of his modest South Bronx neighborhood. He knew that he was talented — but he was humble enough to believe that he was also lucky.
In his post-government life, Colin took up the cause of the poor and marginalized, especially children and young people. From America’s Promise (a public-private partnership to provide greater opportunity), to relief efforts in Haiti, to assisting Boys and Girls Clubs across our country, Colin did his best.
He found great fulfillment in the creation of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York.
The school would, he hoped, make possible more stories like his: a son of immigrants who, as he freely admitted, wandered for a while until the military gave him a sense of purpose and discipline. A young man who was educated in the City of New York system — not in a military academy or the Ivy League but in a place devoted to opportunity and second chances.
One of our last conversations was about the Powell School. “You have to come and visit,” he said about a month ago. “I’ll do it and you can meet me there and we’ll do a conversation about education,” I said. He didn’t answer directly — maybe he knew that we wouldn’t make it together.
I can’t wait to visit the Powell School. It is quintessentially him: built on the same impulse that led him to invite a young college professor to lunch so many years ago. Colin’s legacy more than anything else is the people who he helped; the people he inspired; and the people who he encouraged to — as he did — devote their lives to forming a more perfect union.


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