By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Powell endorses Obama

Anticipated for weeks, if not months, former secretary of state Colin Powell has finally endorsed Barack Obama. Is this as big as everyone thinks it is? My suspicion is that it will prove to be the single most important endorsement of the campaign, yet still fall short of being a transcendent moment.

Powell is a flawed figure tied to the past, and there are those who will discount this on the grounds that both Powell and Obama are African-American. On the other hand, Powell crystallizes principled conservative discomfort with the McCain-Palin ticket.

But it’s certainly bigger than any newspaper endorsement.

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  1. Bill Baar

    …and who isn’t flawed and tied to the past?

  2. Nial Liszt

    Colin Powell said at the 2000 Republican Convention: “Dick Cheney is one of the most distinguished and dedicated public servants this nation has ever had. He will be a superb vice president. The Bush-Cheney team will be a great team for America. They will put our nation on a course of hope and optimism for this new century. The century historians will look back on and record not that it was the American century or the European century or the Asian century, instead let us pray that when they look back, they will call it the century of democracy, a time when America led the world that wants to be free to an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.”Whooops..!

  3. Stella

    As election day looms it appears that the only thing that could stop the Obama express is the endorsement of G.W. Bush.

  4. Ani

    Loved Powell’s response to the attempts to use claims (in this case, erroneous) about religious affiliation as a smear.I guess neither Republicans nor military officers can be assumed to stick together, either.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: True enough. But Powell’s performance before the U.N. left him permanently diminished, as he himself has acknowledged.

  6. jvwalt

    This endorsement is the only thing he can do to try to untie himself from the past. It’s a strong, if implicit, repudiation of the Bush Administration as well as McCain. Of course, he’s also untying himself from any chance whatsoever to stay in the good graces of the Republican Party. He must have decided that he will never seek elected office; after this, the GOP base would never forgive him or allow him to gain a nomination for dogcatcher, let alone Senator or President. And since he said after MTP that he is still a Republican, this doesn’t seem to presage a move to the Democratic Party.

  7. Bill Baar

    Dan.. the past is awfully wide when you get to be Powell’s age. Specifics would have helped.Powell’s buddy Armitage outing Plame an interesting story Powell’s never talked much about (as far as I can recall).He’s prone to manipulating his image.I doubt this has much impact. The Market is doing the heavy lifting for Obama now.

  8. Dan Kennedy

    JV: All true, but Powell is 71. I doubt he has much ambition at this point other than rehabilitating his image. Given his role in legitimizing the war in Iraq, this may go a long way toward accomplishing that.

  9. Deb

    It’ll be interesting to see if Powell takes a post in the Obama administration. I’d bet the offer’s out there.

  10. zadig

    Can you say “bandwagon”? Powell waited until there was a clear winner to say “I think he’s a clear winner!” You don’t get to look all statesman-like for pointing out that it’s wet during a rainstorm.Powell had bad judgment before, and one endorsement of the horse that has pretty much finished the race isn’t going to rehabilitate him.Nice try, general (ret).

  11. mike_b1

    I would be shocked if Obama offered Powell a position doing anything.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: I agree. Besides, Powell has been secretary of state. There’s nothing bigger that Obama could offer him.

  13. Sean Roche

    Powell’s the kind of figure (think George Mitchell) that gets tapped for short-term, ad hoc assignments like a peace envoy or someone to lead a commission.I think Powell’s woefully overrated, but his takedown of McCain this morning was welcome.

  14. Bill Toscano

    Dan: I disagree on Powell being flawed.He is one of the few heroes we have left.His performance at the UN was brilliant.It was *not* his fault he was lied to.

  15. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: Powell is a hero. Even heroes have flaws.There’s a wonderful scene at the end of one of Woodward’s books in which Richard Armitage is talking with Powell. I don’t remember exactly how it went, but it was something like this: Armitage told Powell that the two of them had stuck around in order to moderate the war-mongers, and in the end, all he and Powell had done was give them cover. And they should have resigned.Yes. They should have resigned a lot sooner than they did.But people make mistakes. As I said, Powell’s endorsement is worth more than that of all the newspaper endorsements put together.

  16. Aaron Read

    I think ZADIG has nailed it: Powell waited until Obama’s election seemed inevitable to come out in favor of him? Where was this stupendous bucking of party lines when Powell irrecoverably tarnished himself, his country, and his uniform with that shameful and pathetic performance to convince the UN that Saddam had WMD and the means to deploy them at a moment’s notice?Mr. Toscano, it wasn’t Powell’s fault he was lied to, but it sure as hell was his fault that he repeated the lies. Repeatedly. On a national stage. To drive the country TO WAR, mind you.I don’t consider him quite as evil as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove…but at best I always thought he was moderately competent; mostly that he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut so his foot couldn’t get in there.Then again, I suppose he was smart enough to keep his head down and shut down for the past several years; maybe he was prescient enough to realize what a timebomb the Bush administration was, and he’s been trying to quietly distance himself?

  17. O-FISH-L

    Aaron, contrary to you and ZADIG, I think it’s Obama who may have waited until Zogby/Reuters/C-SPAN had it within 3 points. As Dan alludes to, the Powell endorsment has been anticipated for weeks if not months. My take is that Obama said something like I’ll let you know if I need it, and realized this weekend that he needed it right away.That said, Colin Powell may have bungled a rare opportunity for an endorsement to actually move voters to the endorsed candidate.Obviously, the liberals who once hated Powell for being an Uncle Tom and “lying” us into war won’t be swayed since they were already voting for Obama and still will. It’s the many moderates and some conservatives who Powell might have moved who must now have more questions than answers.For conservatives, a Powell endorsement accentuating Obama’s positives while also being kind to McCain might have been enough for some of them to take a second look at Obama and ask themselves if Powell might be right. Instead, Powell went way too far by denigrating McCain, Palin and the conservatives on SCOTUS. Those three entities are as close to the Holy Trinity as conservatives have right now, so to strike at them with shallow insults has, if anything, rallied the base in support of McCain.As for the undecideds who the endorsement is obviously aimed at, the question has to be asked, was Powell a patsy at the UN in 2003 or was he a patsy on Meet the Press this morning? Was he being held hostage while he and his son served in top jobs for the Bush administration, or is he lying today when he endorses someone with the same skin color but who is diametrically different on politics, then claims it has nothing to do with race? This just a month after saying a black President would be “electrifying.” We’ve all heard of conversions, but a complete reversal of a lifetime of principles in just six weeks, supposedly based on McCain’s handling of the economic crisis and because Palin is unqualified (laughable, given Obama’s thin resume) has to make people wonder what Powell really believes and whether they can believe him.Of course, the Meet the Press story now headlining Drudge doesn’t mention Powell at the UN in 2003 or son Michael as GWB’s FCC Chairman from 2001-2005. Instead, Powell is described as “respected by both parties.” Sheesh, I though he lost the respect of the Democrats in 2003. Based on his hollow words of today he’s certainly lost most everybody else’s now.

  18. Adam

    Since it’s rare for me to agree with Fish on anything, I’ve got to chime in here. Obama’s looking less inevitable now than he was a week ago. And as I’ve blogged (at, I think Powell’s disastrous U.N. speech takes a bit of the oomph away from this endorsement. That said, as someone who’s hoping Obama wins, I’m pleased Powell changed the subject from Joe the Plumber.

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Fish: Listen to David Brooks —“Powell was not attacking John McCain; he had a lot of nice things to say about John McCain. He was attacking the Republican Party. And the key word there was ‘narrowing.’ The party is narrowing and leaving a lot of people out, people like Colin Powell….”A lot of people who were Republicans feel they’ve been left out not by McCain, but by the party.”

  20. Ani

    I can’t recall — did Powell have doubts about what he was being told and therefore what he included in his speech at the UN? Should he have known better? Under what circumstances should we be culpable for believing a lie?This inevitability thing backfired on (Hillary) Clinton during the primaries, and I don’t think it’s served Obama well during the general election — gotta wonder why people do it.

  21. Prospecticus

    Powell has done remarkably well for Powell (He is said to have grossed 30 million in his work outside government). I fail to see what he did for the country that allows him the icon status he seems to enjoy (he was fired, in time of war). He does present a good appearance though, doesn’t he? Has Colin been awarded a Medal of Freedom yet? Maybe that’s in the cards?

  22. Bill Toscano

    Dan: Point taken. I felt you put the flawed part of pretty high.Do you really think it’s a big deal?I certainly expected it.Aaron: Call me Bill. Everyone does. Except Mom. She calls me Billy.If he didn’t know it was a lie, how can you blame him?Prospecticus: I had to look it up on the Medal of Freedom web site, but he has had one for 17 years.GEN. COLIN L. POWELLAwarded byPresident George BushJuly 3, 1991In a long and distinguished career in the United States Army, culminating in his service as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell has provided unsurpassed leadership and judgment in difficult times. A deft manager and forthright counselor, he personifies the ideal of the soldier�statesman, serving the President and the Nation with personal integrity, political judgment, and military skill. As the architect and manager of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he oversaw the vindication of principle, the defense of Saudi Arabia, and the liberation of Kuwait. The United States honors this professional servant of peace and freedom.

  23. O-FISH-L

    Dan, much like in comedy, if you (or David Brooks) have to explain why the material was effective, then the material failed.Powell should have gone out and praised McCain to the high heavens – no criticism, omitted any mention of Palin since it highlights Obama’s glaring weakness, and omitted the SCOTUS stuff since it’s rather misplaced in this context. As long as Powell ended with a few generic but enthusiastic bullet points in endorsing Obama, the unmistakable story would have been the classy, honorable Colin Powell endorses Obama. Instead the endorsement is tainted by what appear to be petty, hollow attacks against the current Republican trinity and a repudiation of the ideology that Powell and family until today found profitable but apparently ignoble. It smacks of a convicted informant delivering information that is too little, too late. It doesn’t impress the listener and only angers the person informed upon. Now, I’m all but certain the media will quickly cover Powell’s error by omitting all but the positives or in the case of Brooks, trying to explain away the negatives. Still some damage was done. Endorsements should be like the fundamental principles of medicine. Primum non nocere or “First, do no harm.” If Powell sought out to do no harm to Obama or himself today, he failed.

  24. mike_b1

    o-fish: if you really think the margin between obama and mccain is 3 points right now, i have a bridge i want to sell you.

  25. Prospecticus

    I’d rather have the Tribune’s endorsement Dan. Not since the Civil War…now that was pretty cool and unexpected, even given the favorite son status of Obama.

  26. O-FISH-L

    Mike-b1, no I don’t think it’s 3, I think it’s closer, Bradley Effect and all. It’s Zogby/Reuters/C-SPAN that have it at 3 with the likely voters.If the lowly Rays can win (against 288-1 odds), McCain surely can.

  27. Dan Kennedy

    Prospecticus: As with many things in the newspaper business, the Chicago Tribune is no longer the Chicago Tribune — it’s a soap opera.For most of its existence, the Tribune was owned by Colonel Robert McCormack, a right-wing loon who was nearly prosecuted for espionage after he allowed his paper to report that the U.S. had hacked Japanese code. He got off because the Navy refused to cooperate — apparently the Japanese hadn’t seen the Tribune story, and the Navy didn’t want to tip them off.For the past year or so, the Tribune has been owned by an eccentric real-estate mogul named Sam Zell, who hates newspapers and delights in telling his employees how much they suck. Who knows? Maybe he holds the Republicans responsible for costing him money in the real-estate bust.There are very few newspaper endorsements that mean anything, and they have to cut against type to stand out. The Washington Post’s endorsement of Obama is slightly significant, since its editorial page is conservative and pro-war. Still, I suppose it would have been more of a surprise if the Post had endorsed McCain. On the other hand, when the New York Times endorses Obama, it will be a total non-event.Of course, if the Wall Street Journal endorses Obama … hah! But that would mean something.Just a personal belief, but I think Bill O’Reilly is going to vote for Obama. But he’d never say so.

  28. mike_b1

    Dan: “McCormick.”o-fish: Please email me about that bridge. I just raised the price, but I think you’ll love it.

  29. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: Argh! Never try to spell “McCormack/McCormick” without looking it up. Especially before 8 a.m.

  30. Dot Lane

    3%, 4%, 5%…it’s relatively unimportant. I’ve yet to see a convincing electoral college scenario where McCain wins. McCain doesn’t appear likely to win any of the states Kerry won, whereas simply picking up Colorado, New Mexico,and Iowa gives Obama the win. The fact that Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia (at least the non-real, non-patriotic parts of the state), and Florida are trending slightly to Obama or are in a statistical dead heat gives McCain an almost impossible path to victory. He has no margin of error. I find it interesting that o-f-l keeps bringing up the Bradley effect, because that’s the message McCain/Palin are trying to hammer home. It’s sad and disgusting.It will be interesting to see the McCain camp’s pushback against Powell. I think Powell’s endorsement is unimportant, but how McCain responds to it is.

  31. Dan Kennedy

    Dot: Chuck Todd said on “Meet the Press” yesterday that there are no even remotely realistic scenarios under which McCain can win the popular vote, but that it might be possible for McCain to win the Electoral College.I’m not endorsing Todd’s view. Interesting, though.

  32. mike_b1

    The concern here is that if the pre-election polling in certain states is close enough, the GOP Cheat Machine will spring into action. It’s important for Obama to have large leads in battleground states; otherwise, the GOP can/will use the closeness of the race as cover for what would otherwise be revealed as fraud (see Ohio, 2004; Florida, 2000 and 2004; etc.).

  33. Aaron Read

    Aaron: Call me Bill. Everyone does. Except Mom. She calls me Billy.If he didn’t know it was a lie, how can you blame him?Bill, when you’re presenting before the United-freakin-Nations, it’s not enough to not know it was a lie. At that level, you ought to be damned sure it’s the truth.To say that Powell didn’t know it was a lie and thus he shouldn’t be held accountable is to also say that Powell was criminally inept at his job considering the position of power he had. As we all know, ignorance of the law is no excuse.For the record, I don’t believe Powell was that inept. I think he knew damn well he was all but lying out his ass to the UN (and everyone else) but his sense of duty and misguided belief that he could “reign in the warmongers” kept him in place. From some points of view, that is commendable…but it’s also acting a lot like Dexter’s father.

  34. Dan Kennedy

    Aaron: I don’t want to give Powell too much cover, but he has talked about the process he went through to vet that information, and it was pretty intense. He threw out a lot of it and went with only the stuff he was confident about. As it turned out, he was wrong.I think we’ve tended to focus on the wrong issue with regard to the run-up to the war. Just about everyone believed Saddam had WMD — even Hans Blix has written that he believed he had chemical and biological weapons, though not nukes.Bush’s innovation was to launch his war while U.N. inspectors were on the ground and the process was working. Blix has written that if Saddam had continued to be uncooperative, he believes even the French (but not the Germans) could have been brought into the coalition. Imagine how different things would have been if that had happened.

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