Former Secretary of State Colin Powell Comes to Stanford

![Powell, pictured here in 2008, mixed politics and humor before a packed audience last Monday. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)](/content/uploads/powellpicture.jpg)
Powell, pictured here in 2008, mixed politics and humor before a packed audience last Monday. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)
Colin Powell is arguably one of the most iconic and well-known political and military figures in the United States’ recent history. His past positions within the White House extend from National Security Adviser under President Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Bush and Clinton to the position of Secretary of State under George W. Bush. Recently, Stanford had the pleasure of hosting an informal presentation given by General Powell.

Before a packed audience in Memorial Auditorium, Powell’s discussion topics were often humorous and broadly covered everything from politics to his life experiences. A great deal of the General’s speech was dedicated to defending his support of Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election.

“…I looked at all the candidates closely on both sides. The one I started to really focus on was Senator Obama. He came to see me two years ago. …[W]e had only met casually and we started talking about the fact that he wanted to run for president. …I looked at this young man who was then about 44, maybe a year plus in the senate, not the most experienced politician, but he was deadly serious.”

Powell went on to express his initial concern about Obama’s lack of experience and qualifications, “And I said, ‘You’ve never been tested. You’ve never had anything wake you up at 3 or 4 in the morning. You don’t have any exposure to this level of responsibility.’ He said, ‘I know that, but I can learn and I know how to pick people, followers, to be around me who will get me through this as I learn.’”

Powell discussed his decision, albeit briefly, to not support John McCain in light of their close relationship. He explained, “John McCain is a beloved friend of mine, for almost 30 years. A fellow Vietnam veteran, I have nothing but the highest respect for … [but] I watched as we got near the end and I watched how Senator Obama, in almost military like fashion, organized his effort. When the economic crisis broke out last fall, I watched to see how the two candidates would handle it. Mr. Obama had some ideas but he didn’t have any answers, so he didn’t come to an answer and he listened and he studied it. The Republican Party, they came up with an answer: Joe the Plumber. That did it.”

Ever since Gen. Powell supported President Obama, politicos have discussed and expounded on the specific reasoning behind the General’s support. Powell narrowed his reasoning down to two factors, “Number one was the consideration of the American people and the other one was he was black, but I measured him against John McCain as who was the most qualified person.” Powell reasoned he felt Obama brought a “…generational change into our political system.”

While still on the topic of Obama’s election, the former secretary of state expressed only confidence in American ideals and hardiness, he declared, “There are those who say that white folks, no matter what they say, when they enter the voting booths will not vote for color. …We have proven that we have reached a point in our national life where we could honestly say that the content of a person’s character was more important than the color of a person’s skin.”

The speech by General Powell was not just a discussion about politics and race. He related stories to the audience ranging from him updating the State Department’s computer systems to a meeting he had with Gorbachev. He discussed in great detail when he approached President Bush about some of our Post-9/11 policies.

“I came to President Bush and said, ‘Mr. President, we’re a lot safer now. Even more safe then we’ve ever been, but we’re starting to pay too high a price for our safety. We’re starting to communicate to the rest of the world that maybe we don’t want you to come here. I’m being written to by all the university professors saying that foreign students applying to come to their schools, the numbers have dropped drastically because of the hassle …the stereotyping in our airports.”

“We want [foreigners] to come and stay here or get health care or just enjoy America and go back home and, if they do that, they will go back home with a better understanding of who we are and what we are as a people. We’re warm and compassionate, open people. A people that is not afraid of the future, confident in America. It is so important for us to remember that terrorists can get through. They work at it real hard and, we may have another incident where we lose some more lives, we may have another bomb go off somewhere, but we’ll fight that and we may respond, but what terrorists can never do …is to change who you are as a people. Only we can do that to ourselves.”

During a heavily restricted question and answer session, Powell discussed the future of our foreign relations in the Middle East:

“Afghanistan will be Obama’s conflict… because you have a country… that does not have a tradition of democracy. It does not have a serious source of income, like Iraq does. And Iraq used to be a very solid, middle-class country with infrastructure… Afghanistan has none of that. [Obama will need to] bring it up to some level of success where you will turn it over to the Afghan government. …I don’t know if you can do much more than that. …He will still have the Iraq problem to keep his eye on and I’m not sure that he came in to take over President Bush’s war, and is now his war.”

Powell had only praise for our troops as he said to applause, “We should be so proud of what they are doing for the cause of freedom around the world. …Our forces are stressed. I regret early on in the Bush administration that we didn’t start to increase the size of our forces. …They’ve been able to keep this operational tempo up and still maintain a first class force, but a lot more investment is going to be needed. …These are volunteers. …[N]obody in the service that I know of wants to go away from the volunteer force. It is superior to anything that we can have.”
The Secretary of State dwelled on how our role in the world will need to extend beyond military or diplomatic responses or, as the General termed them, “hard and soft power”. “I see a world that knows that the most influential political force at work is not what’s happening in Iraq or Afghanistan, it is economics.”

Powell, while early in his speech, emphasized the hardiness of America in definitive terms. “I see Americans who still have confidence in this country… as long as we continue to work hard and go after the hardest problems we are facing. As long as we continue to believe in ourselves, we will believe in America as well.”

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