UPDATED, with comment from President Joe Biden: Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state, who played an influential role in shaping foreign and military policy in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, has died.
His family said on Facebook that he “passed away this morning due to complications from Covid 19. He was fully vaccinated.” It’s unclear how or when Powell contracted Covid-19, but he reportedly also had multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer that hurts the body’s ability to fight infections.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” the family said. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
Powell was 84.
The four star general also was the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serving in that role during George H.W. Bush’s administration from 1989 to 1993, and as national security adviser from 1988 to 1989 during Reagan’s administration. As secretary of state during George W. Bush’s first term, from 2001 to 2005, Powell presided over U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and later the invasion of Iraq.
But Powell’s influence and profile extended beyond the military and foreign policy, as he chaired America’s Promise, a youth organization, and as a public speaker, often with a focus less on partisanship and more on what he called “the sensible center.” As one of the most popular Americans, he was widely viewed as a potential candidate for president in 1996, but he ultimately decided against running that year.
“Such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear,” Powell said in announcing late in 1995 that he would not run.
That did not mean that Powell was retiring from public life. When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, he joined the administration as his secretary of state, making history as the highest ranking African American in the executive branch up to then.
President Joe Biden said that Powell “embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat.”
“Above all, Colin was my friend,” Biden said. “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.” Powell and Biden appeared in 2016 on CNBC’s Jay Leno’s Garage and even raced Corvettes for a bit.
Biden ordered U.S. flags flown at half staff at the White House and throughout the federal government through Oct. 22.
Vice President Kamala Harris called Powell “an independent thinker and barrier breaker who inspired leaders in our military and throughout our nation.”
In a statement, Bush said Powell was “a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam. Many Presidents relied on General Powell’s counsel and experience.”
Bush added, “He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And more 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.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters, “The world lost one of the greatest leaders we have ever witnessed.” He said that Powell was a friend and mentor. “I could always go to him with tough issues. He always had great counsel.”
Powell’s influence on U.S. national security and foreign policy became known as the Powell Doctrine in the early 1990s, which generally held that military action should be limited to when there was a clear objective and an exit strategy, when diplomatic options have been exhausted and when there is extensive international support. That was in evidence in the first Gulf war, lasting for about six months from 1900 to 1991, when a U.S.-led coalition used force to evict Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.
But the Powell doctrine came into conflict with other members of George W. Bush’s administration in the run up and aftermath to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His speech to the United Nations that year made the case for military action. But the speech contained faulty intelligence and factual errors, as it advanced the notion that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and needed to be stopped. Powell later told ABC News’ Barbara Walters that the speech “will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”
“There were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up,” he said. “That devastated me.”
Powell left the administration at the end of George W. Bush’s first term, and went on to serve on boards of directors and public speaking, as well as to be a sought-after figure to comment on the state of U.S. politics. He endorsed Obama in 2008, breaking from fellow Republicans, as he lamented GOP nominee John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. He endorsed Obama again in 2012, as well as Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Following the siege of the U.S. Capitol in January, Powell called for Donald Trump to resign and said on CNN, “I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican.”
Former President Barack Obama issued a statement in which he called Powell “an exemplary soldier and an exemplary patriot.”
He also recalled that in endorsing him in 2008, Powell pushed back on conspiracy theories that were swirling around Obama’s faith.
Powell said on Meet the Press that Obama was a Christian, not a Muslim, 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?”
Obama added in his statement, “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.”
Powell also had a wry sense of humor, particularly when it came to some of his observations about the D.C. social scene. He attended the White House Correspondents Association dinner multiple times, but as stars, politicians and media personalities flooded the event during the Obama years, he noted to Variety, “It is one of the most self indulgent evenings of the year.”
Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937 in Harlem, the son of Jamaican immigrants, and raised in the South Bronx. He began his military service at City College of New York, joining the Reserve Office Training Corps. He spent 35 years in the U.S. Army, including two tours in Vietnam, first in 1962, as one of a team of advisers sent by President John F. Kennedy, and later in 1968. Then, he broke his ankle during a helicopter crash, but he was later recognized with the Soldier’s Medal for rescuing those in the burning wreckage.
In addition to his wife, Alma, Powell is survived by his children Linda, an actress; Annemarie, a producer; and Michael, the president of NCTA- The Internet and Television Association, and the former chairman of the FCC. Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable and board chair of NCTA, said that “America lost a trailblazing leader who always put his country first and led with compassion, dignity and grace.”
According to the CDC, unvaccinated people have an 11 times higher risk of dying from Covid-19 than fully vaccinated people.