The endorsement of Barack Obama by Colin Powell is another blockbuster event of this campaign, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. To be sure, it was among the most thoughtful and, as one of my sons suggested in an email, content-rich of the campaign season. Perhaps most striking was that Powell was the first major political figure to squarely address the “he’s a Muslim” red herring properly. “Mr. Obama is a lifelong Christian, not a Muslim”, he said, adding…the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? No, that’s not America.” To drive the point home, he spoke movingly of Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, a twenty year old New Jersey born Muslim serviceman who gave his life for us in Iraq. That statement alone made Powell’s appearance on Meet the Press memorable. But, again, I think it’s not the central story.
As we approach the election we are hearing once again about the so-called “Bradley Effect”, that once in the privacy of the voting both people will, belying polls, not vote for a candidate of Color. And of course Powell was asked if his endorsement itself was motivated by the wish to see a fellow African American prevail. While he responded directly to that in the negative, the fact is that Powell himself is the response. That’s what is so significant about his endorsement. There was a time, and it was long ago, when one heard about Colin Powell being the first Black man to hold this or that job. His various achievements can be counted as milestones in that regard, much like Thurgood Marshall’s elevation to the Court. But the fact is, Americans no longer think of Powell in that narrow way.
Powell is a trusted leader and hero. He was the commander of NATO and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. When we think of him, we think of the “Powell Doctrine”, the need to go to war only as a last resort, define the mission and use overwhelming force in the execution. Of course there are those bigots who will always view a person of Color with prejudice. But, I would venture that when thinking about General Powell, the vast majority of Americans are colorblind. They think about his competence, about his proven ability to instill trust. It wasn’t his being an African American that made some of us furious when he appeared before the United Nations in the run up to the Iraq War. It was that a man so measured could allow himself to speak for what we thought was such a patently wrongheaded venture.
In his person, Colin Powell speaks volumes to why Americans are so drawn to Barack Obama. We don’t see him as and African American candidate, but as an American Candidate who happens to be African American just as Jack Kennedy was a candidate who happened to be Catholic. Powell’s service has transcended his racial identity. It’s not that he ever sought to run away from his roots, but that ultimately it isn’t how he is judged. Barack Obama, with a name of clear African origin, brought up by a White mother and grandparents, chose to proudly identify with the African side of his roots, but not to be defined by them any more or less than any other American is defined by theirs.
So Obama is Black, Kareem Khan was a Muslim and, for that matter, this writer is a Jew. What of it? We are all citizens with the same vote. Obviously Colin Powell wants us to think of him when we go to the polls, to consider the American Republican who will vote Democratic this year because that party's nominee is the right person to lead us at this time in our history. Take that away from today’s endorsement and I think you’ll have it just right.