American Apologies: Colin Powell’s Is the Real Thing

Feb 22, 10 | 8:50 AM   byMichael Wolff
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To me he is one of the most compelling, and, I suppose, pitiable people in politics.

He has been wrong about nearly everything that matters, as so many have, but he has, as the result of what seems to be great suffering and some respect for the obvious, admitted it.

Few people in politics have had the stature and opportunity that Colin Powell has had and wasted it so miserably. Out of power now for almost five years, he was on Face the Nation yesterday, still trying to make amends for his part in helping nurture the right wing, saying Republicans ought to give Obama a break.

Powell’s is a political biography that ought to be written. It’s everything that’s wrong with a decent man, all that loyal soldier stuff, and everything right, too: One by one, in acts of excruciating self-mortification, the guy is reversing each of the grievous stands he took.

Not that he should be forgiven. It was his justification for the Iraq war that supplied Bush with the necessary cover. He is largely responsible for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. He sat there as secretary of state while we waged two wars, both of which contradicted his own precisely spelled out standards for how to wage a war. And he let himself be upstaged and humiliated by Dick Cheney. Not to mention that by not running for president in 2000 as a Republican, or crossing over and joining the Democrats, he helped, perhaps decisively, Bush become president.

Colin Powell’s equivocations and hapless good intentions have, perhaps as much as anything, helped get us into the mess we’re in.

Still, the man, quite uniquely, has a conscience. He keeps apologizing, keeps trying to set things right, keeps trying to take back the moral authority that he lent to these horrifying developments.

He’s our most public failure.

Now, given the state of things, he obviously cannot be the only failure. He is just the one person, in this age of aggressive self-justification (ie, Dick Cheney’s and Bill Clinton’s), to have the stature, class, and, it seems, depth of feeling to admit it.

We ought to demand from all politicians earnest acts of contrition. But then again, what would that be worth? They would fall all over themselves, if remorse is what it takes to get elected. Public apologies in American life are all transactional (poor Tiger Woods is willing to endure not just humiliation but a kind of castration, in order to win back the approval of the media and for a few more endorsements). Not for Colin Powell. For what it’s worth, he seems truly bereft.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.

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