Powell’s persona takes a hit from email flap – Politico
For decades, Colin Powell has held an uncommonly elevated place in American political life — a straight-shooting, above-the-fray military leader and diplomat who served four presidents, fought in Vietnam, presided over swift victory in the Persian Gulf War, and for years deflected bipartisan calls to run for the White House himself.
But the hacked emails that became public this week display a much different side of Powell — showing him obsessing over his public image and speaking fees, throwing shade at his old rivals from the George W. Bush administration, trashing Donald Trump as a “national disgrace” and speaking graphically about Bill Clinton’s rumored encounters with “bimbos.”
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Throw in his slams about the GOP’s “stupid witch hunt” over Benghazi, and his remarks that Hillary Clinton looks tired on TV and “comes across as sleazy,” and the Powell who unburdens himself in two years of conversations with his closest confidants seems a good bit different from the elder statesman whose endorsement still carries serious weight with presidential candidates of both parties.
“I am most concerned about what this will do to his image and what people will think of him,” said one close Powell confidant, who said he did not want to be identified since Powell has not spoken publicly about the emails.
The person added: “What I hope people will remember is that his privacy was violated and he is entitled to his opinion.”
Even some who know Powell well expressed surprise at the tenor of the most provocative emails.
“Powell is often clear and concise, and he can be blunt,” said one fellow general who did not want to be identified publicly. “But I’ve not heard him say things like this, even in private.”
Doug MacGregor, a retired Army colonel who served under Powell when he was an assistant division commander, said that in his experience Powell did not have a reputation as a salty officer.
“No, not at all. He was a gentleman in all things,” MacGregor recalled. “Of course, he was not angry at the time. I’m quite certain he could like any Army officer, lose his temper and swear.”
But another former colleague said Powell sounds like who he is — a career soldier who speaks the language of those who have seen live combat.
“Powell is an educated member of the policy elite, but he is also a career Army officer, and an infantryman, at that,” said retired Army Col. Joseph Collins, who worked with him between 1989 and 1991 when Powell was Joint Chiefs chairman.
“He is familiar with direct speaking and has heard profanity before, and lots of it,” added Collins, who now teaches at the National Defense University. “I am not at all surprised by anything that I read.”
It is the same Powell, after all, who bluntly spelled out his plan for the Gulf War in remarks to reporters in 1991: “Our strategy in going after this [Iraqi] army is very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.”
Surprising or not, though, the public release of Powell’s candid thoughts could alter the calculus for any role he might want to play in this year’s presidential race.
Clinton supporters have been hoping he will endorse her, for example — just as his former deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, did this summer, and just as Powell himself did for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. But now, any such endorsement would bring new media attention to what Powell said about Clinton in the emails, in which he called her “greedy” and “not transformational” and said that “everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”
The confidant expressed doubts that Powell would formally endorse either Clinton or Trump. He said it’s possible Powell could make his personal preference publicly known — but after all the firestorm over the hacked emails, he may opt to stay silent.
Then again, Powell could hardly offer a stronger public condemnation of Trump than the ones he aired in his electronic missives — calling him “a disaster,” as well as “a national disgrace and an international pariah” who led “racist” attacks on the truth of Obama’s U.S. citizenship.
The two nominees have had opposite takes on Powell’s remarks. Clinton declined to comment on them in a radio interview aired Thursday, while saying she has “a great deal of respect for Colin Powell and … a lot of sympathy for anyone whose emails become public.” Trump went on the attack on Twitter, writing: “I was never a fan of Colin Powell after his weak understanding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq = disaster. We can do much better!”
Powell has declined to comment on the emails, which date from June 2014 to this past August, aside from a spokesperson’s acknowledgment that they are genuine.
The majority of the emails are innocuous: Powell discusses the funeral arrangements for colleagues, asks friends how they’re doing and complains that a keyboard he ordered from Amazon doesn’t work properly. In one message, his former spokeswoman Emily Miller sought his opinion about a religious experience she had and confided that she had been dating people she met on the Hinge app. Some of the messages appear to be spam.
But several emails clearly show Powell’s intense focus on earning money for public appearances — and complaints that his earnings have suffered because of the political ruckus involving Clinton’s high-rolling speaking fees.
In one email from August 2015, concerning an invitation for Powell to appear at a university, he complained that Clinton “so overcharged them they came under heat and couldn’t [sic] any fees for awhile. I should send her a bill.”
In another exchange, Condoleezza Rice — his successor at the State Department — apologizes to Powell for asking him to speak to a group at Stanford University, noting that it doesn’t pay.
“You know I don’t ask these things often (especially since they don’t add to the bottom line),” she wrote in August 2014.
The ego that has been so in check in public life is also on display at times, such as in an exchange with Richard Haass, a former State Department official who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the Colin Powell School for Civic and Public Leadership at the City College of New York.
“We had our first graduation and one year anniversary in May,” Powell told Haas. “It was a huge, joyous occasion. Attached are some photos. We own about 25-30% of the entire CCNY student body.”
In another, more cryptic exchange with a pair of officials from the school, Powell writes: “Guys, Did I see an article recently where Brooklyn College turned down a $10m gift from the Kochs? What’s the story? You know why I am asking.”
At other times, he is high protective of his public reputation — particularly in connection with Clinton’s email scandal, and reports that some messages found in his personal email account while he served as secretary of state were classified.
In February of this year, he wrote to Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy to complain that the department’s spokesman, retired Adm. John Kirby, wasn’t describing the circumstances correctly in his news conferences.
“I think I am no longer in the email mud pit and don’t plan on saying anything more,” Powell wrote Kennedy. “However, I didn’t see Adm. Kirby or anyone else clearly state that the classification was not retroactive on the two messages forwarded to me and were not classified until recently as a result of the FOIA review process. If asked about it I will cite our conversation. I don’t expect to be asked about it.”
Powell himself has lamented in recent years about his legacy due to his role as secretary of state in selling the public on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most prominently in his speech at the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction. He later said he regretted the remarks, which turned out to have been based on inaccurate intelligence.
“Yes, a blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation,” he wrote in 2012. “I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.”
If it is now the norm that public figures’ personal email communications will frequently become public fodder, that doesn’t bode well, the Powell confidant said.
“I would hate for the Powells of the world to be afraid to give their unvarnished opinion in private.”