Gen. Colin Powell Lessons on Civility in Public Life and Politically Diverse Friendships
Plus- Audio/narrated version of "Gen. Colin Powell, My Former Boss and Beloved Friend."
This is an audio version of the article I wrote Monday about Gen. Colin Powell. I hope it brings the story to an audience who didn’t have time to read. Make sure to notice the “listen in podcast app” at the bottom. The text story of that story is at this link.
I’m having a rough week. As I wrote on Monday, I knew Powell had cancer but he kept telling me he was fine. He was still working! The quick end from COVID was just a shock. I don’t really believe he’s gone.
It’s a unique situation to have an important person in your life die and the whole country is talking about him — in good and bad ways. I walked to the top of Arlington National Cemetery and to the State Department to see the flags at half staff in his honor. I took pictures to send him. But, of course, I can’t.
I still can’t read or watch any news about him. It’s denial, I know, but I need it to get through this. I’ve cried a lot this week, so I’m not skipping any steps in grief.
The past two days, I’ve been reading CP’s emails and texts to find the patterns and the lessons. No luck. While Powell gave me career advice and life lessons when I worked for him, that tapered off over the years. So I have to figure this out without him.
They say if you’re looking for meaning in death in the “early grief” of the first weeks or months, you won’t find it because it’s too soon. But I noticed after my first article about CP, people said they found certain aspects interesting and perhaps helpful. I’m sharing those with you now to see if it resonates.
Civility in public life
On Tuesday, I got an email statement from a former president about General Powell that made me shake with anger. You know who I’m talking about. I grabbed my phone to lash out on Twitter. But I stopped myself because I don’t want to create a news story or even a social media uproar right now. It’s not the time.
Powell always said about politics, “It’s just business.” He meant, it’s not personal. It helps to make political issues “just business” because it takes out the emotional charge. It’s just work for those of us in this Washington world.
The public knows Powell could be mean and judgemental because of his hacked emails (new story coming about that). It was a shame. He was so careful in public life to moderate his speech and his writing. He didn’t inflame people with words. He was respectful and friendly to everyone he ran into in Washington, even the people he thought were politically terrible.
So there is a way to have civility in speech, writing and in person, while privately saying how you really feel. It really brings down the heat and tempers. I’d like to see people in power be like Powell— more careful in choosing words that can be reasonable debate, rather than inciting anger and sometimes violence.
Politically diverse friendships
Powell was liberal to moderate, and I am conservative to right wing nut, and we never made the debate personal. Many conservatives have asked how I could be such close friends with Powell. That gave me a window into how Americans have oriented their worlds to avoid people who don’t agree with them,
I hope I can bring some insight into what it’s like to have a friend of almost 20 years in DC who disagrees with most of what I stand for.
Mutual affection drove our friendship — trying to entertain each other with nuggets of intel or gossip. When we hit a point of political debate, we usually fought it out, sometimes backed away from it, but never made it personal.
It’s terrible to see how divisive people have become over politics. (I know a liberal reading this will immediately blame Donald Trump and a conservative reading this will say Barack Obama is to blame. But let’s both drop the leaders out of our real lives for now.)
More than ever in our country, we avoid or cut off the friends and relatives on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s bad in person and even worse on social media. I’ve had old friends and relatives block me on Facebook because they don’t like what I say or write. I can’t understand this concept. Why don’t they want to learn more by hearing opposing views?
(It’s actually not that bad in D.C. since we’re all in “the business” of politics so, as Powell would say, it’s not personal.)
The anger on both sides had led us to surround ourselves with like-minded people. This partisanship in society does not make us smarter or better human beings. It makes us simplistic and narrow minded.
CP hired me because I’m conservative, not in spite of it. He wanted someone doing his public affairs who could tell him about what he didn’t know or see from the right. (I also had the two job requirements of knowledge of foreign policy and experience in media.)
For me, I was in awe of his broad base of knowledge and experience. To the end of his life, he had all the intel from around the world and deep in the bureaucracy in DC and at the top secret levels.
When he said something in a conversation about an international crisis or a military issue or societal problem, I listened carefully and used the intelligence to improve my knowledge and analysis. I never asked follow up questions because I was privileged to have a little access to this information.
The value of having a friend from the other side of the aisle has tactical importance, and it also helps you strengthen the interpersonal skills of peacemaking.
For CP and me, it meant harsh and occasionally hurtful words but cooling off and coming back to the reason we were friends — common values and interests — and wanting the best for each other.
You can love someone and not have the same opinions and be better for it. You’ll need to work harder to reconcile, but that builds character.
I think our lives and our country will improve if we work at making real friends with different political views. The challenge will mostly be on social media — to not let the real life relationship get hijacked by the way Silicon Valley designs its programs to make people fight.
It’s easier to start in person to build a relationship of trust that makes politics “just business” and your daily life what really matters.
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I’d love to know what you want to hear about Colin Powell. Please leave in comments so I have direction on what to write about next. Thanks!