Gen. Colin Powell, My Former Boss and Beloved Friend
A personal account of a great American solider
“You don’t speak for me!” Colin Powell would bark on the phone or email when I told him a reporter asked me about something he did or said. The General had full control of his public image. He decided what he would say in TV interviews. He determined all his public events. He even wrote his own Facebook posts. I have never written or spoken publicly about him.
So, I’m disoriented to write this today without his guidance or approval. I’ve grabbed my phone several times to text him and ask permission. I haven’t gone more than a couple weeks without talking to him since I first worked for him in 2003. I wish so much he was on the his iPhone right now.
When he told me a few years ago that he had cancer, I burst out crying. He told me to stop that, and that he was being treated and would be fine for a long time.
He was such a big man — physically and in personality— that I didn’t think anything could stop him. The cancer was in remission for a while but came back earlier this year.
Then he also got Parkinson’s disease. This is when he started to show weakness because the medications affected his cognitive abilities a little bit. I noticed and was worried.
I wanted to be sure to say goodbye in person. He told me it was not anytime soon. But in the last six months, I made sure to tell him I loved him during our phone conversations, not just at the end as part of the goodbye. He always said he loved me too.
Still, I was not expecting him to die today of COVID.
My phone lit up this morning with interview requests and condolence messages. I took one look at it and turned it over and left it on a window sill. I spent two hours trying to pretend that this was not true. I ignored the texts. I didn’t read the news stories. I didn’t call anyone to verify it.
Shock is so helpful for grieving. It gives us the denial we need in order to accept death in increments.
I had those few hours to keep my friend alive. But then I knew I had to break the denial. I called a friend who works for Powell. She was crying. “Is it true?” I asked her.
I knew the answer, but I needed someone to say it out loud in order to move to the part of grieving that happens on the other side of death.
After I heard that he was really gone, I cried so hard that I couldn’t catch my breath. I decided the only way through this is to write about it. About him.
Writing about him without talking to him for permission is my stage of grief to get to accepting he’s gone.
Since I’ve never written about Powell, I realize now that I never called him by his name. Even though he referred to himself as “Colin” to me, I could never use his first name.
Of course, he was always “Mr. Secretary” for the first two years I knew him. In 2005, he was deliberate in choosing to go by “General.” He told me that the title “Secretary” is not for life, but “General” is, so he was going back to his Army roots. He mocked the former secretaries who used that title after leaving office. He knew the protocol books.
Plus he just liked being called “General” more than “Secretary.” He earned his four stars after 35 years in the Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, two combat tours in Vietnam and the leader of the victorious Operation Desert Storm. He told me recently that his uniform still fit. He was disciplined about exercise and weight.
I referred to him to others as “Powell” or “ColinPowell” (one word out loud.)
If we were on the phone or in person and I needed his attention, I called out “Sir” — but more often in a teasing manner. In writing, he was always “CP.” That’s how he signed his emails and texts. That’s the name I have in my phone contacts for him.
We usually went to lunch at Quarterdeck near Fort Myer. He was always first to arrive and annoyed that I was always late. He sat in his Corvette and waited for me so he wasn’t mobbed by people wanting selfies. (He thought selfies were annoying, especially when he was trying to walk quickly through an airport.)
He had a specific table at Quarterdeck that he could have his back to a wall - but not face the crowds - and we could talk without interruption. The wait staff all knew him. We both got crab cake sandwiches or burgers and fries. He made fun of me for eating more than him. I probably weigh less than half of him.
One time we were planning to meet for lunch, and he told me to go to a different restaurant. I got to Assaggi Osteria in McLean and saw his Corvette. He was inside at the front table, looking at the door. Again, the wait staff and owner knew him and what he liked.
He ordered soup and a Ceasar salad, then told me to get whatever I wanted. I asked what happened to burger and fries. He said he was on a diet. I laughed. He was serious. He was in his late 70s at the time.
He said he’d gained weight but was losing it with this diet — that he’d invented — a small breakfast, soup and salad lunch and a regular dinner. I was impressed that he was still so disciplined.
But I wanted to tell him that Ceasar salad has a lot of calories and was not the reason he was losing weight. I wanted to tell him we might as well both had the fries at Quarterdeck. I knew it would lead to a fight, so I let it go, which was rare.
We bickered frequently. Sometimes we would get in such big fights— always over politics— that I would give him the silent treatment, refusing to reply to him or call him back. I regret that now.
I can remember every topic we fought over, all were worthy topics. But I wish I had just let him tell me I was wrong about whatever political issue we strongly disagreed.
However, we always got back on track because we agreed on the important things in life — serving God, our country and those in need. We both value loyalty, honesty, character and a good sense of humor.
We mostly laughed at me. I’m self deprecating, and he likes to make fun of me, and we both like to laugh, so it worked. We laughed so much.
His laugh was big and loud and free. I can hear it now. I hope I don’t forget what his laughter sounds like.
People would tell me how much they respect Powell and think so highly of him. They’d say he should have run for president. I could tell that they assumed he was a stiff, military figure. I would try to give a glimpse of the real man and reply with something like, he’s great, but he’s so annoying.
Powell always said that his obituaries would focus on his report to the United Nations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He would hold up his fingers as if he were holding up the vial that he infamously did at the UN. He said it would be his legacy. I’m sad to see today that he was right.
Over the years, he tried to set the record straight — that the White House ordered him to make the speech and gave him only five days to sort through the intel at Langley. It feels unfair to blame him because he believed that his speech was accurate. But, we found out later in the war in Iraq, that the intel was bad, and he was wrong.
Since Powell was focused on his legacy, which he talked about with me in that first job interview in 2003, I thought a lot about how to craft it.
He had such a long and full life. He had so many accomplishments that it is impossible to capture all of it in one news story. His autobiography, My American Journey, is 612 pages and ends in 1995.
There are no news accounts of all his charity work, which was mostly done in private. He may have wanted it to stay that way. I’ll wait to write about all he gave of his time and money.
He was deeply involved in the technology industry in Silicon Valley. He liked to talk about a new discovery or app, and he had a Tesla.
I made him a Facebook page in 2009 — against his wishes. But he grew to love it. He read all the comments. I asked him a few years ago if he wanted to turn off the private messages since he got so many that were junk. He said no because “a few” would get through that he needed to read.
We were both Episcopalian. He was involved in his church all his life, but in his older years, he went for the quiet time of prayer. He went to the 8 a.m. service every Sunday and sat in the back pew. He told me the regular parishioners knew not to bother him. The clergy, who I also know, protected him while he was praying from being approached by newcomers.
He was very recognizable and famous, but he took pride in being able to slip through public places by wearing a baseball cap and moving fast.
When he left the State Department, he was allowed to keep the Diplomatic Security detail for several more months. He declined. He told me he could hide better alone, and it was safer driving himself than having a bunch of guys in a big Suburban following him. He said he had to sign something to waive the protection. I was nervous for his safety. He was not. He was fearless.
I realized just now that I think about him so often during the day because of his lesson about what is worth getting upset about in life. He taught me the lesson when I had gotten unfairly blamed by NBC’s Tim Russert for allegedly cutting off an interview because the topic was weapons of mass destruction. I’ll write the whole story of the State Department technology and logistics that led to it happening another time.
The NBC incident led to the first time I had ever been in the media. I wasn’t used to seeing my name on TV or in the newspaper. Russert took the “palm tree” story and carried it on for a month of late night TV comedies and daytime talk shows. I was so upset.
Powell called me into his office. He was at his desk. He told me to stop being a “crybaby” and sit down and listen.
He said he looks at life as a radar screen. I can see him in my mind’s eye, holding up his finger and drawing an imaginary radar line straight across the air in front of him. He said, life is long like this.
But then there are these blips, he said as he moved his finger up maybe an inch in the air and back down. He said this palm tree thing was just a blip, and it didn’t bother him, and it shouldn’t bother me.
So whenever I get upset about things — which is often — I see him moving his finger a tiny blip up and down in the air as if on a radar screen.
Today feels like a devastating loss that I can’t ever absorb or accept. But I know it’s a blip on the radar screen of life, and I will see CP again in heaven.
He will tell me I shouldn’t have written this story without his approval. I’ll tell him that I had no choice because he never answered my last text checking on him.
Please pray for CP’s wife Alma, his adored children Mike, Linda and Annie and his five grandchildren. Pray for his soul to be at peace with the Lord.
I’ll write more about General Powell’s career, life and real legacy soon. But today, I just wanted to remember my friend who I loved and will miss every day.