The tragedy of Colin Powell.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 19 2004 12:56 PM

The Tragedy of Colin Powell

How the Bush presidency destroyed him.

What becomes a legend most? Not this
What becomes a legend most? Not this

Is Colin Powell melting down?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It's hard to come up with another explanation for his jaw-dropping behavior last week before the House International Relations Committee. There he sat, recounting for the umpety-umpth time why, back in February 2003, he believed the pessimistic estimates about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "I went and lived at the CIA for about four days," he began, "to make sure that nothing was—" Suddenly, he stopped and glared at a Democratic committee staffer who was smirking and shaking his head. "Are you shaking your head for something, young man back there?" Powell grumbled. "Are you part of the proceedings?"

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Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, objected, "Mr. Chairman, I've never heard a witness reprimand a staff person in the middle of a question."

Powell muttered back, "I seldom come to a meeting where I am talking to a congressman and I have people aligned behind you, giving editorial comment by head shakes."

Oh, my.

Here is a man who faced hardships in the Bronx as a kid, bullets in Vietnam as a soldier, and bureaucratic bullets through four administrations in Washington, a man who rose to the ranks of Army general, national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state, a man who thought seriously about running for president—and he gets bent out of shape by some snarky House staffer?

Powell's outburst is a textbook sign of overwhelming stress. Maybe he was just having a bad day. Then again, he's also been having a bad three years.

As George Bush's first term nears its end, Powell's tenure as top diplomat is approaching its nadir. On the high-profile issues of the day, he seems to have almost no influence within the administration. And his fateful briefing one year ago before the U.N. Security Council—where he attached his personal credibility to claims of Iraqi WMD—has destroyed his once-considerable standing with the Democrats, not to mention our European allies, most of the United Nations, and the media.

At times, Powell has taken his fate with resigned humor. Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker last year of a diplomatic soiree that Powell attended on the eve of war, at which a foreign diplomat recited a news account that Bush was sleeping like a baby. Powell reportedly replied, "I'm sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up, screaming."

At other times, though, Powell must be frustrated beyond measure. One can imagine the scoldings he takes from liberal friends for playing "good soldier" in an administration that's treated him so shabbily and that's rejected his advice so brazenly. That senseless dressing-down of the committee staffer—a tantrum that no one with real power would ever indulge in—can best be seen as a rare public venting of Powell's maddened mood.