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Colin Powell's former Chief of Staff Bill Smullen on his friend's legacy


Secretary of State Colin Powell has died from complications of COVID-19. Powell was fully vaccinated. Deaths in vaccinated people are rare, but they do happen. A spokesperson tells NPR that Powell had been treated in the past for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that compromises the immune system. He also had Parkinson's disease.


Powell's life was marked by public service, first as a soldier in Vietnam. By the time Powell became President George W. Bush's secretary of state, he'd already held many prominent positions in government, including national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the first African American to hold each of these roles.

Retired Colonel Bill Smullen worked alongside Secretary Powell for years, both in and out of government. He was also a good friend, and he joins us now.


BILL SMULLEN: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

MCCAMMON: First, I want to just offer condolences for the loss of your friend.

SMULLEN: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: You had a professional and personal relationship with Secretary Powell. And I wonder, first of all, what you will remember about your friendship with him.

SMULLEN: Well, he was a great boss. He was a great mentor, and he was a great friend. And when you can have a friend and a mentor and a boss all wrapped up in one, it's a good thing to come to work every day.

MCCAMMON: By the time you worked with him, Secretary Powell already had many accomplishments, both within and outside the military. I mentioned he was the first African American to serve in several prominent roles. Did he ever talk about that? And if so, how?

SMULLEN: Well, he was proud of the fact that he was the first African American chairman. He was obviously a national security adviser for President Reagan and then chairman under George H.W. Bush and then obviously secretary of state under George W. Bush. So he was proud of the fact that he could lend his color to the fact that you can achieve greatness in life regardless of who you are, what color you are, what religion you are as long as you have great character and competence and credibility. And he had all three of those - character, competence and credibility. So he was a great man to work for, and he was someone who, I think, we should take great pride in having him as a public servant over the years.

MCCAMMON: He was, of course, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and oversaw Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War. He won a lot of praise for his approach to that conflict. How would you characterize the way he approached it?

SMULLEN: Well, he really applied what is referred to as the Powell Doctrine. And there are four elements of the Powell Doctrine that came into play with regard as to the strategies that we used. First of all, you have to have a clear political objective. And George H.W. Bush provided that political objective. We're going to kick Saddam Hussein and his army out of Kuwait. You have to have the support of the American people to achieve that over the course of time. And he and I were both Vietnam veterans, and we had lost the support of the American people during that war. The third thing is you have to have overwhelming strength. And we sent 540,000 men and women to the Gulf to fight that war.

And lastly, you have to have an exit strategy. You have to know when you have achieved your objectives. And you have to, what we call in the Army, pull pitch, meaning we have to leave. And he not only prescribed those things, but he instilled in all of the commanders during that war, both here in Washington and in the Gulf, that that's what - the way we were going to do it.

MCCAMMON: Of course, it was another Iraq war with another President Bush that ended up very differently for Secretary Powell. He cited flawed intelligence before the U.N. in 2003 during the run up to the war, something he later called painful and said he regretted. How did he reflect on that experience when the two of you spoke?

SMULLEN: He would - he told me it would be a black mark on his legacy, and that has been certainly reflected on today by a number of people. But I would just like to say that when the question came up - should we invade Iraq? - Colin Powell turned to President Bush and said, I don't believe so, Mr. President. The consequences are going to be too heavy. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney convinced the president that we should do it. The president asked Powell to give the speech before the United Nations, and he did. So with bad advice and elements of consideration, he stood up before the world and said, we ought to do this. But he regretted having, first of all, to give that talk. But more importantly, he was not in agreement. His legacy may be marred, but, yeah, he stood for the right thing.

MCCAMMON: How do you think he would want to be remembered?

SMULLEN: As a soldier, as a statesman and as a public service servant - and he had public service in his DNA. All he wanted to do was do whatever he could to make his country right. And I think in this period of divisiveness in Washington, we ought to listen to things that he said in the last administration about what we needed to do to fix the problem in Washington. And I hope that some people pay attention to what he had to say.

MCCAMMON: Retired Colonel Bill Smullen, former chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a good friend. So sorry for your loss, and thank you for talking with us.

SMULLEN: You're very welcome. Thank you for asking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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