Meet the Press, October 19, 2008:
MR. TOM BROKAW: Our issues this Sunday: He served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state and was once called the man most likely to become the nation’s first African-American president. He has been courted by both the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns and said this last month:
(Archived Videotape Segment Indented)
GEN. COLIN POWELL (RET.): I have been watching both of these individuals. I know them both extremely well, and I have not decided who I’m going to vote for yet.
MR. BROKAW: Is he now ready to make an endorsement in this presidential race? What are his thoughts on the major issues facing the country and the world? Our exclusive guest this Sunday, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell.
Then, with 16 days to go, Decision 2008 heads into the home stretch. What states still are in play? We will hear the latest on some new state polls with NBC’s political director, Chuck Todd. Also, insights and analysis on the race to the White House with David Brooks of The New York Times, Jon Meacham of Newsweek magazine, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
But first, General Colin Powell, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
GEN. POWELL: Thank, thank you, Tom.
MR. BROKAW: We indicated in that opening, there is a lot of anticipation and speculation about your take on this presidential campaign. We’ll get to that in a moment. But in your old business we might call this a tour of the horizon. Whoever’s elected president of the United States, that first day in the Oval Office on January 21st will face this: an American economy that’s in a near paralytic state at this time; we’re at war in two different countries, Afghanistan and Iraq; we have an energy crisis; we have big decisions to make about health care and about global climate change. The president of the United States and the Congress of the United States now have the highest disapproval ratings that we have seen in many years. In all your years of public service, have you ever seen an incoming president face such daunting challenges?
GEN. POWELL: No. I have seen more difficult times in our history. I think about the early ’70s when we were going through Watergate, Spiro Agnew, Nixon period, that was not a good time. But right now we’re also facing a very daunting period. And I think the number one issue the president’s going to have to deal with is the economy. That’s what the American people are worried about. And, frankly, it’s not just an American problem, it’s an international problem. We can see how all of these economies are now linked in this globalized system. And I think that’ll be number one. The president will also have to make decisions quickly as to how to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan. And also I think the president has to reach out to the world and show that there is a new president, a new administration that is looking forward to working with our friends and allies. And in my judgment, also willing to talk to people who we have not been willing to talk to before. Because this is a time for outreach.
MR. BROKAW: Given the state of the American economy, can we continue our military commitments around the world at the level that they now exist?
GEN. POWELL: We can. I think we have to look as to whether they have to be at that level. But we have the wealth, we have the wherewithal to do that. (Clears throat) Excuse me, Tom. We have the ability to do that. And so, first and foremost, we have to review those commitments, see what they are, see what else is needed, and make sure we give our troops what they need to get the job done as we have defined the job. We have that ability.
MR. BROKAW: If you were called into the Oval Office on January 21st by the new president, whoever it happens to be, and he said to you, “General Powell, I need from you your recommendation on where I begin. What should be my priorities?” Where would you start?
GEN. POWELL: I would start with talking to the American people and talking to the world, and conveying a new image of American leadership, a new image of America’s role in the world.
The problems will always be there, and there’s going to be a crisis come along in the 21st or 22nd of January that we don’t even know about right now. And so I think what the president has to do is to start using the power of the Oval Office and the power of his personality to convince the American people and to convince the world that America is solid, America is going to move forward, and we’re going to fix our economic problems, we’re going to meet our overseas obligations. But restoring a sense of purpose, a sense of confidence in the American people and, in the international community, in America.
MR. BROKAW: What’s not on the screen right now that concerns you that should be more prominent in the minds of the American people and the people running for president?
GEN. POWELL: I think the American people and the gentlemen running for president will have to, early on, focus on education more than we have seen in the campaign so far. America has a terrible educational problem in the sense that we have too many youngsters not finishing school. A third of our kids don’t finish high school, 50 percent of minorities don’t finish high school. We’ve got to work on this, and my, my wife and I are leading a campaign with this purpose.
Also, I think, the new president has to realize that the world looks to America for leadership, and so we have to show leadership on some issues that the world is expecting us to, whether it’s energy, global warming and the environment. And I think we have to do a lot more with respect to poverty alleviation and helping the needy people of the world. We need to increase the amount of resources we put into our development programs to help the rest of the world. Because when you help the poorest in the world, you start to move them up an economic and social ladder, and they’re not going to be moving toward violence or terrorism of the kind that we worry about.
MR. BROKAW: Well, let’s move to the American presidential campaign now, if we can. We saw at the beginning of this broadcast a short tease of what you had to say just a month ago. Let’s share with our viewers now a little more of Colin Powell on these two candidates and your position.
(Archived Videotape, September 20, 2008, Indented)
GEN. POWELL: I’m an American, first and foremost, and I’m very proud–I said, I’ve said, I’ve said to my beloved friend and colleague John McCain, a friend of 25 years, “John, I love you, but I’m not just going to vote for you on the basis of our affection or friendship.” And I’ve said to Barack Obama, “I admire you. I’ll give you all the advice I can. But I’m not going to vote for you just because you’re black.” We, we have to move beyond this.
MR. BROKAW: General Powell, actually you gave a campaign contribution to Senator McCain. You have met twice at least with Barack Obama. Are you prepared to make a public declaration of which of these two candidates that you’re prepared to support?
GEN. POWELL: Yes, but let me lead into it this way. I know both of these individuals very well now. I’ve known John for 25 years as your setup said. And I’ve gotten to know Mr. Obama quite well over the past two years. Both of them are distinguished Americans who are patriotic, who are dedicated to the welfare of our country. Either one of them, I think, would be a good president. I have said to Mr. McCain that I admire all he has done. I have some concerns about the direction that the party has taken in recent years. It has moved more to the right than I would like to see it, but that’s a choice the party makes. And I’ve said to Mr. Obama, “You have to pass a test of do you have enough experience, and do you bring the judgment to the table that would give us confidence that you would be a good president.”
And I’ve watched him over the past two years, frankly, and I’ve had this conversation with him. I have especially watched over the last six of seven weeks as both of them have really taken a final exam with respect to this economic crisis that we are in and coming out of the conventions. And I must say that I’ve gotten a good measure of both. In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to deal with the economic problems that we were having and almost every day there was a different approach to the problem. And that concerned me, sensing that he didn’t have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had. And I was also concerned at the selection of Governor Palin. She’s a very distinguished woman, and she’s to be admired; but at the same time, now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president. And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made.
On the Obama side, I watched Mr. Obama and I watched him during this seven-week period. And he displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor. I think that he has a, a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well. I also believe that on the Republican side over the last seven weeks, the approach of the Republican Party and Mr. McCain has become narrower and narrower. Mr. Obama, at the same time, has given us a more inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations of our people. He’s crossing lines–ethnic lines, racial lines, generational lines. He’s thinking about all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.
And I’ve also been disappointed, frankly, by some of the approaches that Senator McCain has taken recently, or his campaign ads, on issues that are not really central to the problems that the American people are worried about. This Bill Ayers situation that’s been going on for weeks became something of a central point of the campaign. But Mr. McCain says that he’s a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have these robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that, because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow, Mr. Obama is tainted. What they’re trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that’s inappropriate.
Now, I understand what politics is all about. I know how you can go after one another, and that’s good. But I think this goes too far. And I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow. It’s not what the American people are looking for. And I look at these kinds of approaches to the campaign and they trouble me. And the party has moved even further to the right, and Governor Palin has indicated a further rightward shift. I would have difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court, but that’s what we’d be looking at in a McCain administration. I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.
I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.
So, when I look at all of this and I think back to my Army career, we’ve got two individuals, either one of them could be a good president. But which is the president that we need now? Which is the individual that serves the needs of the nation for the next period of time? And I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities–and we have to take that into account–as well as his substance–he has both style and substance–he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world–onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I’ll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.
MR. BROKAW: Will you be campaigning for him as well?
GEN. POWELL: I don’t plan to. Two weeks left, let them go at each other in the finest tradition. But I will be voting for him.
MR. BROKAW: I can already anticipate some of the reaction to this. Let’s begin with the charge that John McCain has continued to make against Barack Obama. You sit there, as a man who served in Vietnam, you commanded a battalion of 101st, you were chairman of the Joint Chiefs, you were a national security adviser and secretary of state. There is nothing in Barack Obama’s history that nearly paralyze any–parallels any of the experiences that you’ve had. And while he has performed impressively in the context of the campaign, there’s a vast difference between sitting in the Oval Office and making tough decisions and doing well in a campaign.
GEN. POWELL: And he knows that. And I have watched him over the last two years as he has educated himself, as he has become very familiar with these issues. He speaks authoritatively. He speaks with great insight into the challenges we’re facing of a military and political and economic nature. And he is surrounding himself, I’m confident, with people who’ll be able to give him the expertise that he, at the moment, does not have. And so I have watched an individual who has intellectual vigor and who dives deeply into issues and approaches issues with a very, very steady hand. And so I’m confident that he will be ready to take on these challenges on January 21st.
MR. BROKAW: And you are fully aware that there will be some–how many, no one can say for sure–but there will be some who will say this is an African-American, distinguished American, supporting another African-American because of race.
GEN. POWELL: If I had only had that in mind, I could have done this six, eight, 10 months ago. I really have been going back and forth between somebody I have the highest respect and regard for, John McCain, and somebody I was getting to know, Barack Obama. And it was only in the last couple of months that I settled on this. And I can’t deny that it will be a historic event for an African-American to become president. And should that happen, all Americans should be proud–not just African-Americans, but all Americans–that we have reached this point in our national history where such a thing could happen. It will also not only electrify our country, I think it’ll electrify the world.
MR. BROKAW: You have some differences with Barack Obama. He has said that once he takes office, he wants to begin removing American troops from Iraq. Here’s what you had to say about that: “I have found in my many years of service, to set arbitrary dates that don’t coincide with the situation on the ground or what actually is happening tends not to be a useful strategy. … Arbitrary deadlines that are snatched out of the air and are based on some lunar calculation is not the way to run a military or a strategic operation of this type.” That was on February 10th of this year on CNN. Now that you have Barack Obama’s ear in a new fashion, will you say to him, “Drop your idea of setting a deadline of some kind to pull the troops out of Iraq”?
GEN. POWELL: First of all, I think that’s a great line, and thanks for pulling it up. And I believe that. But as I watch what’s happening right now, the United States is negotiating the–an agreement with the Iraqi government that will call for most major combat operations to cease by next June and for American forces to start withdrawing to their bases. And that agreement will also provide for all American troops to be gone by 2011, but conditioned on the situation as it exists at that time. So there already is a timeline that’s being developed between the Iraqis and the United States government. So I think whoever becomes the president, whether it’s John McCain or whether it’s Barack Obama, we’re going to see a continued drawdown. And when, you know, which day so many troops come out or what units come out, that’ll be determined by the commanders and the new president. But I think we are on a glide path to reducing our presence in Iraq over the next couple of years. Increasingly, this problem’s going to be solved by the Iraqis. They’re going to make the political decisions, their security forces are going to take over, and they’re going to have to create an environment of reconciliation where all the people can come together and make Iraq a much, much better place.
MR. BROKAW: Let me go back to something that you raised just a moment ago, and that’s William Ayers, a former member of the Weathermen who’s now active in school issues in Illinois. He had some past association with Barack Obama. Wouldn’t it have been more helpful for William Ayers to, on his own, to have renounced his own past? Here was a man who was a part of the most radical group that existed in America at a time when you were serving in Vietnam, targeting the Pentagon, the Capitol. He wrote a book about it that came out on 2001, on September 11th that said, “We didn’t bomb enough.”
GEN. POWELL: It’s despicable, and I have no truck for William Ayers. I think what he did was despicable, and to continue to talk about it in 2001 is also despicable. But to suggest that because Mr. Barack Obama had some contacts of a very casual nature–they sat on a educational board–over time is somehow connected to his thinking or his actions, I think, is a, a terrible stretch. It’s demagoguery.
MR. BROKAW: I want to ask you about your own role in the decision to go to war in Iraq. Barack Obama has been critical of your appearance before the United Nations at that time. Bob Woodward has a new book out called “The War Within,” and here’s what he had to say about Colin Powell and his place in the administration: “Powell … didn’t think [Iraq] was a necessary war, and yet he had gone along in a hundred ways, large and small. He had resisted at times but had succumbed to the momentum and his own sense of deference–even obedience–to the president. … Perhaps more than anyone else in the administration, Powell had been the `closer’ for the president’s case on war.”
And then you were invited to appear before the Iraq Study Group. “`Why did we go into Iraq with so few people?’ [former Secretary of State James] Baker asked. … `Colin just exploded at that point,’ [former Secretary of Defense William] Perry recalled later. `He unloaded,’ Former White House Chief of Staff] Leon Panetta added. `He was angry. He was mad as hell.’ … Powell left [the Study Group meeting]. Baker turned to Panetta and said solemnly, `He’s the one guy who could have perhaps prevented this from happening.’”
What’s the lesson in all of that for a former–for a new secretary of state or for a new national security adviser, based on your own experience?
GEN. POWELL: Well, let’s start at the beginning. I said to the president in 2002, we should try to solve this diplomatically and avoid war. The president accepted that recommendation, we took it to the U.N. But the president, by the end of 2002, believed that the U.N. was not going to solve the problem, and he made a decision that we had to prepare for military action. I fully supported that. And I have never said anything to suggest I did not support going to war. I thought the evidence was there. And it is not just my closing of the whole deal with my U.N. speech. I know the importance of that speech, and I regret a lot of the information that the intelligence community provided us was wrong. But three months before my speech, with a heavy majority, the United States Congress expressed its support to use military force if it was necessary. And so we went in and used military force. My unhappiness was that we didn’t do it right. It was easy to get to Baghdad, but then we forgot that there was a lot more that had to be done. And we didn’t have enough force to impose our will in the country or to deal with the insurgency when it broke out, and that I regret.
MR. BROKAW: Removing the weapons of mass destruction from the equation…
GEN. POWELL: I also assure you that it was not a correct assessment by anybody that my statements or my leaving the administration would have stopped it.
MR. BROKAW: Removing the weapons of mass destruction from the equation, because we now know that they did not exist, was it then a war of necessity or just a war of choice?
GEN. POWELL: Without the weapons of mass destruction present, as conveyed to us by the intelligence community in the most powerful way, I don’t think there would have been a war. It was the reason we took it to the public, it was the reason we took it to the American people to the Congress, who supported it on that basis, and it’s the presentation I made to the United Nations. Without those weapons of mass destruction then Iraq did not present to the world the kind of threat that it did if it had weapons of mass destruction.
MR. BROKAW: You do know that there are supporters of Barack Obama who feel very strongly about his candidacy because he was opposed to the war from the beginning, and they’re going to say, “Who needs Colin Powell? He was the guy who helped get us into this mess.”
GEN. POWELL: I’m not here to get their approval or lack of approval. I am here to express my view as to who I’m going to vote for.
MR. BROKAW: There’s a summing up going on now as, as the Bush/Cheney administration winds down. We’d like to share with our audience some of what you had to say about the two men who are at the top of the administration. At the convention in 2000, this is Colin Powell on President Bush and Dick Cheney at that time.
(Archived Videotape, July 31, 2000, Indented)
GEN. POWELL: Dick Cheney is one of the most distinguished and dedicated public servants this nation has ever had. He will be a superb vice president.
The Bush/Cheney team will be a great team for America. They will put our nation on a course of hope and optimism for this new century.
MR. BROKAW: Was that prophetic or wrong?
GEN. POWELL: It’s what I believed. It reflected the agenda of the new president, compassionate conservatism. And some of it worked out. I think we have advanced our freedom agenda, I think we’ve done a lot to help people around the world with our programs of development. I think we’ve done a lot to solve some conflicts such as in Liberia and elsewhere. But, at the same time, we have managed to convey to the world that we are more unilateral than we really are. We have not explained ourself well enough. And we, unfortunately, have left an impression with the world that is not a good one. And the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we’ve left with the rest of the world.
Now, let me make a point here. The United States is still seen as the leader at the world that wants to be free. Even though the numbers are down with respect to favorability ratings, at every embassy and consular office tomorrow morning that we have, people will be lined up, and they’ll all say the same thing, “We want to go to America.” So we’re still the leader of the world that wants to be free. We are still the inspiration of the rest of the world. And we can come back. In 2000, it was moment where I believed that the new administration coming in would be able to achieve the agenda that President-elect Bush had set out of compassionate conservatism.
MR. BROKAW: But it failed?
GEN. POWELL: I don’t think it was as successful–excuse me (clears throat)–I don’t think it was as successful as it might have been. And, as you see from the presidential approval ratings, the American people have found the administration wanting.
MR. BROKAW: Let me as, you a couple of questions–quick questions as we wrap all of this up. I know you’re very close to President Bush 41. Are you still in touch with him on a regular basis? And what do you think he’ll think about you this morning endorsing Barack Obama?
GEN. POWELL: I will let President Bush 41, speak for himself and let others speak for themselves, just as I have spoken for myself. Let me make one point, Tom, both Senator McCain and Senator Obama will be good presidents. It isn’t easy for me to disappoint Senator McCain in the way that I have this morning, and I regret that. But I strongly believe that at this point in America’s history, we need a president that will not just continue, even with a new face and with some changes and with some maverick aspects, who will not just continue, basically, the policies that we have been following in recent years. I think we need a transformational figure. I need–think we need a president who is a generational change. And that’s why I’m supporting Barack Obama. Not out of any lack of respect or admiration for Senator John McCain.
MR. BROKAW: And finally, how much of a factor do you think race will be when voters go into that booth on November 4th?
GEN. POWELL: I don’t know the answer to that question. One may say that it’s going to be a big factor, and a lot of people say they will vote for Senator Obama but they won’t pull a lever. Others might say that has already happened. People are already finding other reasons to say they’re not voting for him. “Well, he’s a Muslim,” “He’s this.” So we have already seen the so-called “Bradley factor” in the current–in the current spread between the candidates. And so that remains to be seen. I hope it is not the case. I think we have advanced considerably in this country since the days of Tom Bradley. And I hope that is not the case. It would be very unfortunate if it were the case.
MR. BROKAW: Finally, if Senator Obama is elected president, will there be a place for Colin Powell in that administration? Maybe as the ambassador at large in Africa or to take on the daunting task of resolving the Israeli/Palestinian issue?
GEN. POWELL: I served 40 years in government, and I–I’m not looking forward to a position or an assignment. Of course, I have always said if a president asks you to do something, you have to consider it. But I am in no way interested in returning to government. But I, of course, would sit and talk to any president who wishes to talk to me.
MR. BROKAW: You’re not ruling it out?
GEN. POWELL: I would sit and talk to any president who wishes to talk to me, but I’m not anxious to rule it in.
MR. BROKAW: General Colin Powell, thank you very much for being with us this morning. Appreciate it.
GEN. POWELL: Thank you, Tom.