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Colin Powell dies at 84 of COVID-19 complications

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Colin Powell is dead. He was the first African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president's top military adviser. He was also the first African American to serve as secretary of state. There was a moment when it seemed that Powell could have been president, but he did not run. For more, we're joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Just give us the facts first. How did Powell die?

LIASSON: Well, according to his family, he died from complications from COVID-19. He was 84 years old. They said he was fully vaccinated. And we should say that people who are fully vaccinated do get COVID. But the percentage of people who are vaccinated who die from COVID is very small, 0.007 in some states, 0.012 in others. But that is how his family says he died.

INSKEEP: And we have to acknowledge it does happen.

LIASSON: Yes.

INSKEEP: It happens to many thousands of people simply because many, many millions of people have been vaccinated. And the vaccine, of course, is not 100%. So he's died at the age of 84. And I just want to take a moment to review a little bit of his career. He was born in the Great Depression in the 1930s. He was born in Harlem. He was the son of immigrants. And he became, really, a giant figure on the political stage for many of the years that you and I have been covering politics, Mara.

LIASSON: That's right. He was a giant figure, the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs under President George H.W. Bush. Then he was even considered to be a potential contender to be the first Black president of the United States. He never ran. But he was - that was his stature and popularity. His reputation did take a hit when he was George W. Bush's first secretary of state. And he pushed what turned out to be faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that the Iraqi government supposedly had. Later, he called that a blot on his record.

INSKEEP: It was his job to make that presentation at the United Nations.

LIASSON: Right.

INSKEEP: And he made that decision to do that. I had an opportunity to talk with him in 2011 about that decision. By then, he had acknowledged that it was a mistake. But he still said everyone around him believed the intelligence at the time, the intelligence assessment that they gave - the assumption that Iraq had some weapons of mass destruction even if they didn't have nuclear weapons of mass destruction. I asked him, was the war worth the cost? And he didn't say no. He said the judgment is - that's a judgment for history to make. The cost was a lot of American lives lost, a lot of young Americans injured severely, many, many Iraqis killed. But he went on to say, we got rid of a dictatorship. We no longer had to worry about this country. I'd like to ask at this moment, Mara, if that - the cost of the Iraq War was something greater, if it's a war that has affected this country as well as that country?

LIASSON: Well, I think, sure. The cost of the Iraq War over time had a profound effect on this country. In effect, George W. Bush kind of took the lid off the Middle East and involved America in that region for decades. And in the end, the majority of Americans were questioning whether it was worth it, what we got out of it. There weren't weapons of mass destruction. The world didn't become a more stable place. We didn't export democracy to those countries.

INSKEEP: Let's talk a little bit also about Colin Powell's more recent years. He identified as a Republican. He was promoted to senior military leadership by President Ronald Reagan, we should mention. Although, he continued serving in a top military position under President Bill Clinton as, of course, a nonpartisan position. But when he became a civilian, he identified as a Republican. He got the secretary of state's job under President George W. Bush. And then what happened when Barack Obama ran for president as a Democrat?

LIASSON: Yeah. He endorsed him. He moved away from the Republican Party. He endorsed Obama. He later said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He became an independent that voted - that felt more comfortable with the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates, not unlike other Republicans who moved away from the party in those years.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that for a moment, if we can. How did Colin Powell for, really, the last decade or so represent a particular wing of the Republican Party? I guess we could say an internationalist wing, a national security wing. You define it as you want. How did he represent...

LIASSON: Yes. I mean, definitely, an internationalist wing, a wing of the Republican Party that believed that America stood for an idea, for values that were defined as a nation not by blood and soil or ethnicity, but by the values that we represent. And that's been a big debate in the Republican Party. For the moment, it's settled in favor of Trumpism. But there's no doubt that Colin Powell represented that older strain, you could say more moderate strain of the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: I'd like to reflect back now on those moments when he endorsed Barack Obama, Mara Liasson, because they were treated as big media moments. It was quite dramatic. I believe one of the endorsements was on one of the Sunday shows. And people were hanging on his every word and waiting for the moment when he came around to saying that he was going to support Barack Obama, even though Obama was in the other party. It seemed like a big moment at the time. In retrospect, do we think that many people were persuaded, that many people were listening, that the branch of the Republican Party that he wanted to speak for there was really all that large?

LIASSON: Well, I don't know how many people were persuaded. But it was a huge endorsement for Obama to get even though, in retrospect, you could say, well, of course, the first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs is going to endorse the first African American contender for president, major party nominee for president. But at the time, it was considered a big deal, I think, mostly because of how much of a big deal Colin Powell was. He was a revered figure. He was one of the most prominent African Americans if not the most prominent African Americans serving in government. And, yes, it was considered a big deal. How many votes it actually moved? I don't know. But it also was a kind of establishment, good-housekeeping seal of approval for Barack Obama.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much for your insights, really appreciate it.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.