Tuesday, October 19, 2021 – The Monocle Minute
Opinion / Christopher Cermak
As good as his word
“I only talk to him when it comes to school.” That was the message the dean of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership in New York gave me a few weeks ago. Such limitations can be frustrating as a journalist, but in Powell’s case, they reveal something about who he was. Despite his accomplishments, the former foreign minister, who died yesterday at the age of 84 from complications related to the coronavirus, rarely sought the spotlight and was cautious about delving into contemporary politics. But do you ask him to talk about children and education? Well, then he was inside.
I was also told by his spokeswoman that the interview would be a quick phone call so I could add a quote to my story about the school. But in the end, Powell was on the line for more than 30 minutes and started asking me Ask. I told him my mother was from New York and he replied, “Oh, you’re one of us!” He was charming and sincere, making me feel comfortable throughout – behavior that reminded me why he was once was considered a potential candidate for US presidency.
This was a man who held the highest military leadership position in the US (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and became the first black Secretary of State under George W. Bush. His connection with the Iraq war likely suited any presidential ambition, but his career was nonetheless an illustrious one that made him a senior statesman and expert in many fields. At the end of his life, rather than coming to terms with the past, he was most animated when he spoke about the importance of education and found ways for children, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be successful.
Powell also spoke passionately to me about the importance of family and praised his own Jamaican parents and the Bronx community for their determination to take him far. “I always remember that I am a minority, the son of immigrants who never dream of going to college,” he said. He praised the army for helping make sense of it, but acknowledged that it wasn’t necessarily the way for everyone. He hoped his own success story would inspire generations to come. “It shows what is possible if you stick with it,” he said. “This is the military training I give my children – and yes, I call them my children. I have also called my soldiers my children. “
I am honored to be able to interview him just a few weeks before his death. Whatever your policy, he was a rare type of leader with real civic duties. It is something that appears far too rarely on the public stage these days.
Cermak’s interview with Colin Powell appeared in Monocle 24’s “The Monocle Daily” on Wednesday, October 6, 2021.