Crossing Lines: Colin Powell and My Own DC Snobbery


Last night, I got a phone call from New York Sun writer Eli Lake, a thoughtful and serious writer who is more hawkish than I am and closely associated with neoconservatives (though I don’t consider him to be one — he’s too empirical for that), about Colin Powell speaking at a huge motivational conference in September along with Sugar Ray Leonard, Steve Forbes, Robert Schuller, and Zig Ziglar.
Lake got me at a good time as I had just seen the giant full page ad for the Verizon Center conference and thought it really odd — and just something not quite fitting Colin Powell’s stature. I offered a quote, and Eli Lake got what I said right though I think that the comments said something more about me than they did Powell. I was snobbish and shouldn’t have been.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I admire Secretary Powell. He did much to clean up messes behind the scenes early in the tenure of this administration. He helped squash what could have been an incredibly destructive escalation with China in April 2001. He oversaw Armitage’s efforts in defusing a potential nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India.
Powell gave his North Korea-focused diplomats who began in earnest working on the current North Korea deal protection from Cheney’s wing of the national security establishment. He put John Bolton in a “box” when Bolton agitated as Under Secretary of State for International Security and Arms Control. Powell has called for Guantanamo to be shut down. He has made another brave, true statement that the Quartet envoy Tony Blair is going to have to find a way to communicate with Hamas.
I have no doubt that many of my readers are going to share alternative views that Secretary Powell could have done more to shut down the Cheney-Rumsfeld machine, or have exposed details from inside the Bush White House that might have prevented a worsening of the debacle in Iraq, or could have said more about how he was seriously misled by George Tenet and other parts of the government before his address to the United Nations in early 2003 on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities and assets. But I stand by my support of Powell — and feel that things would have been even worse than they are today had Powell and his team not been in the administration from the beginning.
There are things I wish Powell would do and say — but that responsibility and burden is for him to carry — and I think that Powell weighs in on matters like Guantanamo and Hamas when he thinks it will provide a “tilt” and matter.
So, back to my regretted snobbishness. The fact is that I am of two minds about the whole speaker fee issue.
When I was in the very early stages of helping to establish the Nixon Center in 1993 and was then working at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, I was contacted by a representative of one of Japan’s largest economy-focused newspapers, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, who felt that I knew a lot of political folks and wanted to use me as an intermediary to invite former President George H.W. Bush to Japan.
This kind of invite was a sensitive political issue because the Reagans had accepted a trip to Japan financed by Fujianskei Communications which cost the firm somewhere between $8 and $10 million — with a substantial chunk of that going as compensation to the former President.
I contacted President Bush then who was then working with a single staff member in a new Texas office — and got him on the phone. He was very sensitive to appearances and did not want a repeat of the Reagan’s situation — and thought that there was a way to go to Japan for a decent fee, but not so substantial as to seem inappropriate. That particular deal never came through because the newspaper group simply wanted to have the former President appear at multiple functions around Japan charging people to attend — and it just seemed well, unseemly.
I admired the current President Bush’s father for that kind of sensitivity.
I got to know the elder Harry Walker via President Bush who handles many of the top political talent in the country — and at one point thought about doing more to help line up talent for Japan venues. But in the end, I didn’t have the interest and financial deals have never been my motivator.
The point for this back story is that I have thought about the issue of audiences, speakers, fees, and the like before — and I do believe that it is essential for smart leaders to get out into the country and meet normal Americans who don’t have the benefit (or curse) of being exposed to high octane politics 24/7. In the case of Bush the elder, that case was not about motivating Americans, or trying to connect with people who weren’t political junkies.
I should not have “looked down my nose” at Colin Powell’s decision to speak to thousands of people who do not normally have the opportunity to rub shoulders with people like him. They get to pay a small fee — and perhaps they take members of their family who need some motivational kick-start. If I had the opportunity to speak to 10,000 people, I’d do it because it’s an opportunity to try and instill some of the realities of “hard choices” that this town has to struggle with frequently and which many in the country don’t have connection with.
So, Eli Lake got my snobbish comments correct. I do think that I erred in offering them because I should have said that while the ad glitz was just not my kind of thing, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone like Colin Powell is going to connect with a sizable number of Americans who are probably not as informed as they might be on matters of national importance today — and that it is good for the barriers of inside the beltway and outside to be blurred a bit.
I should probably even go and see what this Zig Ziglar and motivational scene is all about in any case. Maybe they’ll give me a blogger’s discount.
— Steve Clemons


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