Opinion / Christopher Cermak
As good as his words
“I only talk to him when it comes to school.” This message was conveyed to me a few weeks ago by the Dean of Colin Powell School of Citizenship and Global Leadership in New York. Such restrictions as a journalist can be frustrating, but in Powell’s case, it revealed something about who he was. Despite his achievements, the former foreign minister, who died yesterday at the age of 84 due to complications related to the coronavirus, rarely sought the spotlight and was cautious about wandering into current politics. But ask him to talk about children and education? Well then he was involved.
His representative also told me that the interview would be a short phone call so I could add a quote from my story about school. But at the end of it, Powell had been on the line for over 30 minutes and started asking I questions. I told him my mother was from New York, and he replied, “Oh, you’re one of us!” He was charming and genuine, which made me feel comfortable all the time – the behavior reminded me of why he was once considered a potential candidate for president of the United States.
This was the man who held the highest U.S. military leadership position (Chief of Staff) and became the first black Secretary of State under George W Bush. His involvement in the Iraq war probably helped all of the president’s goals, yet he had a wonderful career that left him as a senior statesman and an expert on many topics. Almost towards the end of his life, he was not inspired by the past, but was most excited when talking about the importance of education and looking for ways in which children, especially the most vulnerable, thrive.
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 see him go far. “I always remember to myself that I am a minority, a son of immigrants who would never have dreamed of graduating from university,” he said. He praised the military, which helped create a sense of purpose, but admitted it wasn’t necessarily everyone’s way. He hoped his own success story would inspire future generations. “It shows what’s possible if you stick to it,” he said. “That’s the military training I give my kids – and yes, I call them my kids. I also called soldiers as my children. “
I am honored to have interviewed him just a few weeks before his death. Regardless of your politics, he was a rare leader with a genuine civic duty. It’s something that rarely occurs on the public stage these days.
Cermak’s interview with Colin Powell appeared on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 in Monocle 24.Monocle Daily”.