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PIERS MORGAN:  RIP General Powell – the greatest president the US never had


General Colin Powell had a 13-point rulebook for life.

He showed them to me when we spent the day together a few years ago at the National War College in Washington DC, and they made a huge impression – mainly because I agreed with every single one of them.

They’re worth repeating again in full today as America mourns the loss – tragically, from complications due to Covid-19 – of perhaps the greatest president it never had:

1. It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.

2. Get mad, then get over it.

3. Avoid having your ego so close to your position that, when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

4. It can be done!

5. Be careful what you choose, you may get it.

6. Don’t let adverse facts stand in the way of a good decision.

7. You can’t make someone else’s choices. You shouldn’t let someone else make yours.

8. Check small things.

9. Share credit.

10. Remain calm. Be kind.

11. Have a vision. Be demanding.

12. Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

13. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Powell’s rules resonated so strongly with me because they sounded so real.

This wasn’t the robotic soundbite claptrap of a dreary career politician.

This was hard-earned real-world advice from a man who’d fought his way from the bottom to the very top of society, and who’d had to fight for everything that he achieved.

General Colin Powell had a 13-point rulebook for life. He showed them to me when we spent the day together a few years ago at the National War College in Washington DC, and they made a huge impression – mainly because I agreed with every single one of them. Pictured: Powell served as secretary of State under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005 

A young, dapper Colin Powell takes a 'mirror selfie'

The last publicly posted image of Powell shows him after speaking at the 9/11 Commemoration concert at the Kennedy Center on September 11, 2021

Powell started work selling baby furniture while still at school, then embarked on a stunning military and political career that saw him become a Vietnam veteran, a former National Security Adviser to President Reagan, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the first Black US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Pictured: A young Powell showed on left and on right the most recent image of Powell on September 11, 2021 coming off the stage at the Kennedy Center after speaking at a 9/11 Commemoration concert featuring the National Symphony Orchestra and the United States Marine Band

Colin Powell never wanted to be president, though many - including me – think he would have been a brilliant occupant of the White House. 'I never woke up a single morning thinking it was the right thing for me,' he explained. 'I've served my country in other ways.' It was said that one of the reasons he decided against it was opposition to the idea from his devoted wife Alma – mother of his three children. Pictured: Powell in Washington DC where he was worked as a White House Fellow in 1972 and 1973

Colin Powell never wanted to be president, though many – including me – think he would have been a brilliant occupant of the White House. ‘I never woke up a single morning thinking it was the right thing for me,’ he explained. ‘I’ve served my country in other ways.’ It was said that one of the reasons he decided against it was opposition to the idea from his devoted wife Alma – mother of his three children. Pictured: Powell in Washington DC where he was worked as a White House Fellow in 1972 and 1973

This was the mantra of a man who started work selling baby furniture while still at school, then embarked on a stunning military and political career that saw him become a Vietnam veteran, a former National Security Adviser to President Reagan, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton, and the first Black US Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

Indeed, such was the respect in which he was held by successive presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom TWICE.

He deserved it.

Powell was the living, breathing embodiment of Rocky Balboa’s famous movie speech to his son about life not being about how hard you can hit, but about how many times you can get hit and still keep picking yourself up again and keep moving forward.

Sylvester Stallone didn’t write that motivational masterpiece with Colin Powell in mind, but nobody better personified the ethos of it better than he did.

There have been many fulsome tributes to him since after the news of his death broke, attesting to his integrity, selfless public service, heroism – he was wounded in Vietnam – and devotion to his family.

But during my time with him, I saw at first hand the other qualities that made Powell a very special person.

He was funny and self-deprecating, honest and candid, fiercely intelligent and refreshingly devoid of meaningless political jargon.

He was also incredibly likeable and charming, with old school manners and a civility so lacking in modern political discourse.

Powell also exuded an inherent strength of character and a fiercely held moral code that ran through him like a rod of reinforced steel.

But the most striking thing about him was that he made it out of the toughest meanest streets of New York’s Harlem and the south Bronx in the 60s to become one of America’s greatest ever public figures, and never wallowed in modern day woke self-pity along the way.

Powell WAS the American dream – and he was fiercely proud of that.

In his autobiography, he revealed: ‘I was born in Harlem to immigrant parents, and my parents always had a job. I don’t think either one of them made more than $50 or $60 a week, but we were able to get along on that back then.’

The most striking thing about Powell was that he made it out of the toughest meanest streets of New York's Harlem and the south Bronx in the 60s to become one of America's greatest ever public figures, and never wallowed in modern day woke self-pity along the way. Powell WAS the American dream - and he was fiercely proud of that. Pictured: Powell (second right) poses with his wife Alma (right) and three children – Linda, Michael and Annemarie – at the White House after being appointed as National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan in 1987

The most striking thing about Powell was that he made it out of the toughest meanest streets of New York’s Harlem and the south Bronx in the 60s to become one of America’s greatest ever public figures, and never wallowed in modern day woke self-pity along the way. Powell WAS the American dream – and he was fiercely proud of that. Pictured: Powell (second right) poses with his wife Alma (right) and three children – Linda, Michael and Annemarie – at the White House after being appointed as National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan in 1987

Powell is survived by his wife Alma (pictured) and three children – Michael, Linda and Annemarie. They were married for 59 years after meeting on a blind date. Powell recounted that night to me in vivid loving detail: 'A friend of mine insisted I go with him on this blind date. He was interested in this young lady, and the young lady had a roommate, and he asked me to go with him to pick off with the roommate. And the roommate was being told the same thing by her roommate and she didn't like it and didn't think her parents would approve of her dating some infantry lieutenant. But when I walked in, she was very attractive, and she apparently did not reject me outright'

Powell is survived by his wife Alma (pictured) and three children – Michael, Linda and Annemarie. They were married for 59 years after meeting on a blind date. Powell recounted that night to me in vivid loving detail: ‘A friend of mine insisted I go with him on this blind date. He was interested in this young lady, and the young lady had a roommate, and he asked me to go with him to pick off with the roommate. And the roommate was being told the same thing by her roommate and she didn’t like it and didn’t think her parents would approve of her dating some infantry lieutenant. But when I walked in, she was very attractive, and she apparently did not reject me outright’

When I asked him about that early life, he expanded: ‘I was raised in an extended immigrant family, Jamaican with a British background. They were British subjects when they came here (to America). What they cared about was meeting the expectations they had for us to get an education, got out of the house, and get a job. That was it. You could be a doctor, lawyer, or streetcar conductor. I have cousins of mine who are subway conductors in London. And it didn’t make any difference what you actually became. It was just important that you became something and that you never embarrassed the family and that you met our expectations. Our expectations are: you will do better than we did, you will get a job, and you will make us proud in your work.’

Driven by this ferociously ambitious work ethic, Powell was a man who always put his country first, and certainly over any party allegiances.

To him, what mattered most was loyalty to the United States of America, and he had no time for partisan bullsh*t that creates division not unity.

Powell was a long-time Republican who then endorsed a Democrat, Barack Obama, to be President.

It earned him a lot of praise, and a lot of abuse.

But he never regretted doing what he thought was right.

‘I always tried to do the best job of analyzing the needs of the country and the candidates that are before us,’ he told me, ‘and trying to support the candidate who I feel will do the best for the country, whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican.’

Powell identified a massive problem that is even more serious today – the woefully intransigent and destructive nature of partisan tribal politics.

‘What troubles me the most is that I’ve never seen such polarization in our political process,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen a situation where you have people on the far left and the far right who focus on their own extreme positions and hold these as theological positions that can’t be moved away from and changed, and everybody is measured against these extremes.’

The answer, he believed, was to return to compromise, however unpalatable it may seem to those opposing each other.

‘Our founding fathers also had strong beliefs and believed in extremes,’ he told me. ‘And they were able in Philadelphia, in writing our constitution, to make some great compromises. They had to compromise on slavery. I don’t like the compromise they made at the time because we kept slavery, but they said we’re here to form a nation. We can’t solve that right now. It (compromise) is not happening now because it’s been made too difficult. The extremes have been able to capture a lot of the politicians who might be more toward the middle by having them sign agreements that I will never raise taxes or other things that pledge themselves to positions that don’t lend themselves easily to compromise. And the current media environment is constant, nonstop commentary all day long, all evening long. If you say anything that seems to drift of the orthodoxy of your party’s position, you’re going to hear about it immediately either on a cable talk show or on the bloggers or on the Internet. And so, the two parties don’t have the same opportunity to work quietly with each other.’

He was right about all that, though by his own admission he didn’t lead a blameless career and his nadir came when he stood up in front of the United Stations Security Council in 2003 to present the ‘evidence’ to the world that Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

When the WMD never showed up, Powell was subjected to global criticism and ridicule that tarnished his glittering reputation and caused him huge personal sorrow.

But his brutal honesty over the Iraq War catastrophe said so much about the man.

Unlike many others who were similarly duped, Powell made no attempt to shirk responsibility for arguing for the war on what turned out to be false evidence.

‘It’s a blot,’ he told ABC News in 2005, ‘and will always be part of my record. It’s painful.’

Such was the respect in which Powell was held by successive presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom TWICE. He deserved it. Powell was the living, breathing embodiment of Rocky Balboa's famous movie speech to his son about life not being about how hard you can hit, but about how many times you can get hit and still keep picking yourself up again and keep moving forward. Pictured: First Lady Barbara Bush fastens the Medal around Powell's neck as then-President George H. W. Bush watches in 1991

Such was the respect in which Powell was held by successive presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom TWICE. He deserved it. Powell was the living, breathing embodiment of Rocky Balboa’s famous movie speech to his son about life not being about how hard you can hit, but about how many times you can get hit and still keep picking yourself up again and keep moving forward. Pictured: First Lady Barbara Bush fastens the Medal around Powell’s neck as then-President George H. W. Bush watches in 1991

Powell was a long-time Republican who then endorsed a Democrat, Barack Obama, to be President. It earned him a lot of praise, and a lot of abuse. But he never regretted doing what he thought was right. 'I always tried to do the best job of analyzing the needs of the country and the candidates that are before us,' he told me, 'and trying to support the candidate who I feel will do the best for the country, whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican.' Pictured: Powell speaks with then-President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on December 1, 2010

Powell was a long-time Republican who then endorsed a Democrat, Barack Obama, to be President. It earned him a lot of praise, and a lot of abuse. But he never regretted doing what he thought was right. ‘I always tried to do the best job of analyzing the needs of the country and the candidates that are before us,’ he told me, ‘and trying to support the candidate who I feel will do the best for the country, whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican.’ Pictured: Powell speaks with then-President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on December 1, 2010

When I pressed him on it during our interview, he said: ‘Our intelligence had it wrong, and I more than anyone presented that intelligence to the United States people and the American people and to the world. When I realized that a large part of it – not all of it, but a considerable part of it – was wrong and we should have known it was wrong, I felt terrible. I felt disappointed. It was wrong. That is the summation of it. It was wrong.’

Yes, it was.

Horribly wrong.

And the awful repercussions of that terrible blunder are still being felt today.

But it’s rare to see a public figure so bluntly admit to a mistake of such magnitude and not try to spin their way out of any accountability.

Compare and contrast to the likes of Donald Trump who would rather garotte themselves than ever admit to getting anything wrong.

Colin Powell never wanted to be president, though many – including me – think he would have been a brilliant occupant of the White House.

‘I never woke up a single morning thinking it was the right thing for me,’ he explained. ‘I’ve served my country in other ways.’

It was said that one of the reasons he decided against it was opposition to the idea from his devoted wife Alma – mother of his three children.

They were married for 59 years after meeting on a blind date.

Powell recounted that night to me in vivid loving detail: ‘A friend of mine insisted I go with him on this blind date. He was interested in this young lady, and the young lady had a roommate, and he asked me to go with him to pick off with the roommate. And the roommate was being told the same thing by her roommate and she didn’t like it and didn’t think her parents would approve of her dating some infantry lieutenant. But when I walked in, she was very attractive, and she apparently did not reject me outright.’

They were married nine months later, knowing he would soon be off to war in Vietnam.

‘I would be gone for a year, and when I came back, I would still be something of a stranger,’ he recalled. ‘And she took that risk. I never forget the fact that she didn’t marry a general. She didn’t marry a secretary of state. She married a young first lieutenant. She sacrificed a lot and I owe her a lot.’

‘What’s the secret of a happy marriage?’ I asked him.

‘Getting along,’ he replied, ‘and love.’

At the end of the interview, I asked Powell to name the key values he felt we should all prioritise.

He thought for a bit, then replied: ‘Service to others, service to something greater than yourself, service to country, serving a purpose in life. Why are you here, what are you doing? Secondly, being kind to people. Third, raising a good family.’ Ultimately, he always considered himself a military man.

‘The Army was my life,’ he said. ‘I’m often called a statesman and politician. No, I’m a soldier and infantry officer.’

But by God, he was so much more than that.

I asked Powell to name the key values he felt we should all prioritise. He thought for a bit, then replied: 'Service to others, service to something greater than yourself, service to country, serving a purpose in life. Why are you here, what are you doing? Secondly, being kind to people. Third, raising a good family.' Ultimately, he always considered himself a military man. 'The Army was my life,' he said. 'I'm often called a statesman and politician. No, I'm a soldier and infantry officer.' Pictured: Powell started his military tenure in the Vietnam War. This photo from 1986 shows him and wife Alma during a farewell ceremony in Frankfurt when Powell was a Lieutenant General

I asked Powell to name the key values he felt we should all prioritise. He thought for a bit, then replied: ‘Service to others, service to something greater than yourself, service to country, serving a purpose in life. Why are you here, what are you doing? Secondly, being kind to people. Third, raising a good family.’ Ultimately, he always considered himself a military man. ‘The Army was my life,’ he said. ‘I’m often called a statesman and politician. No, I’m a soldier and infantry officer.’ Pictured: Powell started his military tenure in the Vietnam War. This photo from 1986 shows him and wife Alma during a farewell ceremony in Frankfurt when Powell was a Lieutenant General

It's an absolute tragedy that Colin Powell has become the most high-profile American to succumb to Covid-19. That he was fully vaccinated when he contracted the virus but still succumbed to complications from it is especially heart-breaking. But in his 84 years, he achieved more than most to ever walk this planet. Powell told me what he wanted written on his tombstone. 'I don't need much,' he smiled. 'Just put, 'Good guy, he served well, and he raised a good family, and he loved his country.' Could there be any finer epitaph? RIP General Powell - and thank you for your service. Pictured: Powel addresses the United Nations Security Council in 2003

It’s an absolute tragedy that Colin Powell has become the most high-profile American to succumb to Covid-19. That he was fully vaccinated when he contracted the virus but still succumbed to complications from it is especially heart-breaking. But in his 84 years, he achieved more than most to ever walk this planet. Powell told me what he wanted written on his tombstone. ‘I don’t need much,’ he smiled. ‘Just put, ‘Good guy, he served well, and he raised a good family, and he loved his country.’ Could there be any finer epitaph? RIP General Powell – and thank you for your service. Pictured: Powel addresses the United Nations Security Council in 2003

Powell’s life story was a wonderful inspiration to all those born without a trace of privilege.

‘I have fun telling the students I graduated with a C average,’ he chuckled to me, ‘and now, I have a Center named after me (The Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadershp) and I’m called a distinguished visiting professor! My professors of 53 years old ago would roll over in their graves if they heard that. The fact is it isn’t where you started life that matters, but where you end up and what you did along the way. That’s the message I give to all my audiences, especially the young ones: Believe in yourself, believe in this country, and listen to the people that care about you in life, and just keep doing your best and be your own role model.’

It’s an absolute tragedy that Colin Powell has become the most high-profile American to succumb to Covid-19.

That he was fully vaccinated when he contracted the virus but still succumbed to complications from it is especially heart-breaking.

But in his 84 years, he achieved more than most to ever walk this planet.

Powell told me what he wanted written on his tombstone.

‘I don’t need much,’ he smiled. ‘Just put, ‘Good guy, he served well, and he raised a good family, and he loved his country.’

Could there be any finer epitaph?

RIP General Powell – and thank you for your service.



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