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Ted Koppel remembers Colin Powell as a 'wise counselor' to presidents


All this morning, we've been hearing voices on the death of Colin Powell. He was a pathbreaking American - the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first Black secretary of state. He was also criticized for supporting the invasion of Iraq, one huge event in a tremendous career - a long, long career. Powell's family announced that he died of complications from COVID-19, although he had been fully vaccinated. He was immunocompromised, it is said.

Joining us now is veteran broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, who developed a special relationship with Powell and also covered him over the years. Ted, welcome back.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was Colin Powell's place in Washington, speaking just as someone who's covered Washington, D.C., the last several decades?

KOPPEL: Well, he was - I would say his preeminent place was as an adviser to presidents. And he did that in all the different posts that you've just enumerated. He was a wise counselor whose own background was largely influenced by all the years that he spent in the military, and in particular the years that he spent in Vietnam.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of one piece of advice that he gave as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And we should explain for those who don't know that doesn't mean he's in charge of the U.S. military exactly. It means that he is the president's chief military adviser. And in 1990, 1991, he told President George H.W. Bush that if you're going to go into Iraq, go in with overwhelming force.

KOPPEL: He also, you know, gave the famous Pottery Barn warning. If you break it, you own it. And in a very succinct way, that was precisely what happened to us not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan for all too many years. We went in, we broke it, we owned it.

INSKEEP: Well, there are two pieces of advice that were taken in different ways. The advice to go in with overwhelming force in 1991 was advice that seemed to be taken. The United States invaded Kuwait and parts of Iraq with an army of something like half a million people. The other advice was about the other war, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And that was a prophetic warning that was not taken.

KOPPEL: And that first warning, of course, came also with the decision that was the key decision - to get out and get out quickly. And President Bush, of course, made the decision to get out without capturing Saddam Hussein, without going all the way up to Baghdad. And that was really the genius of that particular invasion and advice that was not followed during the second invasion.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about his role in that second, far more controversial and far more difficult war for both the United States and for Iraq because it lasted so long. Colin Powell had his doubts, as that bit of advice about Pottery Barn suggested, but did not resign, did not speak out against the policy and in the end was the person who went to the United Nations to make the case for war, make the case that Iraq was a danger, that Iraq - Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He was a tremendously popular figure among people in both political parties, Ted. And I'd like to know if you think that his reputation was used - if he was used there.

KOPPEL: Well, of course it was. And the fact of the matter is I think he spent more than a weekend - he and a couple of his top aides were out at CIA headquarters looking at all the intelligence and sifting the wheat from the chaff. And ultimately, I just heard my old friend Richard Haass, who was a close aide of Powell's at the time, talking about having sifted out perhaps 98% of all the garbage that was in there. And they really believed they had done as good a job as they could. But the fact of the matter is you're absolutely right. It was Powell's speech at the United Nations that was as influential as any in terms of getting us into that war. And I think he regretted that for the rest of his life.

INSKEEP: Do you think he'll be remembered mainly for that?

KOPPEL: Oh, I hope not. I can't imagine that in a professional life that was marked by so many firsts - and you enumerated them at the beginning of this piece, Steve. I can't imagine that that's the one thing he'll be remembered for. And if, indeed, it is, it would be a great injustice.

INSKEEP: What was he like personally?

KOPPEL: A very funny guy. He called me once and invited me to come over because he had - this was back in the days when Tesla was very, very new. And he had a two-seater Tesla, almost a prototype of the car. And I went over. I, at that time, had an NSX, which was a very fast sports car. And he let me drive the Tesla, and I let him drive the NSX. And he peeled out with the NSX. And I guess I had not changed the tires when I should've, and one of the tires blew with a massive explosion. And he came back and he said, you know, Koppel, trying to kill the secretary of state is still a federal crime.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KOPPEL: He was a delightful man. And years later, when he got to drive the pace car at the Indianapolis 500, he sent me a picture of himself kneeling next to the pace car and inscribed, eat your heart out, Koppel. It hangs in a place of honor in my bathroom.

INSKEEP: You just used the word honor, which makes me think of one more thing that I want to go out with here. This is a man who served in Vietnam, as well as serving in high positions much later. What do you think his idea was of service to the country?

KOPPEL: I think his idea of honor was that this is ultimately a great country and that for all the mistakes and for all the many, many things that are wrong with the country, that it is worth saving and worth serving. And he did both. He served with honor.

INSKEEP: Ted Koppel, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

KOPPEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ted Koppel - who, of course, was long the anchor of ABC's "Nightline," was more recently with NPR News - commenting on the death of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has died at age 84 of complications from COVID-19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.