Colin Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, died Monday morning from COVID-19 complications. He was 84.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father and grandfather and a great American,” the family said.
“We want to thank the medical staff at Walter Reed National Medical Center for their caring treatment,” they added. “We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American.”
Powell’s wife, Alma, also had a breakthrough case of COVID-19, but survived.
In 1989 Powell became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In that role he oversaw the U.S. invasion of Panama and later the U.S. invasion of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi army in 1991.
But his reputation suffered a painful setback when, in 2003, Powell went before the U.N. Security Council and made the case for U.S. war against Iraq. He cited faulty information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed away weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s claims that it had not represented “a web of lies,” he told the world body.
Born April 5, 1937, in Harlem, New York, to Jamaican immigrants, Powell was a ground-breaking figure in Washington and garnered respect from both sides of the aisle.
Powell joined the U.S. Army after graduating from college in 1958. Across his 35-year military career, he served two tours in Vietnam and was stationed in West Germany and South Korea.
He would go on to serve in top roles under four presidents, first as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton, the first African-American to hold the role. Powell then was tapped by President George W. Bush as secretary of state.
Powell led the State Department during the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and favored taking military action against al Qaeda. He also supported the invasion of Iraq and appeared before the United Nations to present evidence that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The chief justification for the war in Iraq, however, rested on bad intelligence.
Powell would go on to call his 2003 speech before the United Nations describing the weapons program in Iraq a “blot” on his record.
In a statement Monday, former President George W. Bush praised Powell, and said that he and former first lady Laura Bush were “deeply saddened” by his death.
“He was a great public servant” and “widely respected at home and abroad,” Bush said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
“He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend,” Mr. Bush said. “Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney said in a statement that he too was “deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman.”
“Working with him during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, I saw first-hand General Powell’s dedication to the United States and his commitment to the brave and selfless men and women who serve our country in uniform,” Cheney said in a statement. “Colin was a trailblazer and role model for so many: the son of immigrants who rose to become National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Secretary of State.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters he lost a “tremendous personal friend and mentor,” and said it’s “not possible to replace a Colin Powell.”
“The world lost one of the greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” Austin said. “I feel as though I have a hole in my heart.”
Powell initially identified as a Republican, but later in life became a conspicuous endorser of Democrat presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.
A “Draft Powell” movement began in the mid-1990s, in a bid to urge him to challenge then-incumbent President Bill Clinton, Breitbart reported.
Powell declined to run but gave a prominent speech at the 1996 Republican National Convention, in which he controversially declared, “I believe in a woman’s right to choose and I strongly support affirmative action,” and urged the GOP to be more inclusive.
Powell backed Barack Obama for president in 2008, and renewed his endorsement in 2012. He went on to support Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 against Donald Trump, whom he referred to as a “national disgrace” in a 2016 email. He was a vocal critic of Trump throughout his presidency, joining other retired generals in 2020 to falsely claim that Trump had violated the Constitution in his walk across Lafayette Square.
In 2020, he endorsed Joe Biden for president, prompting Trump to call him “a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars.”