“If you should ask then maybe they’d
Tell you what I would say
True colors fly in blue and black
Bruised silken sky and burning flag.”– Paul Hewson
It’s impossible to say that I plan these out in advance. My process has been the same for decades now. Sure, when I wrote term papers there was always a plan, but I spent numerous years as a columnist and I always flew by the seat of my pants. So, it should be little surprise that I’m doing it again. At least you can bask in the knowledge that these posts are worth every penny you’re paying.
General Colin Powell passed away yesterday. Like many Americans these days he passed away due to complications from COVID. Unlike many of those Americans, his death was complicated. He wasn’t going to be a Herman Cain Award nominee. He had been vaccinated. By all accounts, he had been careful. Unfortunately, he was recovering from cancer treatments and his body just didn’t have the immune system necessary to fight off the infection.
His death was as complicated as his life. In the case of most of these COVID deaths, you could easily say it could have been avoided. In most cases you could say it was a self-inflicted wound. In most cases you could chalk it up to arrogance and irresponsibility. Powell’s death can’t be placed in that category. His death became as complicated as his life. Legacies are usually not clean and his life is a reminder.
I imagine the first thing that comes to people’s minds is watching Powell stand before the United Nations and lie about weapons of mass destruction. It seemed credible at the time and a lot of that credibility was due to him. Once you surrender your credibility it’s hard to get it back. So, it is impossible to consider his legacy without considering that first.
Powell’s legacy is one of speaking truth to power most of the time. For some, most of the time simply won’t cut it. These days, most of the time is something we’d likely settle for. He was a registered Republican, but he hardly seemed like the usual Republican even back then. There was a brief, fleeting moment when we thought he might make a successful run for the presidency. That seems as distant a memory as our childhoods now.
In a moment of brutal honesty, we would readily admit that Powell is like many of us. Yesterday, we talked about civic religion. These stories intersect in the legacy we hope to achieve. When we all pass on it will be asked whether we lived a life of good or a frivolous life. For most of us, the answer will not be so simple. It wasn’t for him either.
How does one balance all of the good he did over the course of a career with one moment that may very well erase it all? It is impossible to know now how much he actually knew at the time. Did he honestly believe there were weapons of mass destruction? Had he been misled by those above him? Was he complicit in the biggest lie of the first decade of the century? We might never know the answer to that question.
What we do know is that there are some things we can never outrun. There are some things that a thousand or even a million good deeds can’t wash away. We can ask the same thing we always ask when any one us finally goes. On the balance, was the world a better place because we were here? In Powell’s case, that’s a hard one to answer.
Life is not a choose your own adventure book. We can’t go back and try the alternative story line. We also have no way of knowing if there was anyone available to stand up to the administration in that moment. That’s what makes legacies so hard. It’s also clear that he figured that out eventually. Maybe that is worth some points in the end and maybe it’s not. For me, it’s worth retaining his humanity until the very end.