Former Secretary of State and Retired Army General Colin Powell endorsed Senator Barack Obama during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Powell, a Republican and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the administration of President George H. Bush, crossed party lines, calling Obama a “transformational figure” and citing his disappointment with the negative tone of the McCain camp.
The endorsement of Obama by General Powell, a man consistently polled as one of the most respected public servants in the nation, is a major blow to the campaign of Senator John McCain. Since he entered the presidential race, McCain has used his military background, and experience as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, as validation of his fitness to serve as commander-in-chief. While touting his military service the McCain campaign also sought to lay claim to “patriotism” as a central theme of his run for the White House; choosing “country first” as the senator’s rallying cry. General Powell’s support of Senator Obama is the equivalent of a political checkmate. The general’s sterling history of service to the nation, and his standing, now serve to diminish the claim by the McCain camp that only the Republican candidate has the ability to lead the nation militarily. With Powell’s endorsement, Obama has now effectively taken McCain on in an area long considered to be the Arizonan’s stronghold.
In many ways General Powell has come full circle. Long a moderate voice in his party, and someone who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, he found himself isolated during his tenure as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush. His advocacy for a diplomatic solution to the impasse with Sadaam Hussein was in stark contrast to the militaristic minded hawks of the administration, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. His appearance before the U.N. Security Council, during which he unknowingly used faulty intelligence in making the case for military intervention in Iraq, was a personal blow to Powell and provided the impetus for the decorated general’s decision to leave the administration. Though he publicly supported the use of force in Iraq, it has been long known that Powell took issue with the administration’s decision to go to war and was offended by his ill-advised presentation at the U.N.
While it had been known all week leading up to Sunday’s “Meet the Press” broadcast that Powell would speak supportively of Senator Obama, it was unknown whether the general would give a formal endorsement. And no one could have predicted the breadth of General Powell’s statement. Much more than an endorsement, it was a manifesto. Powell took great pains to take on his own party, citing his displeasure that the Republican Party has shifted rightward and his concern that a McCain presidency could result in the appointment of two more conservative judges to the United States Supreme Court. He specifically referenced Senator Obama’s attentiveness to the nation’s economic crisis and the disjointed nature of Senator McCain’s response.
The most striking aspect of General Powell’s comments on “Meet the Press” were his criticism of the McCain campaign’s use of divisive tactics. He specifically expressed displeasure over the manner in which Senator McCain has used former Weather Underground member William Ayers as a proxy for terrorists and the attempts to make Senator Obama guilty by association. General Powell thoroughly discounted the Ayers connection and suggested that McCain had made a grievous error in focusing on a person the candidate called a “washed up terrorist” while the nation was beset with an economic crisis.
General Powell also took issue with Republicans who have tried to cast suspicion upon Senator Obama’s faith, reaffirming that the senator is a Christian but then criticizing his own party for demonizing Islam and the effort to try to cast the religion as aligned with terrorism. It was the strongest renunciation to date of the McCain campaign’s tactics and served to further cast his candidacy in a negative light with just two weeks remaining until the election. The general’s critique was so pointed it could well serve as an Obama ad in the closing days of the campaign.
Powell did not stop at admonishing the McCain campaign for its tactics. He took a swipe at vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin, suggesting that the Alaska governor was not ready to serve as President should she be required to if Senator McCain was elected and was incapacitated. The rebuke, coming as it did the morning after Governor Palin’s appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” was a stark reminder that despite the comedic turns of a campaign, the responsibilities of the office warrant real consideration of an individual’s fitness to serve.
For the McCain campaign, General Obama delivered a double blow: choosing Senator Obama over the military veteran and then questioning Senator McCain’s judgment in selecting Governor Palin as his running mate. It was perhaps the most damning development that could have occurred for the McCain camp in the closing days of the campaign.