In Orange County last Saturday evening to accept an award from Chapman University, Colin Powell was at his most energized while talking not about war and peace but education. He recounted a prior visit to Orange County to meet with students and teachers at Glenn L. Martin Elementary School in Santa Ana, where his sister, legendary teacher Marilyn Berns, who died in 2005, was working. Though Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, it turned out that not arriving by motorcade made all the difference. "The kids didn't know who I was or what I did," Powell told an audience of 600 at Chapman's gala banquet, "but they loved that helicopter." He also talked about America's daunting educational challenges, reminding us that a third of our young people (and half of all our minority students) still don't finish high school.
Though he served four years as George W. Bush's secretary of state, Powell didn't mention him. When he did address global issues, they had to do not with the war on terror, in which he played a central role, but the end of the Cold War, where he was a supporting player under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Accordingly I was honored to have on my arm my wife and successor at the Nixon Foundation, former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O'Connor, who once accompanied 37 when he called on Powell at the Pentagon.
Thanks to the presence of former Ambassador to Spain and former Nixon Foundation chairman George Argyros (one of the architects of a supercharged Chapman along with its visionary, marathoner president, economist Jim Doti), Powell reenacted the comic opera of Perejil Island, a uninhabited pile of rocks in the Strait of Gilbraltar claimed by both Spain and Morocco. One Saturday morning in July 2002, on the way to spend the day with his grandchildren, Secretary Powell kept the two countries from a full-scale confrontation by typing out and signing a peace agreement, faxing it from his home in northern Virginia, and pressuring the king of Morocco to accept the deal and remove his forces.
It was a wonderful story. I also would've liked to hear what it had been like on Sept. 11, how he feels about his controversial speech to the UN in the runup to the Iraq war, and what he thinks the U.S. should do to win in Afghanistan. My friend Don Will, professor of peace studies at Chapman, told me that some of these questions came up when Powell met with three undergraduates before dinner and that Powell had answered directly and graciously. This Orange County Register report has details about that conversation.
As charming and uplifting as his dinner talk was, I felt he was holding the larger audience somewhat at bay, as though he was still sifting through strong and perhaps conflicted feelings about the Bush administration. Whether or not he finishes that process, I'll bet there's a final act of public service to come, either appointive or elective. On Palm Sunday, the Episcopalian Powell will turn 72. Fit and ramrod straight, he looks and acts 60. On Saturday night, he made a lot of cracks about being comfortably retired, but I left the event thinking about a thoroughbred straining in the gate, unsure whether its next race would be six furlongs or a mile, on turf or grass, but almost beside itself with the power to run.