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 You are in: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice > Former Secretaries of State > Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell > Speeches and Remarks > 2003 > November

Interview by Peter Slevin of The Washington Post

Secretary Colin L. Powell
Washington, DC
November 10, 2003


(10:30 a.m. EST)

QUESTION: Yes, hello, sir. Peter Slevin.

SECRETARY POWELL: Hi, Peter, how are you?

QUESTION: I'm very well. I'm very well. I'd ask you about your weekend, but it probably already seems like a long time ago.

SECRETARY POWELL: It is already. We're into a new news cycle.

QUESTION: Yeah, isn't that always the way?


QUESTION: No new news from Saudi, I guess. That always helps.

SECRETARY POWELL: No. They are, of course, dealing with the aftermath of it, and as you heard from my wingman out there, Rich Armitage, it has all the earmarks of al-Qaida --


SECRETARY POWELL: -- and I think the Saudis will ratchet up their level of activity against terrorist organizations. I think the May bombing, when I was over there -- I got there the day before that, it happened the day before I got there -- just happened to Rich this time. And they really ratcheted it up at that point, and I think they'll do even more now. I think they're seized with the reality of the problem that we have an al-Qaida problem, and it is not just al-Qaida sitting there to do things elsewhere. They attacked, the regime, the government, the leaders.

QUESTION: Yes. Well, on Marshall -- I'm fascinated that -- I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about him. I'm intrigued that you have two portraits in your office, one of Marshall and one of Jefferson, and I'm intrigued by the incidents -- the homework you assigned, which I have now done. Tell me -- tell me why you have those two portraits. Why those two people?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I must acknowledge that they were here when I arrived.


SECRETARY POWELL: I cannot tell a fib.

QUESTION: Too bad.

SECRETARY POWELL: And they were here. I don't know if Mark -- if Madeline put them up or if they were here before her.


SECRETARY POWELL: But even if the walls had been blank and I was asked, "Which two would you put up?" those are the two I would have selected. Thomas Jefferson, for reasons that are obvious, and as our first Secretary of State and a remarkable man, who also had traits in common with Marshall, and that single trait that always comes to me most often when I think about these two guys is selfless service.

Marshall's portrait is on the left wall -- and I know you saw it the other day -- and it's the one I see and I'm looking at right now as I stare out of my office, and he's staring right back at me. And he, of course, I look at not just as a former Secretary of State, but more significantly, as a former general and who was a general for the early part of my career, first year or so, and then somebody we all look back to in the military as a great soldier who got ready for World War II in the '30s by training the leaders who were going to be needed for a war he wasn't sure was coming but he was preparing for.


SECRETARY POWELL: And that's remarkably prescient of him. And for him to have been the Chief of Staff of the Army and hire people like Dwight Eisenhower as colonels, only to see them in less than three years surpass him in terms of the responsibilities they were given -- and Richard may have told you my favorite story about Marshall of when Roosevelt said to him, "As much as I know you want to go to Europe and command Overlord, George, I could not sleep at night not knowing you were here." And Marshall -- whatever disappointment he felt over that, he simply ate it. "It's what my President wanted, it's what serving this nation was all about."

And I don't know if Richard told you my other favorite one.

QUESTION: Yes, he did.

SECRETARY POWELL: He never wrote his memoirs. And the simple reason for it was they would be self-serving. And others will write --

QUESTION: You've already broken the mold on that one.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I could tell you about that, but if you read my memoirs --

QUESTION: Yeah. Which I have.

SECRETARY POWELL: I, frankly, wasn't going to write my memoir, for that reason. But when my publisher came to me and made the -- made the case, I came to a different conclusion because what he was interested in was not so much me writing about what I did as a senior leader in the military or in the White House, but they were more interested in my life story. And, frankly, a number of the people who worked on the book with me would have been quite happy if I had ended it about 200 pages earlier before I got into the stuff about what I did here, because what sold the book was the life story. So I think I made the right choice.

QUESTION: Right. The other thing that Richard had mentioned was Truman --

SECRETARY POWELL: Richard's here with us.


SECRETARY POWELL: Richard's here. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, the other thing Richard had mentioned was the Truman decision to recognize Israel, and that was a case where Marshall had been firmly opposed to it, and I guess there had even been a scene at the White House with Clark Clifford where Marshall said, "Mr. President, I wouldn't even vote for you if you did it this way." And then of course, he did go along in the end and said, according to McCullough's biography of Truman, that he called Truman and said, "I will not oppose you publicly." What made you choose that one?

SECRETARY POWELL: It's because there's -- I don't know if the story is in the biography you read or elsewhere, or -- I don't think it's apocryphal. I know I've read it. But when he came back to the Department after knowing of Truman's decision, and having essentially been undercut to some extent by his own staff, by his own assistant secretary, somebody said to him, "Well, gosh, what a blow. Aren't you going to resign?" And he looked at them with incredulity. They didn't know the man they were dealing with. And he essentially said -- and here I am speaking off the top of my head --

QUESTION: I actually have the line right here, yeah.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, "Nobody made me President. I serve." He had done his job. He had given the President his best advice. He had presented it strongly, forcefully, used every, every opportunity he had to press his case, and the ultimate responsibility laid with Harry S. Truman.

QUESTION: Right. The quote that, I think, Dean Rusk attributes to him is, "No, gentlemen, you don't take a post of this sort, and then resign when the man who has the constitutional responsibility to make decisions makes one you don't like."

SECRETARY POWELL: Exactly. And that's a heck of a note of inspiration and I've never forgotten that. Eisenhower was like that to some extent, and Eisenhower kind of grew up that way, but also was a -- you know, one of the Marshall crowd.

QUESTION: By choosing these things, is there a message about Colin Powell in this particular time?

SECRETARY POWELL: (Laughing.) That's for you to --

MR. BOUCHER: Peter, you'll have to do us a favor. I couldn't go back this far, but find out if The Washington Post suggested that he ought to resign.


QUESTION: That's an interesting thought. Right, I'll check that out.

SECRETARY POWELL: I wouldn't know. I don't know the answer to that.


SECRETARY POWELL: No, it isn't -- I don't -- I wouldn't make it autobiographical except in the sense that Marshall and his concept of serving is very much part of my personal code.

And the reason I like Jefferson is Jefferson has a great line in the first inaugural which I've used with many individuals, and Richard's heard me use it many times, and as he gets to the end of the first inaugural, which is a great statement of American values, he said something along the lines, "I go now to the task that you have put before me, in the certain knowledge that I will come out of it diminished."

QUESTION: Wow. Right.

SECRETARY POWELL: And he said -- and I'm paraphrasing because I don't have it in front of me, but the great line in it he says -- and I may be repeating myself just a little bit but you can look it up -- he said, "I go now to the task that you have put before me, until you realize that it is in your power to make a better choice."

In other words, you picked me. I'm going to get beat up. I'm going to get diminished by this. I'm going to get criticized. Those who don't know everything I know or cannot see as much as I can see will criticize me constantly. And -- but that's what I have to do. I go to serve until you realize it is in your power to make a better choice. And so I take the consequences of service, and I will do it to the best of my ability for as long as I'm asked to do it.

QUESTION: Well, there was interesting -- I'm reading Ed Cray's biography of Marshall, which was actually suggested by Larry last summer when we first -- I was first talking with him about this story, and there's a -- there's a section in there that I think goes along with this as well, and I wonder if it rings true in your own life. And he says that Marshall deliberately kept his relationship with his Commander in Chief distant, refusing even to laugh at the President's jokes.


QUESTION: Laughter only encouraged Roosevelt to filibuster his way around difficult questions needing immediate answers. Moreover, to be on a first name basis with the President would be to misrepresent their relationship.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah. I would --

QUESTION: But he goes on, if I might continue, with a thought in this section of the book, he said -- this is Marshall himself -- "I never haggled with the President. I swallowed the little things so that I could go to bat on the big ones. I never handled the matter apologetically, and I was never contentious. It took me a long time to get to him. When he thought I was not going for publicity and doing things for publication, he liked it."

What about those couple of thoughts?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think they're terrific. And it shows how a man with a particular personality and a particular approach to a President with a particular personality and a particular approach accommodated himself to the situation. I think any good subordinate accommodates himself to the wishes of his superior. And, in effect, you determine how best to serve that individual, and how best to make sure that your advice is presented and how to make sure there are no diversions, or no digressions from the advice you wish to give. But it doesn't mean that you copy Marshall, because Colin Powell isn't George Marshall and George Bush isn't Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But I would never ever go into calling the President by his first name.

QUESTION: You never would?



SECRETARY POWELL: Ever. I would not -- I don't do that to even -- I would never do that. It's unacceptable. You've got to remember, I'm not -- people keep kind of seeing me as a diplomat or a politician or a public figure, but I have to remind people that I don't come from the political world or the think tank world, the world of academia. I'm a soldier, and was that for 35 years, and a pretty fair one.

QUESTION: And that's --

SECRETARY POWELL: As was Marshall.

QUESTION: And that's -- and so that's such a Marshall parallel, too. Of course, Marshall didn't get his first star until he was 54 or 55.


QUESTION: You're ahead of him, then.

SECRETARY POWELL: I got mine at 39, so things have changed somewhat, in the intervening years, thank God. But in those days, nobody got promoted. I mean, you had to wait ten years to go from second to first lieutenant.

QUESTION: Right. No, that's right.

SECRETARY POWELL: The amazing thing is that they all stayed.

QUESTION: You're right. It's true.

SECRETARY POWELL: The Bradleys, the Eisenhowers, the grand old men of World War II were all long in the tooth people from the class the stars fell on, 1916, I think it was.

QUESTION: Well, it's interesting. You point out his devotion to duty, and yet he was also extraordinarily ambitious, and that comes out in his writings, in his letters to Pershing and others. He really wanted to get ahead. And that's why that -- that decision about D-day is such an interesting one, because Roosevelt apparently said to him, "You may have either job you choose," and he said to the President, "No, this is your decision, not mine."

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah. That's typical Marshall, because he's not unambitious, but at the same time, he would not presume to tell the President what to do in an instance like that which involves him. If the President asked about anyone else, he would have told him.

QUESTION: What about you? Have you had a situation like that with this President or another President, where you felt that you also couldn't weigh in?

SECRETARY POWELL: I have never asked any President I've worked for for a job or an assignment. The only parallel that is close to it is when I was leaving the National Security Council after Reagan was leaving office and I was ready to go back to the Army or retire, one or the other. The Army came to me and said, "We want you back and we want to promote you." And I think it's in my memoirs where the next day I told the President that I was returning to the Army, President Reagan, and he said he was pleased to hear that, and he said, "With a promotion?" And I said, "Yes, sir." But neither he nor Carlucci nor anyone else around at that time had anything to do with it. It was between me and the Army. That was my family. That was my institution. But I never would have gone to President Reagan and said, "Would you help me with this or that or the other?"

QUESTION: So there's probably only one thing left for you to do and that is to rebuild the Army again, maybe in the next term. Go back, take over the Defense Department.

SECRETARY POWELL: Nice try, Peter.

Released on November 12, 2003

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