Colin Powell: GOP Candidates 'Belittling' The Country And Presidency

Mar 6, 2016
Originally published on March 7, 2016 7:15 am

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has a message for the Republican Party: "We have to become more respectful of each other."

Speaking on the death of former first lady Nancy Reagan, Powell said he believed she would be "disturbed" by the way her husband's legacy is invoked by some people today. Powell spoke in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered.

Referring to the "civility" and "lack of any nastiness" he saw in Ronald Reagan, Powell, who served as Reagan's national security adviser, decried the tone of the current Republican presidential campaign. "To stand there and do junior high school tricks on one another is belittling the country and belittling the office to which they are striving," he said.

Powell added, "Even Jerry Springer thinks it's gone too far, and when Jerry Springer thinks you've gone too far, my friends, you have gone too far." He was referring to recent remarks in the Financial Times from Springer, who served as the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in the late 1970s.

As recently as last Fall, Powell insisted that he remains a Republican, even though he supported Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.

In both of those campaign years, Powell spoke out critically about the rhetoric of the GOP. "In 2008, I spoke out against calling the president a Muslim as if that was a curse. I don't know anything in the Constitution that says Muslims are bad," Powell said.

In 2012, Powell spoke out against "a level of intolerance in some parts of the party — and there was. And I think there still is."

Powell did not name any specific candidates while laying out his criticism.

There was huge buzz around a possible run by Powell for the GOP nomination in 1996, when he enjoyed immense popularity after serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the 1991 Gulf War.

Powell declined to run and later served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Powell delivered to the United Nations the administration's evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which proved faulty. Powell later referred to that episode as a "painful" memory.

He stepped into the Reagan White House during a time of embarrassment over international affairs. Powell became national security adviser in 1987 at the height of the Iran Contra scandal, which erupted over secret operations that included an arms sale to Iran in exchange for American hostages being held in Lebanon.

Powell recalled it was the late first lady, Nancy Reagan, who finally got President Ronald Reagan to admit to and apologize for the operation. "A lot of people went in to tell him, 'Mr. President, you've got to do this,' but at the end of the day I think it was Nancy who finally pushed him over the edge," he said.

He remembered Mrs. Reagan's role in the White House positively: "Her instincts were usually very, very good — politically, in common sense and in terms of how the public would respond, and she was the one who would sort of push the issue, and she'd push him."

Mrs. Reagan has often been referred to as her husband's protector, a role Colin Powell saw up close. "It was important for us to keep both of them happy, and I think we did a pretty good job," he said.

The times when Nancy Reagan wasn't by her husband's side were not good, according to Powell.

"She would occasionally go off to New York to visit with friends and to do shopping, and she'd be gone for several days. By day two, we could see the president starting to fret," Powell said. "By day three, we would chat with each other and somebody would say, 'Call New York and get her home,' doing it in the most polite, proper way, of course."

After leaving the White House, Powell said, Mrs. Reagan let her guard down a bit, and their friendship grew.

"I think they were the most gracious and charming president and first lady," Powell added.

As the political world once again reflects on the example set by the Reagans in the wake of Mrs. Reagan's death, Powell said he hopes "perhaps this would calm the temperature a bit in our public debate now."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. As news of the death of former first lady Nancy Reagan became public today, we began searching for friends and colleagues to share their memories of her. We were fortunate to reach someone many Americans know well, Gen. Colin Powell. Gen. Powell is a former Secretary of State and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He first got to know the Reagans when he became President Reagan's national security adviser from 1987 to 1989. General Powell advised President Reagan during his meetings with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and also during the Iran-Contra crisis. When I reached him a short time ago, I started by asking him about his first impressions of Nancy Reagan.

COLIN POWELL: She was a major figure within the White House, and we all sort of gave her a wide birth. But in my year plus as national security adviser, I did get to know her well. I had to interact with her. She was a remarkable woman, and as I have said many times, there was no Ronald Reagan without Nancy Reagan.

MARTIN: Give us an example of why you say that, though. I mean, she...

POWELL: ...I say it because - let me give you this example. She would occasionally go off to New York to visit with friends and to do shopping, and she'd gone for several days. By day two we could see the president starting to fret. He would just be more irritable, more uncomfortable. And by day three we would chat with each other, and somebody would say call New York and get her home - doing it in most polite, proper way of course. But without her close by, you wouldn't have a complete Ronald Reagan. They were inseparable in body and in spirit, and she was his protector. That's why we kind of made sure that only one person dealt with her and the rest of us were instructed after that, because she was his protector. She was his guardian angel. And if anybody ever made trouble for President Reagan, she would see that something was done about it. And I had a few occasions when something did not go quite the way she had hoped it would go and as national security adviser, I had to tell her we couldn't do this or we couldn't do that. Oh, did I dread that because she always looked so broken up because we couldn't do what she was asking at the moment. But she got over it. And interestingly - and this is what I find most interesting - after they left the White House and went back to California, we stayed in touch with them, and I visited President and Mrs. Reagan out at their home in Bel Air. And it was a much warmer relationship. She was no longer the guardian angel. She was just the wife of a former president.

MARTIN: What was she protective - you said she was his guardian - of his well-being or his - people actually carrying out his intentions?

POWELL: His well-being, carrying out his intention, and - President Reagan was not known for one who would sort of enjoy dealing with personnel problems or seeing that there was the need for a major change in the White House, but she had no reservations. When she saw something was not going right or it was out of tolerance, she would press him on it, and she would press the staff. She would press the chief of staff and occasionally press me to try to do what she thought was right. And most often, I found she was right.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question. It's a sensitive topic, but was she right? I mean, did - were her instincts on target?

POWELL: In my two years of close experience watching it and being a major part of it, her instincts were usually very, very good politically and common sense and in terms of how the public would respond. And she was the one who would sort of push the issue, and she'd push him. I mean, the greatest example of this is when he did not want to acknowledge that Iran-Contra, and the outcome of that included selling arms for hostages. And he simply would not acknowledge it. And we pressed and pressed, and a lot of people went in to tell him, Mr. President, you've got to do this. But at the end of the day, I think it was Nancy who finally pushed him over the edge. And he made the statement that it was trading arms for hostages, even though that's not what he thought he was doing. And so very often when, you know, when we had a problem like that with the president we would delicately bring Nancy into the orbit of the problem, and she could be very, very helpful in getting it resolved.

MARTIN: This was at a time when there were not as many women in public life as they are now in elected positions and in appointed positions. And I just wondered, did she ever have any difficulty having her voice heard because she wasn't in an elected position?

POWELL: Oh, no she wasn't, but she had better than an elected position. She had Ronald Reagan's ear, and she was the closest person in the world to him.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, a lot of people have invoked the legacy of Ronald Reagan during this year. And I don't know when you last spoke with Mrs. Reagan, but I wondered if you know how she felt about that, people - particularly this year - invoking his legacy as often as they have been doing.

POWELL: She, I think, was flattered by that but at the same time disturbed, I'm quite sure, that some people invoking his legacy really are not applying his legacy in their political campaigning or in some of the things they're doing. It's going to be interesting over the next several days or several weeks as people reflect on Mrs. Reagan and then once again on President Reagan. If the way in which he went about the presidency, and the way in which he entered politics, and the civility that he showed - and perhaps this would calm the temperature a bit in our public debate now and in the (laughter) the lead up to the two conventions and then the general election. I hope it would because we have got to get out of the problem we're in now with screaming and the shouting and childhood taunts.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I would be remiss if I did not ask you how you feel about the state of the campaign right now, particularly the tone of it. You were critical of - in 2008 of the tone of it, particularly in the Republican Party. I have to ask you, how do you feel about it now?

POWELL: Well, I still feel the same way. In 2008, I spoke out against calling the president a Muslim as if that was a curse. And then in 2012, once again, I was very disturbed about some of the intolerance I was seeing in the party, so I made a statement saying there's a level of intolerance in some parts of the Republican Party. And there was, and I think there still is. We have to become more respectful of each other. We have to listen to each other even if we disagree mightily. And to stand there and to do junior high school tricks on one another, I think, is belittling the country and belittling the office which they are striving to gain. And I hope they start, you know, realizing that as amusing as this might be - and it's reality television, but even Jerry Springer thinks it's gone too far. And when Jerry Springer thinks you've gone too far, my friends, you have gone too far.

MARTIN: How do you want the country to remember Nancy Reagan?

POWELL: As a lady of grace, a lady who exhibited calm, a lady who was totally devoted to her country, devoted to her position as first lady and, above all, devoted to her husband totally. And between the two of them, I think they were most gracious and charming president and first lady.

MARTIN: That is former Secretary of State, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell sharing some of his memories of former first lady Nancy Reagan, who died today at the age of 94. Gen. Powell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

POWELL: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

MARTIN: And we will have more on former first lady Nancy Reagan later this hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.