Colin Powell, a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state who saw his legacy tarnished when he made the case for war in Iraq in 2003, has died from complications from Covid-19. He was 84.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said in a statement posted to social media on Monday.
The retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served four presidents made his reputation as a man of honour distant from the political fray – an asset in the corridors of power.
After the 1991 Gulf War he was so widely respected that he was even touted as a future president of the US, but ultimately he never ran for the White House.
“General Powell is an American hero, an American example, and a great American story,” George W Bush said as he announced the nomination of Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who became the Republican president’s secretary of state in 2000.
“In directness of speech, his towering integrity, his deep respect for our democracy, and his soldier’s sense of duty and honour, Colin Powell demonstrates… qualities that will make him a great representative of all the people of this country.”
But he found it hard to live down his infamous February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council about the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – evidence which was later proven to be false.
“It’s a blot… and will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now,” Powell said in a 2005 interview with ABC News.
‘True soldier statesman’
Tributes nevertheless poured in from Congress, where Democratic Senator Mark Warner praised Powell as “a patriot and a public servant,” while House Republican Peter Meijer described him as a rarity in the modern age: “a true soldier statesman.”
The family statement said Powell had been fully vaccinated.
Born April 5, 1937 in Harlem, Powell’s “American Journey” – the title of his autobiography – started in New York, where he grew up and earned a degree in geology.
He also participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in college, and upon his graduation in June 1958, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army, and was posted in what was then West Germany.
Powell completed two tours of duty in Vietnam – in 1962-63 as one of John F Kennedy’s thousands of military advisors, and again in 1968-69 to investigate the My Lai massacre.
He earned a Purple Heart, but also faced questions about the tone of his report into the hundreds of deaths at My Lai, which to some seemed to dismiss any claims of wrongdoing.
Back in Washington, he quickly rose through the ranks to the pinnacle of the national security establishment, serving Ronald Reagan as national security advisor, and both George HW Bush and Bill Clinton as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1989 to 1993.
Powell freely admitted his liberal social views made him a strange bedfellow for many Republicans, though the party was often happy to hold him up as an example of its inclusivity.
But since 2008, he has endorsed Democrats for the presidency, twice backing Barack Obama, and then Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
Powell earned a number of civilian honours, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice from Bush Senior and Clinton.
He married his wife Alma in 1962. They had three children: Michael, Linda and Annemarie.