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Colin Powell Remembers George H.W. Bush


And we are going to continue our remembrance of President Bush now with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell serves the country - has served the country in many roles, including as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the George H.W. Bush presidency. And General Powell is with us now.

Mr. Secretary - General Powell, thank you so much for talking with us.

COLIN POWELL: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: May I just get your reaction to the passing of former President Bush? I mean, clearly this is something we expected, but it's still a hard blow.

POWELL: We knew it would come any day in the near future. But when I got up this morning and heard about it, it still hit me hard. And we were very close, both as boss and a subordinate and dearest friends. So I just had to sit down for a few minutes and then start, you know, responding to it all. He was a great man, a great American, and people loved him more now than they ever did when he was in office, obviously because of who he was, the example he gave to the rest of us of character, of loyalty, of devotion, of humility and humbleness.

And I saw it every day I served with him. It was really six years - four years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then before that, for two years, I was deputy national security adviser and national security adviser to both he and President Reagan. And that's when I got to know him - when I was in the White House just down the hall from him. We had offices that were side by side for those two years. And it was always such a pleasure to be around him. He was a gentle gentleman, but he was also tough when he had to be tough, and that's what made him so great.

MARTIN: You know, there are a lot of people that we can admire. There are a lot of people that we can work with. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we like them or become friends. What is it about him - you clearly liked him as a human being and were, in fact, friends. What do you think it was that made you not only admire him but want to be - but that created a bond?

POWELL: In some ways, he was simple, direct, understandable purpose. He never had, you know, bad words coming out of his mouth even though sometimes he felt like it. But it was just the fact that he was a professional - that he knew what he was doing. He was the most qualified president to take over that office in our history - all the positions and assignments he had.

But he listened to people. He listened to the average person in the street. He listened to those of us who were in senior positions. And he always treated us with dignity - the dignity that he was raised as a child to treat others with. Even when we had difficult meetings in the time of Desert Storm or the invasion of Panama - even then, he would listen to us and ask questions and make sure he understood the issue, and then he would make a decision. But there was never any screaming and shouting.

You know, all of us in the administration, we called ourselves then the Gang of Eight - now I'm chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, me and Secretary Baker and Brent Scowcroft and Secretary Cheney and others - vice president was in there. We would argue with each other. And it never was personal - it was always just business. So when I - Mr. Cheney was the head of the Department of Defense. I wasn't. I was just his adviser. But we'd go in there and have a debate. And Mr. Cheney would say, this is the Defense Department's position. But Colin has a different view. Colin, tell the president what you think. And I would do that. And the president - there was no unpleasantness about it. The president would ask me what I thought, and I would say so. But, you know, we'll do whatever you decide. And he would decide. But it was that kind of camaraderie that he encouraged and endorsed and wanted to be a part of.

Whenever I did get in trouble, which was on occasion, and the press was asking me for something or other - never NPR, just the press in general - but the first person I would hear from would be from President Bush - no one else. Colin, how are you? Yeah, I saw you've had a little news today. Don't worry about it. It's all right. Thank you, sir. And that's just the way he was. How could you not...

MARTIN: Feel he had your back.


MARTIN: The U.S. started and finished the first Gulf War while President Bush was in office, and that is something that is being remembered today, especially as the U.S. has found itself stuck in some very long and difficult conflicts. And I wanted to ask, how instrumental was the president's own point of view in getting out of Iraq in a timely manner after the first Gulf War?

POWELL: He didn't want to have a first Gulf War. He did everything he could to avoid it. We went to the United Nations. At the very last minute, when the war was about to start, he sent Jim Baker over to speak with the Iraqi prime minister and tell him, you know, you don't want to see this happen. We don't want a war. And he didn't take it to heart. Saddam Hussein didn't take it to heart. And so the war started.

But it was very clear what the war was all about. And, from the very beginning, it was a war that was defined in terms of what we were going to accomplish, and when it was over, we would come home. And that was to kick the Iraqi army out of Kuwait - secondly, to restore the leadership of Kuwait to Kuwait City, so they had their country back. And that's exactly what we did. And everybody was worried we were going to lose thousands and thousands of troops. But we didn't. We lost a couple of hundred - each one of them being precious, of course. But it wasn't what people were predicting.

And when we accomplished the mission, we came home. And it was because the president knew what he wanted. He had a specific mission. Get it all done, and we'll give you whatever you think you need. And we said we wanted to put 500,000 in and that 200,000 allies came along with us. And he never blinked at it. When I told them why we wanted to do it that way, he accepted it and said, do it. And I was able to say to him just before the war, Mr. President, there's no question about this. We will prevail. And you need not concern yourself about it. We're going to lose some troops, but that's what war is about. And he understood all of that.

And when we ended that war, people thought we ended it too soon. Well, we didn't end it too soon. The troops were marching into Kuwait City. The Iraqis were retreating. Some of them got away that we might not have wanted them to get away. But he was more concerned about loss of life. And you remember the highway of death, when the people were being bombed to smithereens on that highway? And our own troops were being killed - not many, but it was still in danger. And so President Bush said, if we have kicked them out of Kuwait, and we can restore the government of Kuwait, why not stop today? And he caught us by surprise. But we stopped, and it was the right thing to do.

MARTIN: And the Cold War essentially ended under President Bush's leadership. And I just wanted to ask, what informed his view about how to conduct that period of time? And I'm just remembering my time as a White House correspondent when I asked him about it. He didn't seem triumphant at all. I mean, he seemed very subdued. And I asked him about it at a press conference, and he wasn't, like, doing the happy dance at all. And he gave a very sort of thoughtful answer about the hard work ahead. I just wanted to ask if you could, as briefly as you can, just describe what his point of view was.

POWELL: He was raised not to gloat, no matter how much it might have been tempting to gloat. I remember the fall of the wall and the end of the Cold War started under the Reagan-Bush administration but then was finished under the Bush administration proper with Dan Quayle as vice president. And we saw it coming. You could see it coming. When I became chairman in the fall of 1989, I had been national security adviser before that, and I had five summit meetings with Mr. Gorbachev and President Reagan. So I knew this country was going to prevail. We were going to prevail. The West was going to prevail over the Soviet Union.

And so when it did prevail, and on Christmas Day when - of 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, President Bush saw that there was work to do, to create a new set of alliances - and not to gloat and start high-fiving each other. It's not - it just wasn't his way.

Now, he was competitive. You tried to play horseshoes with him, and you'll see how competitive he could be.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

POWELL: I was - you know, I was raised in the Bronx. What do I know about horseshoes?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

POWELL: And he was just wonderful in that regard - very competitive, always wanted to win. But when it came to matters of strategy of this nature, he didn't want to win. He just wanted to solve the problem, and he wanted to make it a better world - a better world. And that's what he did.

MARTIN: You often bring up a quote from the former president saying that politics need not be mean and nasty. And could you just tell us why that resonates with you so strongly?

POWELL: Because politics has - have become mean and nasty in a way that I never thought I would see in recent years. And we all see it. We toss insults back and forth. We can't get a Congress to work in any form of bipartisanship. And the ugliness is fueled by cable television and social media, and it is an ugly scene. And we've got to do something to get it back to the way it used to be and get it back to the way that it was in my early days in government. This can't continue this way, and I hope the death of this man and the example he set for us is something of an inspiration to all of our politicians.

MARTIN: General Colin Powell served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush. And he's certainly gone on to serve many significant roles in public life, but that's the one we're highlighting here.

General Powell, thank you so much for talking with us today.

POWELL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.