Powell's Endorsement: Months in the Making

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Jonathan Fickies / Bloomberg News / Landov

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell

Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama on Sunday by employing the military doctrine that bears his name.

With a keen sense of timing, the 71-year-old retired general tried to bring maximum firepower and a strong grasp of the tactical landscape to bear on the campaign, leaning into the race after months of silence on his own timetable, with forces (in this case, words) he spent weeks and even months preparing.

Powell had been contemplating — and planning — his move for months. Though a declared Republican since his near run for the White House in 1996 and an occasional speaker at Republican events, Powell has never been blindly or even particularly partisan. He spent the year watching the race closely, issuing a quiet warning here or there in speeches and interviews when he saw the race (and more specifically, the GOP) go in directions he didn't like. Many of these little alarms went unnoticed, but they foretold a change in his preferences. In those moments, close observers knew, Powell was laying the predicate for a possible Democratic endorsement later in the year. As fall approached, Powell began to prepare his endorsement. He had long eyed late October as the best moment to strike, as he wanted to wait until the debates were over before offering his considered assessment.

During the past few weeks, Powell worked carefully on his statement. He had reason for care: Powell left the Bush Administration in early 2005 with critics on both sides of the ideological divide. Conservatives, who never fully trusted him to begin with, felt Powell was far too moderate to be George W. Bush's top diplomat. Liberals, meanwhile, were not ready to forgive his role in hyping the case against Saddam Hussein. After the 2004 election, Powell was hurried out the door by the White House in a fashion that his supporters found graceless.

Finally, Powell chose to make his statement on NBC's venerable show Meet the Press, where he could be guaranteed both a large audience and uninterrupted time to make the kind of remarks he had spent hours preparing.

Before endorsing Obama, Powell said he was dismayed by the direction and narrowing of the Republican Party in recent weeks, and that the U.S. needs a transformational leader to restore the country's reputation overseas. He was perhaps most powerful when he filleted the GOP for seeding anti-Muslim sentiment around the country when its many seconds suggest that Obama is not a Christian. Powell said Americans needed to keep a different image in their minds: that of an American Muslim mother of a Bronze Star–winning Army solider who died in Iraq resting her head on her son's gravestone at Arlington Cemetery. Speaking as a solider who rose from a raw recruit in the 1950s to the Army's top job 35 years later, Powell said, "We've got to stop polarizing ourselves in this way."

Powell tried to leave two impressions above all: that he believes Obama is ready to be Commander in Chief and that Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate, is not. It probably didn't hurt that Powell appeared on Meet the Press the morning after Palin appeared on Saturday Night Live.

Powell will not campaign with Obama; nor is it likely that the campaign will use Powell's comments in television commercials. But then, they won't have to in the age of YouTube.

Powell informed neither candidate in advance about what he was going to say.

That, too, was in part to maintain the element of surprise — another bit of the old general's doctrine at work.

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