R. Reese, Cal Poly Pomona Political Science, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, January 14, 2007

Powell and Rice Not in Black Leadership Tradition


As we celebrate another Martin Luther King Jr. Day it is timely to reflect on the leadership profiles of contemporary black leaders in relation to that of Dr. King' s. It is important for young black leaders such as Barack Obama to respect and embrace the legacy of Dr. King. Young black leaders must not abandon King's philosophy as Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have done.

People often point to President George W. Bush's appointments of Powell and Rice as examples of his racial sensitivity. Although they are both African American, Powell did not, and Rice has not, reflected the compassionate leadership traits of great black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and King; they all had sympathy for the downtrodden and oppressed worldwide. Powell and Rice seem to lack this sensibility. Powell was criticized for his Iraq War presentation at the United Nations. In his riveting documentary on Hurricane Katrina, Spike Lee highlights Rice's Manhattan shoe-shopping trip while New Orleans drowned. Famed singer and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte, has harshly criticized Powell and Rice's service in the Bush administration. At the 2006 National Black Peoples Unity Convention in Gary, Indiana, Belafonte said, "It means nothing to me if they are black if they are dishonorable." There has been little controversy in the black community regarding his stinging criticism of Powell and Rice.

In 2001, I was chosen as a semi-finalist to be a White House Fellow. The White House Fellows program is a yearlong internship for mid-career professionals. Only 15-17 individuals are chosen for this prestigious program each year. Each applicant must apply to work under a cabinet secretary. I applied to work under Colin Powell, who had just accepted the position to be George W. Bush's Secretary of State. I admired Powell for several reasons. He was articulate, intelligent, charismatic, and most of all, possessed integrity. In my interview to be a finalist, a prominent lawyer who was one of the panel of judges, asked me what I would do if I were working for Colin Powell and he asked me to do something with which I disagreed. I responded that we are often asked to do things with which we disagree and that I would follow his orders, unless his orders fundamentally clashed with my core values. She asked me what I would do if his orders “fundamentally clashed with my core values.” I said that I would resign my position.

In the march to war in Iraq, Powell, one of the most noble Americans, sat in front of the body of the United Nations and emphatically made a case for going to war in Iraq with facts that he did not wholeheartedly embrace. Powell, like the rest of the Bush team, was a victim of groupthink-concocting facts about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and collectively seeing the invisible. I have had many discussions on Powell's dilemma in the Bush administration-being the lone dissenter and voice of reason among neoconservative hawks. My conclusion is that Powell should have resigned when the president's orders fundamentally clashed with his core values. He did not. Consequently, he lost currency as a statesmen, a diplomat, and in many places in the world, he lost his Mandela-like stature. I would not have applied to work under Powell at the end of his tenure in the Bush administration. Powell sold his soul for the Bush administration. In the end, he earned neither the applause from the neoconservatives that he sought to please nor the liberals that he quickly alienated.

Rice has not quite followed in Powell's footsteps; she has not shown his restraint. While many are quick to blame the president for his hyper-unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy few have pointed the accusatory finger at Madame Hawk. She has had the president's ear for six years. Inspired by a Cold War textbook from graduate school, her realpolitik diplomacy leaves little room for compromise. There is little compassion in her stern words. She has been a consistently enthusiastic hard-liner-trying to prove to the neoconservatives that she is one of the fellas--at every step of the way distancing herself from the legacy of MLK Jr.

Rice, like Powell, has sold her soul for the Bush administration. One day she will wake up and realize all the damage and destruction her agenda has caused. On that day she will embrace the compassionate legacy of the great black leaders of the past-by then, however, it will be too late.