Bill Buell’s Electric City Archives: Speaking with Colin Powell

FILE - Colin Powell in 2006
PHOTOGRAPHER:
FILE - Colin Powell in 2006

Joe Persico got to work closely with Colin Powell, and back in 2001 when I asked him about the former four-star general, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Secretary of State, he quickly summed up the man this way.

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“He didn’t disappoint me,” Persico said then of Powell, who passed away this week at the age of 84. “He’s a great man.”

Persico was a long-time Albany area resident and highly-successful author of several non-fiction books, including Powell’s 1993 autobiography, “My American Story: Colin Powell.” When Persico died back in 2014, I contacted Powell and talked to him about the man he’d worked with on the book, and while Persico hadn’t wanted to elaborate on their friendship back in 2001, Powell was more than willing 13 years later.

Powell told me how he and Persico seemed to “hit it off pretty well. He became my collaborator, and it was one of the best choices I ever made in my life.”

I talked to Powell on the phone for about 15 minutes, and he seemed in no hurry to end the conversation. But how long does a newspaperman from upstate New York expect to keep a four-star general on the phone? And how did I get Colin Powell on the phone in the first place?

As a full-time reporter for the Daily Gazette back in 2014, it was my responsibility to produce an obituary on Persico’s death for the next day’s newspaper. He was quite a figure in the Capital Region literary community, having also produced well-received books on Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller and Edward R. Murrow, among others. I knew the right people to call. Pulitzer Prize-winner Bill Kennedy, WAMC President Alan Chartock and author and British American owner Bernie Conners were all friends and gave glowing tributes. But I knew there was another voice missing. I wanted to talk to Powell, but how?

I had always admired the man during his long military and political service to this country, and our 15-minute phone conversation only added to my respect for him. He was polite, well-spoken and had a sense of authenticity that made him so likable. It was an honor to talk to him, and also personally, quite a thrill when he posted my Gazette story on Persico’s death on his Facebook page the next day.

So, how did I chase down Colin Powell? I Facebooked him.

Talk about your proverbial shot in the dark. I went to his Facebook page (I didn’t even know that he had one), sent him a message and less than 30 minutes later I got a response, with a phone number and a time to call him later that afternoon. The power of the world wide web can be amazing.

But maybe my success was more about the kind of man Colin Powell was. A friend of his had died, and he went out of his way to make time for a newspaperman – someone who wasn’t from the New York Times or Washington Post – to say a few kind words.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Powell seems universally admired and respected. Are there any political/military figures in the past half century who were generally admired and respected by both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals? I don’t think so.

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Powell may have been on the wrong side of history in 2003 when he defended the U.S. invasion of Iraq in a speech to the United Nations. And when asked about it later, he conceded exactly that – he may have been wrong about some of the intelligence information he used to support the U.S. position. What an admission. Not the type of thing you see from your average politician or four-star general.

As I listened to all the news reports Monday, mourning Powell’s death and giving testimony to a life very well lived, I thought of Joe Persico’s words. Yes, all the evidence, including my own 15 minutes, would indicate, unequivocally, that Colin Powell was an extraordinary man.

That 2014 article: Gloversville native Persico’s work, friendship recalled

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