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, died Monday from complications from Covid-19.
The 84-year-old retired four-star general was fully vaccinated, his family said in a statement on Facebook, making him one of the most high-profile US public figures to die of a breakthrough infection.
“We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American,” the family said.
After engineering military victory in the 1991 Gulf War, Powell was so widely popular and respected that he was considered a strong candidate to become the first ever Black US president.
He ultimately decided against running for the White House, although he later broke with his Republican party to endorse Barack Obama.
A son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell frequently shattered glass ceilings in a trailblazing career that took him from combat in Vietnam to becoming America’s first Black national security advisor under then-president Ronald Reagan.
He was also the youngest and first African American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
Serving four presidents, Powell made his reputation as a man of honor distant from the political fray — an asset in the corridors of power.
George W. Bush described Powell “an American hero, an American example, and a great American story” as he nominated the military man as his secretary of state in 2000.
“He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice,” the 43rd president said on Monday.
“He was highly respected at home and abroad. And, most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”
– ‘True soldier statesman’ –
Powell had a reputation for bipartisanship, straight-talking and integrity, and was praised for his officer’s instincts of duty and honor.
US Defense Secretary Austin Powell told reporters Powell was among the “greatest leaders that we have ever witnessed,” lamenting the loss of “a tremendous personal friend and mentor.”
But Powell 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.
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.”
“Today, the nation lost a man of undaunted courage and a champion of character,” added centrist Republican Senator Mitt Romney.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who stood firmly behind US actions in Iraq and gave military backing to the war effort, described Powell as a “towering figure in American military and political leadership.”
“He was wonderful to work with, he inspired loyalty and respect and was one of those leaders who always treated those under them with kindness and concern,” Blair said.
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.
– Liberal social views –
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 H.W. 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 honors, 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.