Colin L. Powell, with Joseph E. Perisco, My American Journey. Random House, 643 pp., $25.95.
Rather than diminish the readership for My American Journey, General Colin Powell’s announcement that he would join the Republican party but not seek its nomination for the Presidency should spur more Americans to read this extraordinary biography. For General Powell’s joining our party signifies a turning-point in expanding the appeal of conservative principles.
If all the characters in My American Journey were fictional, the book would be well worth reading. The reality of the settings and the wealth of technical detail rival Tom Clancy at his best. Readers come away with knowledge of what it was like to grow up in New York City in the mid-twentieth century, what it was like to be black in the South at that time, and what it was like to serve in the American Army in the second half of the century. They understood better what went wrong in Vietnam. They gain a grasp of the inner workings of the Executive Branch of our government. They are given an authoritative course in world geopolitics over the past two decades.
The story is true life Horatio Alger. The son of Jamaican immigrants, working people who were able to move from an apartment in the Bronx to a Queens bungalow only by hitting a big payoff in the numbers game, goes from unloading trucks at a baby furnishings and toy store and mopping floors in a Pepsi plant to being an advisor to the highest rank in the Army and the youngest ever to hold the military’s top job, from having to use unisex colored bathrooms when he traveled in the South to the prospect of becoming the first black President of the United States. If it were fiction, the book would be worth reading for the history it contains, but readers would find the story too implausible for belief. The Powell journey was the product of exemplary character and hard, smart work, nothing more and nothing less.
The Powell reviewers and critics who trouble me most are those who suggest that his political philosophy is somehow incompatible with the Republican party.
Powell believes that “Every tax dollar taken away from a consumer or a business is a dollar that will be spent less efficiently than if left in private hands.” He says correctly that “the great domestic challenge of our time is to reconcile the necessity for fiscal responsibility with the explosive growth in entitlement programs,” and that we have to face up to reducing the entitlement system or raise taxes to pay for it we cannot continue to pass on to “our children and grandchildren the crushing debt that we are currently amassing as their inheritance.” He supports affirmative action as long as it “promotes equal consideration, not reverse discrimination.” He sums up his political philosophy with these words: “I am a fiscal conservative with a social conscience.”
Finally, it is clear to me that he would like to lead us to an America like the one he knew where what counted was not only what minority group you happened to fall into, but what you did, and the one he knew in his Army career, where the result of equal performance was equal advancement.
I am a proud member of the Republican party, whose conservative credentials are beyond question. I believe deeply in the big tent idea advocated so effectively by Bill Brock, Lee Atwater, and Jack Kemp. The big story about Colin Powell is not that he declined to enter the political fray for 1996, but rather that he joined our Republican ranks, meaning our party is the truly national one. We Republicans are ready to govern.
J. Kenneth Blackwell is Treasurer of the State of Ohio.