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Vision of America

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Sometimes Americans get discouraged about their country and the world around them but then someone comes along with a cheery word that brightens their lives.

It's fair to say Americans today are disheartened by the war in Iraq, the low regard with which the United States is held in many countries, the price of oil and gasoline skyrocketing, the threat of jobs being outsourced to China and India and elsewhere, the running quarrel over immigration, and the boredom of a political campaign that drones on 15 months before the presidential election.

Despite all that, says Colin Luther Powell, once America's top diplomat and before that America's top soldier, the "American people still believe in America" and the "world still looks to America to solve its problems."

Mr. Powell told the Aspen Institute in Colorado earlier this month that our troubles today are "peanuts" compared to what America went through earlier. He reminded his audience "we lost Dr. [Martin Luther] King on that Memphis balcony on April 4, 1968, and we lost (Senator Robert F.] Bobby Kennedy about two months later. Think of the race troubles we had in the late '60s and early '70s. Think of what we were going through with the Vietnam War."

"Think of the disgrace of a vice president [Spiro Agnew] leaving office, a president [Richard M. Nixon] leaving office. Think of that evening, April 4, 1968, when we had to put buses around the White House, bumper-to-bumper to keep the people of Washington, D.C., from burning down the White House, in our nation's capital. We were really shaken as a people, more so than any other time in my life," he said

Then, Mr. Powell said, "this man of simple Midwestern virtues and values, [President Gerald R.] Jerry Ford, came along and kind of reminded us of who were. And we still went through some difficult times but by the early '80s we had come through that and we had restored our confidence in ourselves."

"And as I ended my military career, I watched as this enemy [the Soviet Union] I prepared for all these years went away," Mr. Powell said. "And we were able to start reducing our armed forces, reducing our nuclear weapons."

America is still the place symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, Mr. Powell said: "You go to any embassy or consular office of the United States anywhere in the world today, you're going to see a line of people and they are all standing there and they are all saying the same thing, 'I want to go to America.' So we're still that same place, we haven't changed."

"We have come through racism. We have come through segregation. We have come through a civil war. We have come through lots of trials and tribulations," he said, then added a plea: "Don't sell ourselves short."

Mr. Powell tells a story: "Every time I go to New York, I love walking up one of the great avenues and I always stop at a corner and buy a hotdog from a hotdog stand peddler. You know New York hotdogs with the red onions, I love them."

"I used to do it when I was Secretary of State," he said. He would come out of his hotel and start up Madison or Fifth Avenue "and I'd stop at a corner. It was a little trickier then because I had five bodyguards and three New York City police cars running alongside and the hotdog peddler would take one look and go, "I've got a green card, I've got a green card." [For the uninitiated, a green card permits a foreigner to live and work in the United States.]

"I do it alone now, all by myself. And I'll walk up to the guy and I will order my hotdog, with lots of mustard, and a lot of the onions," said Mr. Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the 1991 Gulf war. "We will be talking to each other," Mr. Powell continued, "and it will be an accent from a faraway place."

After he gets the hotdog, Mr. Powell said, "almost every time the same thing happens." The vendor will ask: "Aren't you that guy on television — you are Gen. Powell?" "Right, I am Gen. Powell," Mr. Powell replies. "And I hand him the money, and he will say: " 'No, I won't take your money. You've already paid me. I'm here.' "

Richard Halloran is a freelance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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