- - Friday, May 18, 2012

By Colin Powell with Tony Koltz
Harper, $27.99 283 pages

Colin Powell is an uncommon man with the common touch. He likes to give speeches because he’s very good at it and he doesn’t mind traveling. Also, he likes meeting people who have paid to hear some of his considerable wisdom and perhaps to shake the hand that has shaken the hand of every important world leader of the past quarter-century.

In this book, the distinguished general and former secretary of state and national security adviser distills the ideas and anecdotes that he has honed before flocks of well-fed listeners who work for organizations like the Bradford White waterheater company, Safelite AutoGlass and International Housewares Association (honest). Since the author provided an autobiography long ago - his rather impersonal “My American Journey” - he feels free here to muse, to list aphorisms for leaders to live by and even to ramble a bit. Gen. Powell has had an only-in-America life, and this is an entertaining read from a charming, accomplished man. (Alas, his publisher didn”t provide an index so you’ll have to read the book to see if you’re mentioned.)

One could dine out on his stories for quite a while. One of my favorites concerns the woman “in a local mall” who approached him in the parking lot, saying, “I recognize you. You’re? …” After giving her a while to bring his name to mind, he thought to take her out of her misery with, “Ma’am, I’m Colin Powell,” to which she said, “No, that’s not it” and drove off.

In a more serious vein, though, once Gen. Powell gets his pep talk to the troops out of the way - “Thirteen Rules,” from “It will look better in the morning” to “Share credit” - he ruminates on all sorts of things. A persistent theme is how “Kindness Works” (a chapter title), in which he endorses a clergyman’s advice, “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.”

A second theme concerns how important it is for leaders to listen to the ranks. He notes without elaboration how, on three occasions during his time at the State Department, he had to act on information he had received through informal channels to remove an ambassador quietly “before formal channels woke up to the problem.”

A third theme is the importance of family or “tribe”: “Children need to be taught early in life what is expected of them and how they must never shame their family. They must be taught to mind their adults. If a kid isn’t spoken to properly, read to, taught numbers, colors, time, how to behave, how to tie his shoelaces, play nice, share, respect others, and know the difference between right and wrong, he will be miles behind by the time he reaches the second grade.”

Gen. Powell devotes one chapter to explaining, for the first time in print, he says, how he came to give that now-infamous presentation to the United Nations justifying the invasion of Iraq on the basis of what proved to be faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. He and his team had only four days to rework Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s legal brief into the presentation Gen. Powell made at the U.N. He still broods about bloggers who accuse him of “knowing the information was false. I didn’t. And yes, a blot, a failure, will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. But I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me.”

He also notes that, four months after the fall of Baghdad, “even as their sources collapsed and no WMDs had been found, the CIA continued to formally report that based on what they knew and believed at the time they were made, they stood by their original judgments.”

The author continues, “When we went in, we had a plan, which the President approved. We would not break up and disband the Iraqi army. We would use the reconstituted army with purged leadership to help us secure and maintain order throughout the country. We would dissolve the Baath party, the ruling political party, but we would not throw every party member out on the street. …

“The plan the President had approved was not implemented. Instead, [Defense] Secretary [Ronald] Rumsfeld and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, our man in charge in Iraq… disbanded the Iraqi army and fired Baath party members, right down to teachers. We eliminated the very officials and institutions we should have been building on and left thousands of the most highly skilled people in the country jobless and angry - prime recruits for insurgency…. We broke it, we owned it, but we didn’t take charge.”

The lesson he draws: Learn from your mistakes and move on.

A moving section of his book concerns celebrity, and how British Princess Diana’s treatment at the hands of the press evoked deep empathy in him. Their paths crossed a number of times. “Standing in a receiving line next to Diana, I got a sense of how hard it must be for her to endure the smothering public life she led. I almost tossed one guy out of the line when he shoved himself between us, draped his arm around her, and shot a self-portrait with a pocket camera.” (Gen. Powell says he himself has been the victim of invasive photography to the extent that he always uses a stall in the restroom.)

When a London newspaper suggested that Princess Diana and Gen. Powell shared a genealogy that could be traced back to the Earl of Coote in the 1500s, Gen. Powell “pocketed the news immediately” for future use. He subsequently had occasion to claim, at a charity gathering where Henry Kissinger was also appearing, “a relationship” with the princess. Whereupon Diana began her remarks, “Dr. Kissinger, ladies and gentlemen and Cousin Colin, good evening.”

If you choose to give this delightful book to your high school or college graduate, tell the recipient it’s not necessary to start at the beginning with the “Thirteen Rules” - just pick it up anywhere and enjoy.

• Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer and critic in McLean.

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