I awoke a few weeks ago to solemn news: former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had died from complications of COVID-19. Immediately, my synapses fired, and a million events flooded my mind. One stuck with me. It was a picture of President George H. W. Bush with Secretary of State James A. Baker, III and Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, behind him. Those three figures represent the best of America. Coincidentally, they also represent the Republican Party at its finest. A Massachusettsan (Bush), a Texan (Baker) and a New Yorker (Powell). The three hail from different places but encapsulate the core values we should all look for in politicians. Honesty, competence, and yes, style. These men ruled politics with class and dignity. Two are gone now, and only Baker remains at age 91.
As hard as it is to imagine nowadays, there once was a time in which Democrats and Republicans didn’t hate each other. They had differences, both ideological and personal, yet from my perspective it has not seemed as though there was an ingrained contempt between their two camps. The notorious division we see these days can be traced back to any number of moments in the 20th century; the most common one is Bill Clinton’s impeachment. That may be so. And let me state for the record: I think Clinton was a phenomenal president for the economy and crime. My problems with Clinton lie elsewhere. I don’t care about his affair with an intern. I don’t care about Whitewater. I don’t care that he thought it was appropriate to get drunk with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Those examples, however, are tough to ignore. They epitomize the character flaws that an American president cannot have. Nixon had them – look at how that turned out. And now, Trump fits the mold too.
So what does this have to do with Secretaries Baker and Powell? We attribute immense complexity to the course of history because one tiny detail can modify its trajectory. The alternative to Clinton was none other than President Bush, who led one of the most underrated administrations in American history. He lost nonetheless. As reductive as it may sound, one sentence, uttered in his first campaign at the Republican National Convention, killed Bush’s reelection effort: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Not being able to fulfill that promise proved to most Americans that “41” was not up to the task of leading America for another term. Unfortunately, those who judged Bush because of those words chose to disregard the rest of his administration’s work. His 1990 Budget Enforcement Act was fiscally responsible in an age of financial imprudence. His foreign policy decisions were outstanding – from Kuwait to the USSR. Even former President Obama admits that Bush Sr. was undervalued for no good reason. Nevertheless, Clinton was elected president in 1992, and then reelected in 1996. Not to bash Clinton further, but America would have been much better off with Baker as POTUS and Powell as VP. In 1996, both were thinking of entering the race, though neither ultimately did.
Baker, nicknamed the “Velvet Hammer” because of his ability to wield soft power, was Secretary of Treasury and Chairman of the President’s Economic Policy Council under President Ronald Reagan. He was under Secretary of Commerce to President Gerald Ford. He ran Washington D.C. not once but twice as White House Chief of Staff. And of course, he was Secretary of State. As if that wasn’t enough, he was offered the post of Secretary of Defense by President George W. Bush, but declined. He would have been the sole person to hold the four most important positions in the Cabinet. Nevertheless, I believe Baker had the most distinguished career of any public servant in this country’s history. As for Powell, he was a four-star general, total connoisseur of the military, a national security advisor (under Reagan), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (under Bush Sr.), and Secretary of State (under Bush Jr.). If Baker and Powell teamed up, the two would have been unstoppable; America’s story would have changed for the better. Baker had the adroitness, economic prowess and command of the D.C. circles. Powell, the military expertise. They shared extensive knowledge of foreign policy and diplomacy and a lack of ideological rigidity. A dynamic duo.
Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario never did and never will happen. As much as I want it to be true, as much as I wish Rockefeller Republicans still existed en masse, and as much as I covet the return of Bush and Reagan’s GOP, it won’t happen. We’re stuck with the shadow of the party that once was. And every time we lose another figure like President Bush or General Powell, the GOP grows more unrecognizable and their places are taken by Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Steve Bannons. I fear for the destiny of this republic without a strong, conservative (not jingoistic or unprincipled) Republican Party. Even so, Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Congresswoman Liz Cheney give me hope. For now, I can only say this: Rest in peace, General Powell. You will be missed.
Miguel Calle is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.