Former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced Sunday that he will break with his party and vote for Sen. Barack Obama. "He has both style and substance. I think he is a transformational figure," Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press.
"I come to the conclusion that because of his ability to inspire, because of the inclusive nature of his campaign, because he is reaching out all across America, because of who he is and his rhetorical abilities -- and you have to take that into account -- as well as his substance -- he has both style and substance," Powell said. "He has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president."
Powell noted that McCain has been a good friend for 25 years, but expressed disappointment in the "over the top" negative tone of the GOP campaign, as well as in McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee.
"Now that we have had a chance to watch her for some seven weeks, I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president," Powell said. "And so that raised some question in my mind as to the judgment that Senator McCain made."
He also harshly criticized some of McCain's campaign tactics, such as the robocall campaign linking Obama to former 1960s radical Bill Ayers.
"Mr. McCain says that he's a washed up terrorist, but then why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have the robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow Mr. Obama is tainted. What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings. And I think that's inappropriate. Now, I understand what politics is all about, I know how you can go after one another and that's good. But I think this goes too far, and I think it has made the McCain campaign look a little narrow. It's not what the American people are looking for."
Powell also spoke passionately against the insinuations by some Republicans that Obama is a Muslim.
"Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian," he said. "But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, 'He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.' This is not the way we should be doing it in America."
Powell said he does not plan to campaign for Obama.
Following the interview, Powell told reporters outside NBC's Washington studio that McCain "is essentially going to execute the Republican agenda, the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda with a new face and a maverick approach to it, and he'd be quite good at it, but I think we need more than that. I think we need a generational change. I think Senator Obama has captured the feelings of the young people of America and is reaching out in a more diverse, inclusive way across our society."
Powell charged that the Republican focus on William Ayers and Obama's religious affiliations were damaging America's image abroad.
"Those kinds of images going out on al Jazeera are killing us around the world," he said. "And we have got to say to the world, it doesn't make any difference who you are or what you are, if you're an American you're an American. And this business of, for example a congresswoman from Minnesota going around saying let's examine all congressmen to see who is pro America or not pro America, we have got to stop this kind of non-sense and pull ourselves together and remember that our great strength is in our unity and diversity. That really was driving me."
Powell continued, defending Obama against McCain's latest charge that the Democrat's policies are quasi-socialist:
We can't judge our people and hold our elections on that kind of basis. Yes, that kind of negativity troubled me. And the constant shifting of the argument, I was troubled a couple of weeks ago when in the middle of the crisis the campaign said 'we're going to go negative,' and they announced it. 'We're going to go negative and attack his character through Bill Ayers.' Now I guess the message this week is we're going to call him a socialist. Mr. Obama is now a socialist, because he dares to suggest that maybe we ought to look at the tax structure that we have. Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who pay them, in roads and airports and hospitals and schools. And taxes are necessary for the common good. And there's nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is or who should be paying more or who should be paying les, and for us to say that makes you a socialist is an unfortunate characterization that I don't think is accurate.
Asked whether he still considers himself a Republican, Powell responded, "Yes."
Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama called Powell to thank him for his endorsement and express how honored he was to have it.
Obama "said he looked forward to taking advantage of his advice in the next two weeks and hopefully over the next four years," Gibbs said in an email to the traveling press. "They talked for ten minutes."
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, John McCain said he respectfully disagreed with Powell's decision, but "this doesn't come as a surprise."
In fact, aside from their shared history as Republican military men, Powell's endorsement is significant due to the fact that McCain has repeatedly singled him out for lavish praise. In a July New York Times interview, McCain described the former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs chairman as "a man who I admire as much as any man in the world, person in the world" when answering a question in which Powell was not brought up. Meanwhile, near the same time as that interview, McCain was reportedly considering Powell as a potential running mate.
McCain's high opinion of Powell as one of the "most credible, most respected" men in America is not merely an election-year spasm, either. When asked in 2001 if he would have chosen Powell for a Cabinet position had he succeeded in his first presidential run, McCain said "oh, yes." During two December 2000 appearances on NBC Nightly News, McCain described himself as "exuberant" over Powell's selection as secretary of state, which he predicted would secure "a beneficial effect on the conduct of American foreign policy." McCain added in another TV appearance that President Bush was "blessed" to have Powell working for him. In 2003, when Powell faced criticism from Newt Gingrich over his plan to travel to Syria, it was McCain who rose to the secretary's defense on MSNBC's Hardball, when he said: "I think it's appropriate that Colin Powell is going there."
Even at the end of Powell's somewhat frustrating tenure in George W. Bush's inner circle of policy advisers, McCain praised his overall performance, saying: "When he took the helm at the State Department nearly four years ago, I was confident that Secretary Powell would lead with honor and distinction ... I have not been disappointed." And in a CBS interview during this year's primary race, McCain suggested that one of President Bush's chief failures "was not to listen more to our military leadership, including people like General Colin Powell."
The praise has not only run in one direction, as Powell described McCain the "toughest man I've ever met" last year. But in the end, what sounded like a compliment could have been the beginning of the end. During this summer's conflict between Russia and Georgia, Powell criticized McCain for being, in essence, too mindlessly tough. When asked by CNN's what McCain meant when he said "We are all Georgians now," Powell demurred. "One candidate said that, and I'll let the candidate explain it for himself."
When pressed for further opinion, Powell distanced himself from McCain's staunchly pro-Georgian line. "The fact of the matter is that you have to be very careful in a situation like this not just to leap to one side or the other until you take a good analysis of the whole situation," Powell said, tamping down the rush to herald the rise of a new Soviet threat.
"The Russian Federation is not going to become the Soviet Union again. That movie failed at the box office. But they do have interests. And we have to think carefully about their interests."