11/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Colin Powell's Adlai Stevenson Moment

Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama is all well and good, but he still has a way to go before the ignominious stain on his carefully cultivated reputation is washed off. He dirtied himself on February 5, 2003, when he presented a bogus argument for the Iraq war to the UN Security Council. This was touted as his "Adlai Stevenson moment," a reference to the famous televised confrontation between the US ambassador to the UN and his Soviet counterpart, Valerian Zorin, during the Cuban missile crisis. On October 25, 1962, Stevenson asked Zorin if the USSR was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. Zorin took umbrage. "I am not in an American courtroom, sir, and I do not wish to answer a question put to me in the manner in which a prosecutor does." Stevenson persisted: "You are in the courtroom of world opinion right now, and you can answer yes or no." When Zorin continued to demur, Stevenson fired off the memorable line: "I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision."

The sort of verbal throwdown that would put a smirk on John Bolton's walrus-mustached face. But it would be more accurate to compare Powell's appearance to another "Adlai Stevenson moment," which left the ambassador bitter and dejected. In April 1961, President Kennedy instructed Arthur Schlesinger Jr., to brief Stevenson on the Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy had kept him in the dark, but now he needed him to use his influence in the international community to contain any diplomatic fallout. "The integrity and credibility of Adlai Stevenson constitute one of our great national assets," he said. "I don't want anything which might jeopardize that." But Stevenson was never informed of a cover story the CIA had prepared. On the eve of the invasion, a group of B-26s piloted by CIA operatives flew from Nicaragua on a mission to bomb Cuban airfields. One B-26, painted with the Cuban insignia, headed to Florida. After landing, the pilot posed as a defector and took credit for singlehandedly bombing the airfields. Stevenson defended the pilot's story at the UN, but it soon became clear that he had peddled false information. He was understandably upset, wrote biographer John Bartlow Martin. "He was a man who was very jealous of his image---and rightly," Martin quotes one of Stevenson's friends. "And he felt that this had tarnished his image."

Like Powell, Stevenson was a renown figure: a witty and eloquent two-time Democratic presidential nominee who had attempted to elevate political discourse. And also like Powell, he was regarded as insufficiently loyal by the president's inner circle. If he had jumped on the Kennedy bandwagon before the 1960 Democratic convention, he would have been appointed secretary of state; but he dragged his heels and allowed his name to be placed in nomination. Cerebral and contemplative, he was out of place among the young Irish thugs in the White House. In fact, it was because he believed him to be something of a wimp that Kennedy sent John McCloy, an advisor to FDR and Truman who had run postwar Germany, to babysit Stevenson when he confronted Zorin.

Powell was treated with similar disdain. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld thought they were tougher than a man who had seen combat. And they were right! He let them trash his reputation. (At least Kennedy recognized the importance of preserving Stevenson's name.) Stevenson didn't quit after the Bay of Pigs, but a lie about a pilot does not compare to the horribly erroneous claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. It was Powell who persuaded many centrists to go along with the war. "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." The man who uttered these words is either a fool or a liar. He could have refused to make the case for the administration. Bush would have had to work harder to convince Congress and the American people. But Powell didn't turn in his keys. And now his ego is bruised. Well, too bad! Thousands of families wish he had shown a moral spine that winter. Stevenson redeemed himself during the missile crisis. I hope President Obama doesn't give this snake oil salesman a second chance.