11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday Watch 10-19-08: In Which Colin Powell is a Statesman

My dictionary offers this definition of statesman: "a senior politician who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good." On Meet the Press, the much-decorated Colin Powell declared that he was voting for Barack Obama. Thereby Powell clutched for the statesman ring that he forfeited five and a half years ago in front of the U. N. Security Council.

The cynic will say that Powell has discovered that it's repositioning time in America. Still, Powell's speech, delivered to Tom Brokaw in large blocs of virtually uninterrupted text, should give the cynic pause. The fact is that Powell went beyond conventional political phrases. He made arguments on behalf of Obama, he commented on what, politically, is at stake, and he offered Obama ammunition that might come in handy in budgetary wars he will have to fight if he is president.

The latter first. Unnoticed in the commentary about Powell's endorsement was this little exchange:

BROKAW: Given the state of the American economy, can we continue our military commitments around the world at the level that they now exist?

GEN. POWELL: We can. I think we have to look as to whether they have to be at that level. But we have the wealth, we have the wherewithal to do that....And so, first and foremost, we have to review those commitments, see what they are, see what else is needed, and make sure we give our troops what they need to get the job done as we have defined the job.

The italics are mine but the sentiment was Powell's. He was giving Obama leave to consider cutting the Pentagon budget -- a subject that both parties collude in ignoring during the campaign.

Powell blew some kisses at McCain but lauded Obama for "an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor." Intellectual curiosity, intellectual vigor -- when was the last time a high government official, present or recent, lauded those qualities? Democrats can't say such things. Pundits won't.

And if that wasn't enough, Powell, son of Harlem and City College of New York and the U. S. Army, declared that "all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values." Such comments also have become controversial, I suppose.

And if that wasn't enough, Powell declared himself "disappointed" that the McCain campaign was resorting to "demagoguery," making "inappropriate" charges about the significance of Bill Ayers. "A little narrow" was one euphemism he used for his party's modus operandi.

But if that wasn't enough, Powell said this:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. 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 with terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards--Purple Heart, Bronze Star--showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was twenty years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life....

John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

(The unforgettable photo that Powell referred to is here.)

Given the shriveled, retrograde state of political discourse in the United States of America, it took Colin Powell to uphold the Army's egalitarianism -- which derives from the Declaration of Independence -- and obstruct what has become an automatic assumption that there's something wrong with being an American Arab or Muslim. When, in a widely circulating video clip, McCain decided to disagree with a woman at one of his town meetings who said she couldn't trust Obama because "he's an Arab" -- a line circulated by Rush Limbaugh -- McCain responded: "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues....He's not [an Arab.]" Not an Arab but a decent family man. With this precisely tailored objection to his supporter's bigotry, McCain hoped to win back some points from a disaffected press. Until Powell spoke, I hadn't seen many commentators point out that McCain retained his polarity while eating it. (Campbell Brown did so here.)

Powell concluded his set-piece:

I come to the conclusion that because of [Obama's] 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 we have to take that into account--as well as his substance--he has both style and substance--he has met the standard of being a successful president, being an exceptional president. I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming into the world--onto the world stage, onto the American stage, and that reason I'll be voting for Senator Barack Obama.

Brokaw's round table was all anticlimax. He featured two conservatives -- Joe Scarborough and David Brooks (what's a TV round table without David Brooks?) -- and not a single liberal. What else isn't new? Andrea Mitchell waxed indignant about a "remarkably negative ad" that Obama is running now. "I mean," she said, "we talk a lot about the negativity on the Republican side. But the fact is that Barack Obama has so much more money, and some of these targeted ads, one that they unveiled on Thursday and Friday of this week and it's on national television, has John McCain in his own words saying, in another interview, in another context, 'I voted, I supported George Bush ninety percent of the time.'"

In fact, Obama's ad is true. It's not scurrilous. It doesn't insinuate. It states facts. Mitchell succeeded in making it sound like the equivalent of a McCain ad tarring Barack Obama with Bill Ayers' brush. The habit of false equivalency dies hard.