Reagan’s vision for the GOP: President Colin Powell

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gestures during a news conference in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2001.- SUSAN WALSH-Associated Press

This weekend, TheDC’s Jamie Weinstein published a story about Ronald Reagan’s affinity for Colin Powell. As Weinstein noted, during a 1993 speech at the Reagan Library, the former president “forecasted a day when Powell would be commander in chief.”

You could chalk that up to kindness or schtick, but as Weinstein noted, it was a confirmation of comments made during Reagan’s 1991 appearance on Larry King:

KING: You — there’s a man that you brought to prominence in public life and now every American knows. He was your national security adviser. What do you think about the job that Colin Powell is doing?

REAGAN: I think it’s a great job. I think he’s a very remarkable man. I was greatly impressed with him and the way he thought when he was my adviser, and I had the pleasure and honor of putting stars on him to be a general, and I think we have a remarkably fine man as our commanding general.

KING: How about some of the other key players? Are you happy with Secretary Baker?

REAGAN: Yes, yes, he seems to be doing all that he can.

KING: Mr. Cheney?


KING: I note, though, from the answers that Powell is your favorite of this group.

REAGAN: Well, I have really…

KING: Personal interest.

REAGAN: … really a great admiration of him and a personal feeling of friendship.

KING: In a wartime situation, no doubt that he would be a great leader?

REAGAN: Yes, he would.

Go back and read it again. It’s not just that Reagan was effusive in his praise for Powell, but also that he was pretty dismissive of others — including Dick Cheney.

Of course, things didn’t work out the way Reagan imagined. During the George W. Bush era, it’s very clear that Cheney won and Powell lost. Today, Powell is generally considered by conservatives to be a traitor. So what accounts for the dichotomy between Reagan’s praise and how things turned out? I have a few theories:

1.) Ronald Reagan was a lousy judge of character. This is possible. Leaders — even really good ones — are frequently very bad at choosing their successors. (Additionally, some will surely point out that these comments were made after Reagan left the White House, and shortly before it was announced that he was battling Alzheimer’s disease. In short, maybe we shouldn’t make too much out of these comments.)

2). Reagan’s vision was co-opted by Bushies and neocons. The GOP clearly chose to follow the path of Dick Cheney over Colin Powell. In so doing, they chose to betray Reagan’s vision for the future of the party. Cheney, after all, was a Ford guy, and Reagan ran against Ford in 1976. Reagan also ran against George H.W. Bush in 1980. Reagan may have won the 1980 election, but his Republican adversaries won the future. The notion that the modern-day GOP (or even conservative movement, for that matter) turned out as Reagan would have wanted seems dubious. Just because Republicans worship him doesn’t mean he would have approved.

3). The Republican Party didn’t leave Colin Powell, Colin Powell left the GOP. Powell might have felt he was misled and used in the run-up to Iraq. What is more, he might have resented losing so many internal debates to other cabinet members and Bush loyalists. It’s entirely possible this case of sour grapes led to his support of Barack Obama in 2008. And let’s be clear, that endorsement constituted crossing a red line.

4). A combination of these things.

It’s impossible to know what accounts for how things turned out. But as the GOP continues to do some much-needed soul searching in an attempt to return to the glory days, it’s worth asking wondering if things went astray. In some bizarro world, could Republicans have been the party that nominated the first black president (who also happened to be Reagan’s chosen political heir)?

Matt K. Lewis