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The best candidate who never ran

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell is seen in Washington on Oct. 10, 2008. Credit: AP / Susan Walsh

After what we’ve been through in this race to the White House-race to the bottom, it would be easy to start feeling anybody would be a better candidate than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: the guy selling bottled water on the service road, sitcom star Kevin James, even former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

But those who attended the Long Island Association luncheon yesterday at the Crest Hollow Country Club to hear former Secretary of State Colin Powell speak got to listen to a man who made it clear in 90 minutes that he’d be a better president than anyone running. If there were a way to get him on the ballot for Nov. 8 and give him one hour on TV to convince the nation, he’d win this thing by 20 points.

Powell, 79, is thoughtful and considerate and still trim and energetic. His story is well known: He was the first black national security adviser, the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black secretary of state. But many don’t realize that his story is also an immigrant tale. He was raised in the South Bronx by parents who came from Jamaica, who worked numerous jobs in the garment industry, and who gave him a start in a structured, loving family with high expectations. And Powell is hilarious, with a dry, self-deprecating wit, perfectly timed facial expressions of delight or disappointment, and a spot-on Jamaican accent he uses to talk about where he came from, and how he got to where he is.

None of that, though, would qualify him to be president. Most years. This year, it is more than enough. But Powell also has such well-considered responses that he puts posturing politicians to shame.

  • Asked about leadership, Powell talked about always putting the needs of followers first, putting them in positions to achieve, and always treating others as people of absolute dignity and worth.
  • Powell spoke about our nation’s most complex issue, race, and how he’d been affected by both racism and affirmative action. He said he disagreed with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem, but supported this right to protest that, unlike reverence for the flag or the anthem, is enshrined in our Constitution.
  • On the mistakes that led to the invasion of Iraq and the mistakes that followed the first burst of war and led to endless insurgency, Powell was contrite, taking much of the responsibility for missteps that caused so much death and waste, even though it has often seemed most of it wasn’t his fault.

On issue after issue, from overcoming the Islamic State to dealing with Iran and North Korea to cybersecurity to climate change, Powell gave answers more intelligent and thoughtful than those offered by current politicians.

Before Barack Obama came along, it seemed Powell would be the perfect first black president. The combination of military achievement and GOP membership, his popularity and his obvious character, seemed the right combination to blast through that barrier.

He has said he never wanted to subject his wife to the presidential election process, and that he did not have that fire in his belly. He is far from being the only person who combines extraordinary accomplishment and virtue in this nation, but no such people are seeking the White House this year.

Either we cannot entice people of such quality to seek the job, or such quality cannot survive the process of seeking it. The perfect presidential candidates may never again want the job. But we need to figure out how to persuade such people, like Powell, to take it.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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