'Country before self ... before all else': US presidents remember Colin Powell as American hero

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden and four living former U.S. presidents remembered Colin Powell – the trailblazing former secretary of state and military leader – as an American hero who led with honor, integrity and wisdom during his four decades in public life.

Powell, the nation's first Black secretary of state, died Monday of complications from COVID-19, his family said. He was 84.

A retired four-star general, Powell served as national security advisor for President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under George H. W. Bush and as George W. Bush's secretary of state from 2001 to 2005.

As secretary of state, Powell oversaw U.S. diplomacy in the aftermath of the Sep. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Powell, a Republican, broke party ranks several times by endorsing Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election against Republican John McCain, Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in the 2020 election.

Trump issued a statement Tuesday disparaging the former secretary of state and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

More: Colin Powell, first Black secretary of state, dies from COVID-19 complications

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up a vial that he said could contain anthrax as he presents evidence of Iraq's alleged weapons programs to the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003.

Biden: 'Above all, Colin was my friend'

Biden ordered American flags at all public properties including the White House be flown at half-staff through Friday to honor Powell. In a statement, he called Powell a "dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity."

"Over our many years working together – even in disagreement – Colin was always someone who gave you his best and treated you with respect," Biden said.

More: From South Bronx to the center of power: Colin Powell, a man trusted by presidents and the public

Biden said Powell "embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat" and he was "committed to our nation’s strength and security above all." The president noted Powell, having fought in wars, "understood better than anyone that military might alone not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity.

"From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else –in uniform and out – and it earned him the universal respect of the American people."

Secretary of State Colin Powell shakes hands with Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Bidenon Sept. 26, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, prior to testifying on US policy toward Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell shakes hands with Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Bidenon Sept. 26, 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, prior to testifying on US policy toward Iraq.

Biden added, "Above all, Colin was my friend. Easy to share a laugh with. A trusted confidant in good and hard times. He could drive his Corvette Stingray like nobody’s business – something I learned firsthand on the race track when I was Vice President. And I am forever grateful for his support of my candidacy for president and for our shared battle for the soul of the nation. I will miss being able to call on his wisdom in the future."

Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden were saddened to learn about Powell's death and extended condolences to the Powell family. "Colin Powell was a good man. He will be remembered as one of our great Americans."

Bush: 'Highly respected at home and abroad'

George W. Bush said he and former first lady Laura Bush were "deeply saddened" by Powell's death, calling him "a great public servant, starting with his time as a soldier during Vietnam."

"He was such a favorite of presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom – twice. He was highly respected at home and abroad," Bush said in a statement. "And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man."

More: Colin Powell lent his prestige to make a case for the Iraq war: 'I will always regret it,' he later said

President Bush touches the arms of Secretary of State Colin Powell, right and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as he talks to reporters during a meeting with his Cabinet, at the White House Thursday, May 30, 2002.
President Bush touches the arms of Secretary of State Colin Powell, right and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as he talks to reporters during a meeting with his Cabinet, at the White House Thursday, May 30, 2002.

Obama: Powell 'an example of what America can and should be'

Obama in a statement said he and former first lady Michelle Obama will always looked to Powell as "an example of what America – and Americans – can and should be if we wish to remain the last, best hope of earth."

Obama called Powell an "exemplary soldier and exemplary patriot" who was at the center of some of the most consequential events in recent U.S. history, counseled four presidents and shaped American foreign policy for decades.

"Everyone who worked with General Powell appreciated his clarity of thought, insistence on seeing all sides, and ability to execute. And although he’d be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t get every call right, his actions reflected what he believed was best for America and the people he served," Obama said.

President Barack Obama talks with reporters after his meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, on the importance of ratifying the New START Treaty, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, in the Oval Office at the White in Washington.
President Barack Obama talks with reporters after his meeting with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, left, on the importance of ratifying the New START Treaty, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, in the Oval Office at the White in Washington.

Obama, who was the nation's first Black president, said Powell "helped a generation of young people set their sights higher."

"He never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly. But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow."

He recalled Powell's 2008 endorsement of his campaign for president, saying he was "deeply appreciative" that someone like Powell was willing to break party ranks to endorse him. "But what impressed me even more was how he did it," Obama said, remembering how Powell addressed conspiracy theories that Obama was Muslim.

Powell at the time said, “The correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's 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?”

Clintons say Powell 'lived the promise of America'

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a joint statement said Powell was a "courageous solider, a skilled commander, a dedicated diplomat and a good and decent man."

"The son of immigrants, he rose to the top levels of military, civilian and non-governmental service through intelligence, character, and the ability to see the big picture and attend to the smallest details," the Clintons said. "He lived the promise of America, and spent a lifetime working to help our country, especially our young people, live up to its own ideals and noblest aspirations at home and around the world."

The Clintons offered condolences to the Powell family "and all the people whose lives he touched through his service and example."

Former secretaries of state (L-R) Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking of the future U.S. Diplomacy Center at the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building Sept. 3, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Former secretaries of state (L-R) Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking of the future U.S. Diplomacy Center at the State Department's Harry S. Truman Building Sept. 3, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Carter: Powell's 'courage and integrity' an inspiration for generations

Former President Jimmy Carter said he and former first lady Rosalynn Carter "join so many around the world in mourning the loss of General Colin Powell."

"A true patriot and public servant, we were honored to work beside him to strengthen communities in the United States, help resolve conflict in Haiti, and observe elections in Jamaica. His courage and integrity will be an inspiration for generations to come. We will keep his family in our prayers during this difficult time."

Unlike other presidents, Trump disparages former secretary of state

As other former presidents lauded Powell, Trump attacked him in remarks that echoed his actions following the deaths of other prominent Americans whom he considered to be political foes.

Last year, Trump also declined to pay respects to civil rights icon John Lewis as he lay in state at the U.S. Capitol last year. And at a campaign rally in Michigan in 2019, he mocked the late Rep. John Dingell and Dingell's widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell before a crowd of constituents in the couple's home state.

After McCain's death in 2018, Trump came under criticism for breaking with tradition and raising the White House flags two days after McCain’s death. It prompted an outcry from veterans groups and others, prompting Trump to lower them hours later.

In the statement on Powell, Trump criticized Powell's record on Iraq and derided the news media for having treated the former secretary of state "so beautifully" after his death.

"Hope that happens to me someday," Trump said.

"He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!" he added.

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden, ex-presidents remember Colin Powell's integrity, courage

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