Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in the South Bronx, rose up the ranks in the Army to become a four-star general, national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and secretary of state under President George W. Bush He has amassed numerous awards and honors, including two Presidential Medals of Freedom. His most recent book, "It Worked for Me, In Life and Leadership," was published last year. At 76, he continues to stay engaged in the issues of the day. He will be in Pittsburgh Oct. 29 as the keynote speaker for the sixth annual American Middle East Institute conference. This year it's about energy and water. For tickets, go to www.AmericanMEI.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
I just read that you and [the late] Tom Clancy were friends.
Tom and I were very good friends. I met him 25 years ago in Nashville, Tenn. We were both inducted into what was then called the American Academy of Achievement. It was just a couple of years after he wrote his famous first books, "Hunt for Red October" and "Red Storm Rising." We remained friends for the rest of his life. He married a distant cousin of mine, Alex, his current wife.
I read his first book before I met him. He just had this remarkable ability to capture intelligence and military force and put it in a scenario that guys like me would understand. Beyond that we were both just two street kids who kind of fell into each other in 1988. We liked talking with each other and arguing with each other.
I understand Forest Whitaker has been selected to play you in an upcoming movie. Do you see yourself as more a Denzel Washington type?
[Laughing.] Well, I have no comment because you are hearing about it at the same time I'm hearing about it. Not because anybody called me. I saw it in Google alerts. So we will wait to see what the project is all about. I expect I will have to call both the script writer and Forest to see what they are really planning to do.
It must be interesting to be portrayed by someone else.
Yes, yes. Forest is a marvelous actor, but so is Denzel. Unfortunately, nobody asked me to play me!
Of your high-powered positions in the government, which one gave you the most satisfaction?
I always say I enjoyed all the jobs that my government has given me over the years, some more than others, but that is normal. I found each one to be a challenge. I tried to do my best in all of them. I enjoyed being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I enjoyed being secretary of state.
But not to duck your question entirely, perhaps the most satisfying job I have ever had was many, many years ago, long before I became someone in a senior position. That was commanding a battalion in Korea in the early 1970s during a very, very difficult time in the Army and in our country. The Vietnam War was ending, and we were no longer going to be a conscript army. We had to move to an all-volunteer force. We were very badly undermanned. A lot of soldiers needed high school educations [and] needed English as a second language. It was probably the most challenging leadership experience I've ever had.
I enjoyed it thoroughly because I was able to make a great battalion out of a group of American soldiers and Korean soldiers. You know, satisfaction isn't what you achieve at the highest position. It's what over the course of a long career gave you the most satisfaction.
In your memoir, you are described as a nice kid, not particularly ambitious. So when did you start to get a sense of your power and abilities?
Really it was in college and not because of my academic studies. I entered ROTC my second semester in college. I realized I found something that gave me structure and gave me a new family. So I found something I loved doing, and I did well. That was the Army.
The City College of New York was gracious enough to allow me to count my ROTC grades into my overall grade point average, and that brought me up to 2.0, and they let me leave [laughs]. They said, "Go to the Army." And I did. They thought that they'd never see me again but I'm back [laughing].
I would be asked the question in my later career as chairman: "Gen. Powell, when did you graduate from West Point?" Well, I didn't go to West Point. That would be beyond imagination for a kid standing on the corner in the South Bronx to go to West Point. When I was going through ROTC, black kids couldn't go to those [military] colleges. People are a little embarrassed when I say that, but I say, "Look, look how America has changed since the early 1950s when I entered college."
I was privileged to go to a public school [City College] and paid nothing for my education there. It was paid for by the city, and it was a quality education, which allowed me to go into the Army and compete with fellow officers from West Point and all the other places and to compete successfully.
When you were growing up, did your parents discuss racism with you or warn you about it?
Yeah, I knew what was the situation in our country. But I lived on a block in the South Bronx that had no racism in it -- We were all poor. Let's say lower-income. My mother would hate it if I said poor. We all got along fine. We were from every imaginable background -- West Indians, Puerto Ricans, blacks from the South -- there were Eastern European immigrants on my block. There was a large Jewish population. We saw ourselves as a diverse group. I knew when I left the South Bronx and went to the South -- Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Bragg, N.C. -- I knew what I had to do and how I had to behave. You have to realize in those days it was the Army that was the most progressive social institution in the country. Our Army bases were an oasis of integration in communities that were totally racist and lived on the rule of Jim Crow. All that changed. I lived to see all that change.
So what did the Army teach you that your parents couldn't or didn't?
There was very little anybody could teach me that my parents didn't. I really grew up in a great family. Not just my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my preacher, teachers -- they all were a part of my upbringing. What the Army essentially said to me when I entered was: "Look, Powell, we don't care about your color. We don't care about the fact that you are a poor kid from the tenement section of New York. Don't give us any hard-luck stories. We don't care about your immigrant background. The only thing we care about is performance. If you perform, then you will move up. If you don't perform, you won't. Performance is all that counts."
I had already learned it in ROTC, but I really internalized it then. If people look down on me because of my color or my background or my immigrant heritage, that was their problem, not mine.
You never had a chip on your shoulder or bitterness. You just moved forward.
I talk a little bit about this in my most recent book. I always want to look through the front windshield of life, never through the side view and rearview mirrors. I can't change what's behind me. So I don't carry a chip on my shoulder. I let those problems remain in the past. A chip on your shoulder can weigh you down as opposed to offending the guy you hope will knock the chip off.
You said somebody called me "a nice kid." That's not a bad thing to be. I've had some tough assignments, and I've had to do some very, very difficult things in life, but I've tried to retain, you know, that sort of niceness, with respect to other people. There are times when niceness doesn't work or I don't have time to be nice, but generally I try to recognize the value of the other people in my life, the value of the people in the units and the value of the organization that I've been able to command.
[I] always followed the principle that leadership is about putting followers in the best possible position. So leadership is about follower-ship. If you take care of your followers, if you give them what they need, if you inspire them, they'll do everything that you need done and everything that you ask of them.
How have you coped with what you have seen in combat?
I've seen combat and I've seen men die. I've been in positions where I have had to send men and women into battle knowing that some of them will die. I've not suffered [post-traumatic stress disorder], but PTSD is not something that has just been discovered in the past 10 years. It existed in World War II, World War I, the Civil War under different names. It is a real affliction. We have to do everything we can to help our soldiers work their way through it. Most of our soldiers come home without injury or wounds or PTSD and re-enter civilian life without any difficulty.
I never had to suffer the way some of our youngsters have suffered in the past 10 years, where every day you wake up wondering if the IED bomb is going to go off under you. I have been in situations like that, but not as demanding or as extended a period of time as what we've asked our young soldiers to do over the past 10 years. So we've got to take care of them.
Last question: Some people want to know why your name is pronounced COAL-in instead of COLL-in?
[Laughing] I was baptized Colin [pronounced COLL-in], the way the name was supposed to be pronounced, by my parents, who were British subjects. But when I was a young kid growing up on Kelly Street in the South Bronx in early 1942, there was an American bomber pilot who was attacking Japanese ships. His plane got hit, and he flew it into the ground while all the other members of the crew were parachuting out. He held the plane steady so they could get out. He died in the crash. His name was Colin Kelly -- pronounced Coal-in. He is from a family in Florida, I have been in touch with the family over the years. So my friends on Kelly Street -- seeing this hero -- started calling me COAL-in of Kelly Street. So I grew up with both names. To this day, my relatives call me COLL-in. It was when I became national security adviser to President Reagan, the media came in one day and said: "Look, we can't go on like this. Which one do you want?" I said, "COAL-in."
Thank you for taking the time to talk.
Well, thank you and let me say I am looking forward to my visit to Pittsburgh.