Thursday, November 08, 2007


Harry: Did he get it right?

Powell: a liberal?

Shortly after I entered the Jack Singer Concert Hall of the Calgary Center for the Performing Arts last evening I was greeted by one of the good ol' backroom boys from the Klein era. He was a man I have known for years. Always friendly and affable, he shook my hand and asked me what a liberal like myself was doing at such a conservative right-wing event.

The event was 'An Evening with General Colin Powell.' His question seemed perfectly intelligent. After all, Powell is a self-confessed Republican with an incomparable military background. He had led the charge in the first Iraq War in 1991 for Daddy Bush, and became Little Bush's spokesman for the second Iraq War as Secretary of State. Neither the Republican Party, the United States military establishment, nor the Bush dynasty can be confused for liberals.

The sponsors were the very conservative Calgary Chamber of Commerce, the very conservative Encana Corporation, and Deerfoot Meadows, a development project led by the portly Ken Mariash - a dead ringer for Ralph Klein. We learned during the evening that it was Mariash who provided private jet transportation for the General all the way from Texas to Calgary so that he could be present.

Despite the conservative nature of the event, it was for a very good cause - 'Alberta's Promise.' Alberta's Promise is a charitable foundation designed to provide opportunities for children. It is part of an international organization of which General Powell was a founder.

In keeping with the conservative nature of the evening, the first introduction to the affair was made by Hal Walker, another developer and current President of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Walker too is a well-known Klein good ol' boy and is a long-time true blue Tory. He was followed by the jet-setting Mariash and then ex- Ontario Premier Mike Harris - he of the now defunct 'common sense revolution' - another celeb supporter of Powell's Promise organization.

So, you can see that the event had a rather strong conservative texture to it - that is, until the good General began to speak.

Without notes and choosing not to use a lecturn, the tall and lithe Powell wandered the stage with his wireless and invisible, hands -free mike. He told amusing and funny stories about his retirement, his happy domestic life, his career as an army officer, and his relationship to the American people. He spoke humorously about famous people he had met such as Mikhail Gorbachev and the Elvis-loving Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi. He spoke fondly of Ronald Reagan for whom he served as National Security Advisor. He even did an excellent impersonation of his ex-boss. He talked about the qualities of leadership, current affairs and politics.

Some of the more interesting things we learned about him were that he was an admirer of the Canadian Health Care system, he loved and was familiar with Canada and Canadians, and that he believed first and foremost in diplomacy as a dispute resolution mechanism with foreign countries. He condemned his own country's health care system for not insuring poor people or the chronically sick. He lamented the deficiencies of the education system in the United States, as regards to poor and underprivileged children.

He advocated diplomacy to resolve issues with Iran and said good things about President Putin. China, he said, was only looking for more shelf space in Wal-mart, and therefore should not be regarded as a threat but as a friend. He opined that the United States had seriously botched the aftermath and the rebuilding process in Iraq after the invasion.

Although he didn't say so during his presentation, Powell is well-known to be pro-choice on abortion and liberal on social issues.

In other words, his address was anything but conservative. He sounded like a moderate, perhaps even a two degree leaning-to-the-left Democrat.

Only when it came to his involvement in the lead-up to the second Iraq War, did he have to do some fancy footwork. There was a question about how he felt about his U.N. speech outlining the evidence of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam had in his arsenal which gave rise to the American 'coalition of the willing' invasion. Here he displayed his survival instincts which together with his charm and wit allowed him to rise to the top of the greasy pole in the lofty world of defence and diplomacy. He blamed it all on somebody else. In this case, the intelligence gatherers.

One was left to wonder how this accomplished man, a black American who rose to the very pinnacles of power and clearly a liberal at heart, could have ever worked for the Junior Bush administration - an administration that curried the favour of the relgious right, was anti-gay, that twisted and created false intelligence to justify a pre-emptive attack on a weak nation, that indulged in torture and that went around bashing all of its traditional international friends. How could he have done it?

Way back in October 2002, Harry Belafonte, the great West Indian black concert artist, said this about Powell and his working for Junior Bush:

"There's an old saying. In the days of slavery, there were those
slaves who lived on the plantation and there were those slaves that
lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if
you served the master . . . exactly the way the master intended to
have you serve him."

Refusing to back down from that statement, a few days later Belafonte said:

"I like Colin Powell, I like his West Indian background,
I like his intellect, I like a lot of things that he does and his style.
What is at fault here is a policy that's taking this country to hell."

Maybe Harry had it right.

Powell received warm applause and a standing ovation from most in the audience - but not all.