From the Bronx to the Beltway

Godfrey Hodgson admires an inspirational autobiography which is also a campaign manifesto; A Soldier's Way: An Autobiography by Colin Powell with Joseph E Persico Hutchinson, pounds 20

This is two books for the price of one. One of them is an autobiography in the Samuel Smiles tradition of self-help and well-earned success, the story of a son of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in the South Bronx, drifted into the Reserve Officer Training Corps at college, and ended up generalissimo of Desert Storm and Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military post in the US under the Commander-in-Chief, who is the President.

Even the chairmanship, however, may not be the end of this ascent. For this is also an essay in another well-known American genre, the campaign biography. About a year before the presidential election, would-be candidates like to publish an authorised biography. This serves several purposes. It advertises the candidate's suitability without committing him to running. It puts the candidate's version of his career on the record. It provides journalists with instant material for profiles. And, incidentally, it raises some money at the very moment when a potential candidate needs it to get his campaign under way.

In Powell's case, the American publisher, Random House, is reported to have advanced $6 million against royalties, eclipsing even the $4 million Rupert Murdoch's Harper & Row offered to Speaker Newt Gingrich. (The Speaker, surprised by the storm of protest, accepted only a token dollar, confident that he will get the money anyway after publication.)

No fewer than 800,000 copies have been trucked into America's bookstores, and the General is involved in a blitzkrieg of talk-shows, book-signings, advertising and political pipe-sucking. No one seems in much doubt that Powell wants to be President. Nothing else, however, about his political intentions is clear. Is he, to begin with, a Democrat or a Republican?

He sounds like a Democrat. He is, for a start, an African-American, born a member of a group whose vast majority, mindful of the support they received from Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, have been reliable Democrat voters. Roosevelt was a hero in his boyhood home, and he points out that he received a free education at City College because New York taxed its citizens to invest in the children of immigrants and the working class.

Yet now Powell has announced that he has no interest in the Democratic nomination. So is he a Republican? Well, he is a fiscal conservative. And he writes: "Everything I observe affirms my belief in free enterprise." He felt comfortable with high office under the Reagan and Bush administrations. He was President Bush's national security adviser, and his memoirs make plain his admiration for Reagan who, he thinks, restored to America a faith in the simple values he cares most about: religion, patriotism, thrift, family and duty.

If Powell is a conservative, though, it is of the old-fashioned kind, not of the abrasive, devil-take-the-hindmost school of Gingrich. As a black man who has made it to the apex of American society, Powell is full of gratitude as well as pride. But he cannot ignore the racism he has encountered. As a young officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was refused service at a drive-in hamburger joint. He makes it plain that he regarded the South's numerous military bases as "healthy cells in an otherwise sick body", not a popular view with today's Republicans. He is proud to have fought in Vietnam, but outspoken about the failures of American policy there. He is blunt about the shortcomings of American society, sympathetic to the unfortunate and sharply critical of the likes of Dan Quayle.

What Powell would like, it seems plain to me from his book, is to emerge as a third-party candidate like Ross Perot. But that will be a rocky road. The odds are stacked against any third-party candidate, especially - like Powell, but unlike Perot - one who will be dependent for resources on what he can raise.

Yet such is his combination of ability and experience, quietly held moral values and sheer personal charm that, especially in the present volatile climate of American politics, I do not believe that anyone can rule out his chances.

At least one of the heroes of every successful American war has gone on to the White House: George Washington, Andrew Jackson after the war of 1812, Zachary Taylor from the halls of Montezuma, Ulysses S Grant and Teddy Roosevelt from the Spanish-American war and Ike, supreme commander in the Second World War. Douglas MacArthur, who tried and failed to join that lineage, reminded us that old soldiers never die, they just fade away.

Even if Colin Powell does fade away, he has written a book of unusual interest. His account of growing up black in "Banana Kelly", the South Bronx neighbourhood where his parents lived before they won on the "numbers" lottery and moved to suburban Queen's, is as well done as his account of the Gulf War in which, he subtly suggests, Stormin' Norman Schwartzkopf did not display quite such confidence as it appeared.

Colin Powell is a soldier from his cap to his boots, but he has some engagingly human traits, and he doesn't mind owning up to some of the less disqualifying of them. He lost his pistol on one of his first assignments as a young lieutenant in Germany, and it didn't stop him coming back as commander of an army corps 30 years later. Shortly after retiring from the army, he ran out of gas on the Beltway, the orbital motorway which divides Washington from red-blooded America, and - we are left to infer - that won't necessarily mean that his career inside the Beltway is out of gas.

His hobby is fixing up ancient Volvos. "My idea of a good time is to disconnect every wire, tube, hose, cable and bolt of an engine ... as I stand there, grease-stained and triumphant". This may be a campaign biography, but the campaigner comes across as a nice man, with a sense of decency and a sense of humour.

It also leaves a thought for us to ponder. When his mother died, he found the British passports his parents had taken with them to New York, "two solemn-faced black immigrants from a tiny British colony" whose son was about to be knighted by the Queen of England. Had they, he reflects, shipped out for Southampton instead of New York, he might have made sergeant-major in a modest British regiment, but not British defence chief. I don't think we can argue with that, and the idea that we cannot plausibly claim that we offer a fair chance to people like Colin Powell does not fill me with pride.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee