Constructive Creativity

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An Interesting Speaker and an Anniversary

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture given by Colin Powell. It was a truly extraordinary experience! The lecture was sponsored by the oldest and largest Jewish Temple in Indianapolis for the benefit of their members and the general public. I happened to be one of the lucky general public folks who were able to attend. My seat was near the back wall of the Temple's large auditorium, about 150 feet from the lectern. The cost of front row well cushioned seat tickets was well over $100, while my tiny plastic folding chair seat was considerably less! The really big spending wheeler dealers shelled out $1000 for the opportunity to have dinner with Mr. Secretary and to have their picture taken with him prior to his lecture. I saw quite a few very well dressed men and women toting 8x10 glossies! From what I have heard, Colin Powell's speaking fee is somewhere in the six figure range (that would be in excess of $100,000 for my friends who are not familiar with dollar jargon) and likely more than $500,000! There were probably several thousand people in attendance, by my estimate of the crowd size, but definitely not enough to cover such a large fee. Apparently, part of his speaking fee was paid by some sort of lecture series trust that was willed to the Temple by some very wealthy former members.

The one thing that really surprised me about Colin Powell was his excellent sense of humor! I'm used to seeing him in TV interviews, all business, and very serious, but I have never seen him relaxed and enjoying himself before, as I did that evening. During his lecture, which lasted for about one and a half hours, including a bit of Q & A at the end, he told many stories ranging from his childhood, his long military career, his time as Secretary of State, and a few things since his retirement. He was quite animated during the lecture, using a lot of gestures (all polite ;) ), and demonstrated a very well polished mastery of the dramatic pause, as well as excellent comedic timing. I honestly believe that he would have made a great stand up comic in another life! Perhaps that was one of the keys to his many successes. I (along with the rest of the audience) was really captivated during his lecture, and there were many instances of spontaneous laughter and applause!

Knowing that the majority of his audience were Jewish, Powell told several stories that involved his interactions with various Jewish people. He spent his childhood in a predominantly Jewish working class neighborhood in New York City (I believe he said it was the lower east side of Brooklyn). His first job was working in a candy store owned by a Jewish man and most of the customers were Jewish. He talked about learning quite a bit of Yiddish (European Jewish language) in that store, a talent which proved quite useful years later when he was meeting with various Israeli leaders. In one story, he joked about having a long conversation in Yiddish with Israeli Prime Minister Shimir (back when Reagan was President, and he was a National Security Advisor), and that within an hour the news had been flashed back to his old neighborhood in New York. :)

He talked about leading small squads of men as an Army Lieutenant in the Vietnam War. He said those were some of his strongest memories, and that he can still vividly remember the names and faces of the men he served with there. He said that he learned quickly about taking responsibility in the Army, where his most common utterances to superior officers were "Yes Sir!, No Sir!, No Excuse Sir!" I really had the sense that I was listening to a man of profound character and integrity!

Powell talked a lot about the current war in Iraq. He expressed quite a bit of anger and frustration with the conduct of the war. He didn't get too specific about who he was angry at (hopefully, he will someday!), however, he did talk in detail about his reservations prior to the start of the war, and the many lost opportunities later on. He couldn't quite bring himself to say that the war had been a complete mistake, though. Still, he had a lot to say about the lack of adequate forces on the ground in Iraq at the beginning of the occupation, and the absence of a coherent plan to deal with the power vacuum that was created by the fall of Saddam's regime. As to the current plan to surge additional troops into Iraq to try and quell the sectarian violence, he was not at all optimistic about the long term success of the plan. He likened it to putting a heavier lid on an already boiling pot! He said that peace in Iraq can only come through a political process among the Iraqi people, and that there is simply no military solution to the present violence there. He also talked about involving the neighboring countries, and the need for the U.S. to have dialogue with them. One of his earlier stories that evening had been about the time when he personally sat across the table from Mikhail Gorbachev prior to the meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. Powell is a man with immense personal experience regarding the wisdom of engaging in dialogue with "the enemy"!

Near the end of his lecture, Powell talked about how different it was to travel internationally as a private citizen, compared to his previous experiences as Secretary of State, and his various other travel on official U.S. government business. He had gotten quite comfortable receiving the V.I.P. treatment at various airports. He was used to red carpets, military bands, and being greeted by dignitaries. Nowadays, he joked, he has to stand in long lines with everyone else at the airport and be "wanded" by the security screeners. He said recently he was being wanded by a screener who recognized him and greeted him politely saying, "How are you today Secretary Powell?" Powell responded, "You know who I am and you still need to wand me?" The way he told this story was quite humorous. :)

During the question and answer period after the lecture, Powell was asked what he thought about the state of military hospitals, given the current news about the terrible conditions at the Walter Reed Army Hospital. He said that he gets all his check-ups at Walter Reed, and that the part of the facility that he has seen is well maintained and excellently staffed. However, he acknowledged that he was not surprised to hear about problems considering how much the budget has been cut for the military and veterans hospitals. He talked about his son who was nearly killed in an auto accident while serving in the Army in Germany back in the 1970's. He said that his son received excellent care in military medical facilities in Europe and America and ultimately made a full recovery. He said that U.S. troops today deserve the same excellent level of medical treatment that his own son received. I couldn't agree more!

Powell was asked if he had ever considered a political career. He responded that he had considered it, but he felt that his abilities and interests were better suited to the path that he had chosen and that he had no regrets about his career. This was a man who was talked about in the highest Republican circles as a potential candidate for President in the 2000 election. If Powell had decided to run, I don't think that Bush Jr. would have had a chance against him. What a tragedy for America and the world that he decided not to run! I am not a Republican and I never will be, but I have great respect for Colin Powell. I would not have voted for him, but I am certain that he would have made an excellent President! I felt honored to be in the same room with the man!

Ok, lets move along to the second part of the title of this post. On Tuesday March 20,
my friend Baghdad Treasure published a post to mark the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He wrote to a group of Iraqi and American bloggers and requested that they answer a few questions about their thoughts prior to the war and now four years later. I was honored that he asked me to participate! Please visit my other blog Apolitical Deconstruction to read my answers or, if you would like to see all the respondents answers, please visit Baghdad Treasure's post using the link above. I learned a great deal by reading the other responses, perhaps you would, as well!

My friend Attawie also wrote an excellent post to mark the fourth anniversary (please visit her post using the link provided, I promise it is worth the read!). I wrote a comment to her post that seemed appropriate, and she responded to my comment by recommending that I turn it into a new post for my blog. Well, that was not the first time that someone kindly complimented one of my comments by saying it would make a nice post, however, this is the first time that I have decided to take such advice. I have great respect for Attawie, and I am honored that she thought my comment worthy of a wider audience. Thank you Attawie! Below is my comment to Attawie's post:

"Attawie, this post reads like a poem, an ode to Iraq. In the past few years I have learned a lot about Iraq's history. It has an ancient, wonderful, and tragic history. The wheel has turned and the pages of tragedy are once again being read. I have no doubt that Iraq will be peaceful and great again someday, but I am not very good at thinking about somedays. I see the here and now. I see men, women, and children crying for the loss of loved ones, and their sorrow brings tears to my eyes, as well!

You ask why, by whom, and for what reason. I ask these questions also! The worst faces of humanity have danced in Iraq's streets, dressed in their finest clothes, all hiding hearts of vile darkness. The faces of greed and corruption from far away lands have smiled and laughed. The new faces of tyranny and subjugation have frowned on the old, planted their seeds, irrigated their crops with the blood of innocents, and reaped vast harvests of misery. Yet some of the masks have fallen from the dancers. They stand naked, their dark hearts revealed. The music pauses for the page to turn. What lies on the next page is the future, what is written is unknown.

I still have some hope, but I also have fear that the worst for Iraq may yet be ahead. American troops will leave Iraq. I think that will begin to happen before Bush leaves office. The Republicans in the U.S. Congress and Senate can read the writing on the wall. They will fear for their jobs before the next election and they will run from Bush's side like scared rabbits. Its what will happen after the troops leave that really worries me. I hope the Iraqi people can talk meaningfully to each other. I hope that the neighboring countries will talk to each other and to the Iraqi people. Peace and security can only come through dialogue and compromise within Iraq and among its neighbors. I hope this will happen. It must happen!"