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Powell Will Make Heard the Voice of the Common Man... | The Nation

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Powell Will Make Heard the Voice of the Common Man...

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Alagaroooo! Go CCNY, yea team!

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Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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Sorry, but I got carried aay by the appointment of Colin L. Powell as secretary of State. Not just because he was in my class at the City College of New York, then called the immigrant's Harvard, but because it's important for George W. Bush to have people around him who know what it's like to make it without inherited wealth.

I've wanted to vote for Powell for President ever since I read his 1995 autobiography, which describes a guy who came up the hard way and knows he couldn't have done it without the very public assistance the GOP leadership in Congress so maliciously maligns. Writing of his years at CCNY (now City University of New York), Powell said, "I received a free college education because New York taxed its citizens to make this investment in the sons and daughters of immigrants and the working class."

Both of us were the children of immigrant garment workers, a group that is today still among this country's most exploited people. Yet less is done for their children now than was done for us. As Powell recalls, our college tuition was only 10 bucks, and there existed a vast network of community public programs to provide support.

It's true, as George W. Bush said in announcing Powell's appointment, that it's "a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson." But the South Bronx then, like all poor quarters of the city, was not a symbol of public neglect but rather a vibrant place dotted with community centers and excellent schools. The burnt-out wreckage of the Bronx that followed was the direct consequence of government funding cutbacks in programs for the poor that had been the salvation of our generation.

Powell is a believer in the private sector's power to solve most of our problems and has done much recently to encourage an increase in private and corporate civic responsibility. But as he wrote in his autobiography, "I am not, however, knee-jerk, anti-government. I was born a New Deal Depression-era kid. Franklin Roosevelt was a hero in my boyhood home. Government helped my parents by providing cheap public subway systems so that they could get to work, and public schools for their children, and protection under the law to make sure that labor was not exploited--Social Security allowed my parents to live a dignified retirement. Medicare gave them access to quality care during long, painful terminal illnesses."

This is the guy who in 1995 had the temerity to tell the Wall Street Journal that we should stop "demonizing" poor people on welfare and go after the true "welfare kings," the corporations and the high-priced lawyers and lobbyists that get the government to do their bidding: "Why do all these corporations pour a ton of money into . . . the next election? The answer is they are buying affirmative action, they are buying preference, they are buying quotas--all the things we think are terrible when the same terms are applied to minorities and those of our citizens we think are less advantaged."

Powell voted for LBJ and Jimmy Carter and was reluctant to declare himself a Republican. But his support of Bush and his prominence now in a Republican administration will turn out to be a good thing--if he is able to remind the President of his election season commitment to "compassionate conservatism." The fact that Powell has been one of the leading voices warning of the instability engendered by ever-sharper class divisions throughout the world should make him a very progressive Secretary of State.

Powell is properly admired as a military man, but his greatest achievement has been as peacemaker. In the previous Bush Administration, he engineered the stand-down of US and Soviet nuclear forces from their high state of alert and was a strong defender of arms control. When one reads the history of the Gulf War, Powell emerges as a consistent voice for caution and negotiation prior to use of military force.

His is a voice in the Republican Party that cannot be ignored, because he cuts through the unholy alliance of God and greed that has come to dominate the GOP agenda. He has said he is "troubled by the political passion of those on the extreme right who seem to claim divine wisdom on political as well as spiritual matters. I am disturbed by the class and racial undertones beneath the surface of their rhetoric."

That's the essential test of the Bush Administration and the Republican Party: Will they continue to serve the interests of the rich while counting on the Christian Coalition's social agenda to blind working people to the betrayal of their economic interests? Or will Bush define a truly moderate Republicanism in the Dwight D. Eisenhower mold?

The Republicans weren't always the party of strident meanness, and perhaps Powell's appointment is a sign that Bush intends to follow President Clinton's lead and govern as a progressive centrist. Bush should mark the fact that Clinton leaves office with the highest approval rating of any President since Roosevelt. Bush could do worse than to follow those two Presidents' excellent example.

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