General Colin Powell, is, arguably, one of the most well-known Americans of the past decades – a solider, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and then, eventually, Secretary of State.
The biography on him, by Karen deYoung, is, to be honest, very long – but that’s not necessarily to its detriment. It’s as much a history of America and American politics, of American military history and of the Byzantine world of Republican politics in the first term of President George W Bush, as it is a biography on Mr Powell.
I loved this book and I learned much about this leader’s style and self-awareness. It’s accessible, well-paced and has lots of information – from Powell’s army efficiency reports to insights into his time as Secretary of State.
It’s a book of two halves; and in that regard, it has some challenges. At the outset, while the role Mr Powell played in his post-Army career was very, very important, it’s not the sum of his career, and yet, I felt at times that the book inadvertently focused on this part of his career as if his overall career would be judged solely as Secretary of State. Perhaps, by some, it would be, or has been, but my interest in reading about Colin Powell was about Colin Powell – not just Secretary of State Colin Powell. While these two narratives are incredibly related, there are not necessarily one and the same.
In that context the book just ends – he retired and the book finishes. There is comparatively little reflection by the author on Powell’s undoubted rapid, and well-deserved, rise through the officer ranks oft the Army. That he was a talented, considered and thoughtful leader is evident and the book could have stepped back at the end and looked at some of this. While American politics is fascinating, I was left feeling like we were being told the same thing over and over – politics is harsh, some people have their own agendas, President George W Bush’s White House wasn’t always a fun place to be. Without denigrating the importance of the people or the issues, political people not getting along is hardly new.
If you’re interested in military history, American history or American politics, or some of these, take the time to read this book. My quibbles aside, you will not be disappointed. It’s a great read about a great leader.