The political gridlock in Washington is the worst he’s seen in several decades in the nation’s capital, according to retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“I’ve never quite seen it this bad,” Powell told an audience at the Weinberg Center in downtown Frederick Thursday night.
Politicians aren’t bad people, but people need to expect more out of them, he said.
Powell urged the audience of about 1,100 people to tune out the “chatter” of modern life, especially from cable news and the Internet.
“It’s not news, it’s just commentary,” Powell said.
His appearance was one of several in the Frederick Speaker Series, a partnership between the Weinberg Center for the Arts, The Ausherman Family Foundation and Frederick County Public Libraries.
Proceeds from the event benefit children’s programs at the county libraries, said Elizabeth Cromwell, who works for Frederick County Public Libraries.
In the question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Powell addressed weighty issues such as sexual assault in the military, the threats to the U.S. from Syria, Iran, and North Korea, and the impact of his 2003 speech at the United Nations that helped lay out George W. Bush’s administration’s rationale for invading Iraq while Powell was secretary of state.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some high-profile terrorism suspects have been held, is a “terrible situation,” he said.
The prison served a purpose in the period after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks because the country needed somewhere to keep people while their potential terrorist ties were investigated, he said.
“But we should have closed it years ago,” Powell said.
Federal courts are doing a good job of prosecuting suspected terrorists, he said.
One question submitted by an audience member asked if he would ever run for president.
Powell had been considered a likely candidate in 1996, but called the era a “miserable period” in his life.
After spending 35 years in the military, he felt a sense of obligation to run but didn’t have the passion to do it, he said.
His life since then has taught him that there are many ways to serve your country besides going into politics, he said.
But Powell, 76, also displayed a lighter side that was rarely shown during his time as a national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and secretary of state during various Republican administrations.
He opened by explaining that although he only lives about an hour away in the Washington, D.C. suburb of McLean, Va., he had only been to Frederick once or twice before, and blamed the region’s traffic for him not visiting more often.
“[Interstate] 270 is too hard, I’m sorry,” he said.
He talked about using the free time in his life after being replaced as secretary of state by buying a Corvette, and cruising around the highways of Northern Virginia, and described the surprised reaction of police officers who pulled him over for speeding when they saw who they’d stopped.
He even did a decent vocal impression of former President Ronald Reagan while telling a story about briefing Reagan on a minor matter in the Oval Office as national security adviser while Reagan watched to see if some squirrels would come to eat the nuts he’d placed outside in the Rose Garden.
Powell said he later came to see that the president’s seeming indifference was his way of empowering Powell to handle the issue rather than micromanaging every detail of his administration.
But Powell, who endorsed President Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 elections, returned several times to the idea of how America’s political situation is damaging the country internally and its reputation around the world.
America’s founders argued intensely, but ultimately compromised to help the country grow, he said.
“I may be a Republican, but first and foremost I’m an American,” he said.