BROOKE GLADSTONE: Powell's standing in the administration had slipped long before he resigned his commission this week. Consider his Time magazine cover on September 10th, 2001. He as depicted half in shadow. The headline was a plaintive question: "Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?" Still, as late as 2002, some 88 percent of Americans regarded the secretary of state with favor.
GLENN KESSLER: In fact, taking the secretary of state's job was a bit of a risk for him, cause he had an unbelievable image. Sky high approval ratings, more popular than the president of the United States. Colin Powell cares deeply about the image that he has. Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler said that it was because of that image that Powell found himself before the United Nations in February 2003 presenting damning, and in hindsight, deeply flawed, evidence that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.
GLENN KESSLER: He was selected to give that speech because he was the most respected member of the administration around the world. [TAPE PLAYS]
COLIN POWELL: The material I will present to you comes from a variety of sources. Some are U.S. sources, and some are those of other countries. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Immediately after Powell's masterful presentation at the UN, a Newsweek poll showed the highest support for war in more than a year -- a full 10 percent increase over two weeks earlier. And what happened after now WMD were found? His numbers gradually slipped into the high 60s, where they remained as of a CBS New York Times poll in April this year. But that still meant that one of the most thwarted secretaries of state in history was far and away the most popular member of his administration. Why did the public cling to its faith in Powell when the rest of the cabinet's numbers continued their downward slide?
CLARENCE PAGE: Colin Powell is one of those media unshakables who, even when something resembling a negative image comes his way, it bounces right off, better than Teflon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.
CLARENCE PAGE: Colin Powell rose up in the '90s to prominence at a time when we really needed some black heroes. The man seems almost too good to be true, but we want him to be true. And he is a guy who fits the role. He has an unblemished record, wonderful family life, worked his way up, immigrant family - I mean, you name it. He is an iconic figure, larger than life. I mean, people tell me whether they like Powell's politics or not, they just can't get enough of him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last spring, I began my research on the media management of Colin Powell by plugging search words into the databases of Lexis Nexis and Google News. I tried "Powell and polls," "Powell and public opinion," "Powell and the media," and came up pretty much with zip about his image. Then I typed in "Powell and good soldier." After that, the deluge. The phrase was everywhere. After his resignation this week, it was back. [TAPE PLAYS]
WOMAN: One of his legacies would definitely be being more of a moderate in the administration, really favoring hands on diplomacy, but at the same time really being a good soldier and carrying out the president's policies. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was CNN last week. Here's New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last April on All Things Considered. [TAPE PLAYS]
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: He was clearly the good soldier who marched in the direction that his leader ordered. Powell seems to be a tortured figure, you know, when it comes to this war. [TAPE ENDS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The public knew about the good soldier's private torment because of a steady stream of press leaks resulting in scores of newspaper accounts with unnamed sources attesting to Powell's lonely struggle for multilateralism. In May, a long piece in Vanity Fair chronicled the tug of war over his UN testimony. The June issue of GQ had a story about him called Casualty of War. GQ reporter Will Hilton said Powell's people encouraged him to write the piece and even supplied sources. One source, Powell's chief of staff Larry Wilkerson, is quoted as saying the secretary is "tired, mentally and physically" and most likely would not serve a second term. But the State Department was angered by Hilton's story, because they say he broke the ground rules set for the interview. Hilton denied the charge. Glenn Kessler.
GLENN KESSLER: They were upset because they said some of those interviews were not to be on the record. They were to be with no names attached. It raised a bit of a curtain on the process that the State Department has used to tell the story of Colin Powell in a way that is advantageous for him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kessler says the process involves seeding the press with comments from anonymous colleagues that the secretary could later deny if he chose. For instance, Powell shrugged off some assertions made in Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack for which Powell is widely assumed to have been a source. Thus, the saga of the stoic secretary leaked out while he remained the good soldier. Later, Powell changed his approach by openly defying administration policies. He condemned some actions of Ariel Sharon. He said the president had been fully informed of the Red Cross's concerns about Abu Ghraib long before those photos surfaced, and he denounced the UN speech he formerly defended. [TAPE PLAYS]
COLIN POWELL: It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong, and in some cases, deliberately misleading. [TAPE ENDS]
JAMES MANN: The public image of Powell is the straight up guy, but the reality is he's also a real Washington operator.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Mann, author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. He says the public also saw Powell as a dove, but that's not entirely true either.
JAMES MANN: You have to keep in mind that this is a guy who was Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, who in the 1980s supported Star Wars, supported aid to the Contras. He took the lead in supporting American military intervention in Panama in 1989. He's a, he's a pretty hawkish guy within the general overall spectrum of American foreign policy. Personally, I think the public identifies him as a dove, but then can't quite figure out why he stays on in the administration when it goes off in different directions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think the answer to the burning question -- why didn't he leave? -- is simply that he didn't really disagree as much as the public thinks he did.
JAMES MANN: That's exactly right.
CLARENCE PAGE: I think the public has short memories when it comes to the details.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page.
CLARENCE PAGE: His iconic image is strong enough that it will weather this storm, just as he's weathered the storms of the My Lai controversy, of the Iran Contra controversy, of the first Gulf War where critics said he pulled out too soon --we should have gone all the way to Baghdad.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Page says Powell was a passive figure in those controversies. True, Powell drafted an official denial of what came to be called the My Lai Massacre, but he said he didn't know the real story until much later. True, he knew about Iran Contra, but he was on duty in Germany when the scandal broke. True, he didn't pursue Saddam to Baghdad in the first Gulf War, but he said no one favored that course. True, he stayed loyal to the administration against his better judgment, but he suffered. Page once wrote that, quote, "Powell knows how to play the media as well as John Coltrane played the tenor sax." But, that said--
CLARENCE PAGE: I like the man. I believe him. I believe that he is a man of character and integrity. In short, he's got my vote if he runs for president. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He's not the only one. Colin Powell is the very model of the principled outsider, even if he is a skilled operator, and a dove, except when he's a hawk. A simple, complicated man who always seemed to be telling the truth, even when his words were ambiguous, even when his words came through proxies, even when he offered no words at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, unpacking the values vote, what to call the Christian right, and the weird calculus behind FCC fines.