BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When NBC's Tim Russert interviewed Colin Powell from Jordan on last Sunday's Meet the Press, the big news was that a flustered State Department flak abruptly pushed the camera, because Russert had exceeded his time, forcing other news outlets to re-schedule their satellite feeds. But the real news was what Powell said about the evidence he presented against Saddam Hussein at the United Nations in February, 2003.
COLIN POWELL: Turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases deliberately misleading.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We all know that by now. The important part was that he said it. It was yet another strike against the administration in a public relations war waged almost from the moment President Bush made Powell the first member of his cabinet. Time Magazine, September 10th, 2001. On the cover, a portrait of the secretary of state, half in shadow. The headline, a plaintive question: Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell? "By the cruel calculus of Washington, you are only as powerful as people think you are," Time observed. "Powell's megastar wattage looks curiously dimmed, as if someone had turned his light way down." Still, according to a 2001 Gallup Poll, roughly 85 percent of Americans regarded Powell favorably.
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.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Washington Post Diplomatic Correspondent Glenn Kessler says that it was because of that image that Powell found himself before the UN that February.
GLENN KESSLER: He was selected to give that speech because he was the most respected member of the administration around the world.
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. Some of the sources are...
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 no weapons of mass destruction were found? His numbers gradually slipped into the high 60s, where they remain as of last month's CBS/New York Times poll.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That means that one of the most thwarted secretaries of state in history is still far and away the most popular member of his administration. Why does the public cling to its faith in Powell while the rest of the cabinet's numbers continue 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:I began my research on the media management of the Secretary of State 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 pretty much came up with zip about his image. Then I typed in Powell and "good soldier." After that, the deluge. The phrase was everywhere.
MAN: Powell seems to be a tortured figure, you know, when it comes to this war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman speaking last month on All Things Considered.
MAN: On the one hand, he was clearly the good soldier who, you know, marched in the direction that his leader ordered. At the same time, like many people, he clearly had misgivings about how complicated this operation would be.
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 Wil Hylton 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 now the State Department is indignant. They say Hylton broke the rules, a charge that Hylton denies. 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 can later deny if he chooses. Recently, he 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 story of Powell gets out, while he remains the good soldier. But as the public loses confidence in the White House, Powell has changed his approach by openly defying its policies -- denouncing the UN speech he formerly defended, condemning the recent actions of Ariel Sharon, stating that the President was fully informed of the Red Cross's concerns about Abu Ghraib long before the photos surfaced. But for all his dissent, the good soldier still declines to resign his commission, as he told Ted Koppel on Nightline.
TED KOPPEL: If the President asked you, would you stay on for a second term?
COLIN POWELL: I serve at the pleasure of the President.
TED KOPPEL: Of course you do.
COLIN POWELL: Period.
TED KOPPEL: But serving at the pleasure of the President -I just - I've, I've heard you say that so many times that I just want to--
COLIN POWELL: Cause it's the only standard answer you can give--
TED KOPPEL: It's the only answer you can give without saying anything.
COLIN POWELL: --it's the only answer you can give that does not set people running off into a-- a line of speculation and, and gossip that serves no purpose.
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 perceives 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, of American foreign policy. Personally I think the, 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: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. Page wrote in a recent column that Powell knows how to play the media as well as John Coltrane played the tenor sax. Nevertheless--
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 seems to be telling the truth, even when he's saying nothing at all. [MUSIC]