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Video: Powell: ‘An electric moment for me’

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    MATT LAUER, co-host (Washington, DC): Today is an important one for retired General Colin Powell . The former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave Barack Obama his very coveted endorsement just before the election. General Powell , good morning. It's nice to see you.

    General Colin POWELL: Good morning, Matt. Good to see you.

    LAUER: How have you been?

    General POWELL: Good to see you. I'm fine.

    LAUER: You gave -- you talked a lot yesterday. You had a couple of important speeches before about 15,000 students. It was Martin Luther King Day , and you talked pointedly about being in a hotel room in Hong Kong when you found out that Barack Obama had won the election. Let me read you your words . You said, quote, "I'll never forget the words that came to me and the words I

    whispered to an empty room: my God , we did it. We did it." It's been two months since then.

    General POWELL: You're going -- you're going to get me all moved up again. I mean, it was an electric moment for me and, I think, for the country . Because there were so many people who said, you know, they'll go in the booth and they really won't pull the lever for a black man. There were people around the world that said America is too polarized, we are too split apart, we are too ideologically separated as a people and we can't come together to do this. And we did it. And people went out into the streets in Chicago , in Rio , in Sydney , in Obama , Japan . All around the world people came out to celebrate this American achievement.

    LAUER: So in a few hours, as Barack Obama takes the oath of office , becomes the first African-American president, the 44th president in this nation's history -- I've looked at the rundown, you've got a pretty good seat -- what's going to be going through your mind?

    General POWELL: A lot of things. And I really am not sure I can capture it all. But one, a very, very capable man is coming into the office of the presidency, a man of a new generation, a man who I think will be a transformational figure. And he's fully qualified, and he also happens to be African-American .

    LAUER: You put it in that order?

    General POWELL: I put in that order. I always put it in that order. Because we've reached a point in this country where we can measure people, as Dr. King always wanted us to, by their character and their qualifications and not their color. But you can't deny the fact that he is an African-American . And when you see how far we've come in the last several hundred years, but especially in just the last 45 or 50 years since Dr. King put us on this path.

    LAUER: You said if Dr. King could be at this inaugural today, he would watch it with great gusto, and then he would take the sleeve of President Obama and say, `Mr. President, I need to see you tomorrow about a few things.' What would those things be?

    General POWELL: Dr. King would -- he would say poverty, education. There are still people in need in this country . The country has serious problems -- crime, drugs. We still need to do more about pulling families back together. Dr. King was somebody who never rested. He struggled up to the last day of his life. And I 'm absolutely sure that he would be here today. He would -- he would rejoice in what had happened. But he would say to the president, `Now, Mr. President, we've got more work to do .' Which is the same thing President-elect Obama has been saying, we've got a lot to do.

    LAUER: You talk about poverty and housing and education, the economy in general , Iraq , Afghanistan , Iran , Pakistan , the Israelis in Gaza . You look at the pressing issues facing Barack Obama ; to use a golf term, there isn't a gimme there.

    General POWELL: There are no gimmes.

    LAUER: Are we putting too much faith in one man?

    General POWELL: We're putting a lot of faith in this one man, but the point has to be made is he's not coming in alone, and he's coming in with a strong Cabinet . But above all, I think he's starting off with the solid support of the American people , both sides of the aisle. I mean, his popularity ratings right now, his favorable ratings...

    LAUER: Seventy-one percent.

    General POWELL: ...71 percent. And what has happened, I think, is America has said, `OK, this is our decision. We voted, 69 million Americans for Mr. Obama and 59 for McCain , now let's come together.' And the leader in that was President Obama -- President- elect Obama himself saying let's come together. But John McCain played a very, very important role, in my judgment, when he gave the most gracious come together concession speech on the night of the election. And from that moment on, all Americans have been saying, `Let's come together.' And then last night, when President-elect Obama honored John McCain at the dinner...

    LAUER: And we find they've been in consultation over these last several months.

    General POWELL: ...once again -- they have been in consultation, they've been in touch with each other. And so I think we have -- we have a new spirit in the country . But he can't do it alone. All of us have to figure out how to help him in our homes, in our lives, in our businesses.

    LAUER: Let me take one of the issues I just mentioned. And it seems to be growing consensus on Iraq , so let me concentrate on Afghanistan . And the administration has promised 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan . Joe Klein in Time magazine wrote an interesting article at the end of last year,

    and he said this: "What are we doing in Afghanistan ? What's the mission? We know what the mission used to be , to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy his al-Qaeda command. But once bin Laden slipped away, the mission morphed into a vast, messy, nation-building effort to support the allegedly democratic Karzai government." Let me ask you. If you were consulting with -- and I assume you probably are at some degree -- to Barack Obama , what is the mission in Afghanistan ?

    General POWELL: I would say the principal mission is to make sure we don't let Afghanistan slip back into the kind of a country that would tolerate an Osama bin Laden coming in and taking over the country the way he did the last time. So we're looking for a government that is stable, a government that is taking care of the needs of its people, a government that is not corrupt. And that is a major problem for us. And we've got to help the Afghans do something about this drug problem . It's made more difficult by the nexus to Pakistan and the instability that exists in certain parts of Pakistan . So putting more troops in is a way to try to stabilize the situation, but it of itself is not the solution.

    LAUER: You were a part of the Bush administration for four years. During his last press conference last week, President Bush bristled when he was asked about the decline in the moral standing of America in the international community . He disagreed. He said he doesn't think there's been a decline. How would you rate the moral standing of this country internationally right now?

    General POWELL: I think that we have lost something with respect to our standing in the world. Iraq was a big drag on our standing. And the Middle East , our inability and the inability of anybody to do something about the Middle East is a drag on our standing. But as a result of Guantanamo , as a result of Abu Ghraib and some other things we did with respect to...

    LAUER: Interrogation techniques.

    General POWELL: ...interrogations and detentions, I think we lost some of our standing.

    LAUER: So you disagree with the president on that?

    General POWELL: I think we lost some of our standing, I would disagree with the president. And he and I, we've talked about this over the years and I have written this, and it's a disagreement. But I think it's recoverable. I think we'll deal with the Guantanamo situation. It's going to be difficult and tricky, but we have to deal with it . We've got to get rid of it.

    LAUER: Finally, in about 30 seconds left, you're going to hear the words like unity and strength and togetherness and bipartisanship today. And we've heard those words before...

    General POWELL: Yes.

    LAUER: ...in inaugural addresses. And usually they last for about a couple of days, and then we get back to the business of Washington . Is there a chance in your opinion, General Powell , that it will last longer this time?

    General POWELL: I think that there will be a bit of a honeymoon, but let's not overplay unity and bipartisanship. This country was founded on the idea that there should be a clash of ideas. Partisan should come into the public arena and fight for what they believe in. Where bipartisanship comes in is when they start to make compromise in the interest of the people, and from that compromise and those compromises you gain consensus. It was a bipartisanship in the summer of 1787 when they had to fight over do we create a country or do we solve the problem of slavery? And one of the great compromises of American history , we had to defend and protect and create a country , and we would have to deal with slavery later. It was bipartisan, but it wasn't necessarily what everybody would have liked to see.

    LAUER: General Colin Powell , we hope you enjoy today's event, and I really...

    General POWELL: I'm sure I will.

    LAUER: I really appreciate you spending some time with us this morning.

    General POWELL: Thank you, Matt. Thank you, Meredith .

    VIEIRA: Thank you.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 1/20/2009 9:30:08 AM ET 2009-01-20T14:30:08

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell thinks he knows exactly how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have reacted had he been alive to see an African-American sworn in as president.

“If he were here today, he would rejoice at what had happened. But he would say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we’ve got more work to do,’ ” Powell told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Tuesday, just hours before Barack Obama was to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.

Being satisfied with the way things are was never part of King’s personality, said Powell, the former four-star general who served from 2000 to ’05 as the nation’s first black secretary of state.

To-do list
Lauer asked Powell what problems King would have told Obama need to be addressed.

“He would say, ‘Poverty, education ... there are still people in need in this country,’ ” Powell replied. “ ‘The country has some serious problems, crime, drugs. We still need to do more about putting families back together.’ Dr. King was a man who never rested. He struggled up to the last day of his life.”

King was assassinated in 1968, five years after he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a vast throng on the mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. In that address, King spoke of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

A Republican, Powell, 71, broke with his party last year to endorse Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain for president. On Monday, in a Martin Luther King Day address to 15,000 high school students, Powell recalled his thoughts at the moment Obama was declared the victor on Nov. 4.

“I’ll never forget the words that came to me and the words I whispered to an empty room: ‘My God, we did it,’ ” he had said.

An electric moment
Powell elaborated on that moment with Lauer.

“It was an electric moment for me, and, I think, for the country, because there were so many people who said, ‘You know, they’ll go in the booth, and they really won’t pull the lever for a black man,’ ” Powell explained. “There were people around the world who said, America is too polarized. We are too split apart. We are too ideologically separated as people, and we can’t come together to do this. And we did it.”

The celebration of Obama’s historic election spread beyond the borders of the country that elected him. “People went out in the streets in Chicago and Rio and Sydney — in Obama, Japan,” Powell recalled. “All around the world, people came out to celebrate this American achievement.”

Lauer asked Powell what he would be thinking when Obama takes the oath of office.

“I’m not sure I can capture it all,” Powell replied. “But one: A very, very capable man is coming to the office of the presidency, a man of the new generation, a man I think will be a transformational figure. And he’s fully qualified, and he also happens to be African-American — I put it in that order.”

Image: Martin Luther King Jr.
AP file
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famed "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.
That is how King envisioned things in his dream, Powell continued. “We’ve come to a point in this country where we can measure people as Dr. King always wanted us to: by their character and their qualifications, and not by their color. But you can’t deny the fact that [Obama] is an African-American ... you see how far we’ve come in the last several hundred years, but especially just the last 45 or 50 years since Dr. King put us on this path.”

Not going it alone
Lauer asked Powell if the nation is putting too much faith in one man.

“We’re putting a lot of faith in one man, but he’s not coming in alone. He’s coming in with a strong cabinet. But above all, he’s coming in with the support of the American people,” Powell replied.

Powell remarked on how important McCain has been in promoting a spirit of bipartisanship as Obama takes office. The Arizona senator called for unity in his moving concession speech on the night of the election, and on Monday night Obama hosted a dinner in McCain’s honor.

The new president will need all the help he can get as he takes the helm of a ship of state that is battered on all sides. Powell said that America’s standing in the world has been hurt by the Iraq war, by continuing violent conflict in the Middle East, by the abuses of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

“I think it’s recoverable,” he said of America’s reputation. But to do that, Obama will need help: “He can’t do it alone. All of us have to help him in our homes, in our lives, in our businesses.”

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