Unveiling of the Colin Powell Portrait
Remarks at Unveiling of the Colin Powell Portrait
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell
Benjamin Franklin Room
December 7, 2009
SECRETARY CLINTON: Welcome to the Benjamin Franklin Room here at the State Department for such a happy occasion, totally in keeping with the spirit of the times where we are about to have the unveiling of the official portrait of Colin Powell as Secretary of State.
Four years ago, hundreds of employees from across the State Department gathered in the lobby downstairs to cheer for their boss as he said goodbye. Today, I am delighted to join staff, family, and friends in saying to my predecessor welcome back, it is good to see you here again. (Applause.)
Colin Powell served as Secretary of State during a time of swift and far-reaching change, both for our nation and the world. His tenure began just a few weeks into the new millennium. Nine months later, the September 11th attacks occurred. In the days and weeks that followed, Secretary Powell provided a calm, steady, and hopeful voice as Americans sought to understand the threats we faced and the uncertain future that lay ahead.
In fact, on the day of the attacks, Secretary Powell was in Lima, Peru, attending a special session of the Organization of American States to adopt the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a critical instrument for strengthening public institutions and helping democracy deliver real improvements to people’s lives. When he heard that the planes had hit the Towers, he told his staff that they’d be returning to the United States immediately – and then he returned to the session to cast our nation’s vote in favor of the charter.
He did this not only because it was the initial purpose for his visit, but because in the face of that attack on our nation’s mainland, it was more important than ever to stand up for democracy and freedom and show the world that our belief in our principles will not waver.
Colin Powell has been guided by these values throughout his life. He has been a voice for these values. Indeed, the experiences and perspectives that he brought with him to the State Department made him particularly well suited to serve as Secretary of State. He knew from growing up in an immigrant community the promise and possibilities that America represents to the world.
He knew from his years as a soldier the extraordinary power and reach of the American military and the impact that America can have on the world not only in shaping the course of history, but also in transforming the lives of ordinary people – a profound responsibility that he carried with him. He knew from his experience in war the wisdom of that fundamental principle of American foreign policy: that military action should be used as a last resort, after diplomacy has been pursued with the highest possible rigor and skill. And he knew that in few other countries could a child of immigrants rise to be a general and chief diplomat, and that an essential element of America’s promise is our success in helping all people get the chance to achieve their dreams.
At the State Department, he worked to expand opportunity to marginalized people worldwide. And outside government, the mentoring program he created for young people, America’s Promise, continues to do the same and will surely be one of his lasting legacies.
There are few Americans who are as admired and celebrated as General Powell. He’s received just about every civilian national award there is, including the Congressional Gold Medal and two Presidential Medals of Freedom. He is one of only three people in history to achieve that honor. But people around the country and the world have also voiced their gratitude for him in other, quieter ways.
There’s an elementary school named after him in Virginia, there’s a couple more named after him in Texas. A middle school in Illinois. A street in Gelnhausen, Germany, where Second Lieutenant Colin Powell reported for duty 50 years ago. (Laughter.) And an artist has just completed a mural titled “Homage to Colin Powell,” which depicts the night sky over Jamaica on the evening he was born hundreds of miles north, in New York. (Applause) It will be hung at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston to remind all visitors of the contributions that one of Jamaica’s most famous sons has made to global progress, prosperity, and peace.
It’s also a great pleasure to welcome back Mrs. Powell and the family to be part of this unveiling. I assume you’ve seen it, Colin, or we would not be here. You haven’t seen it. (Laughter.) Well, did I mention how gutsy Colin Powell is? (Laughter.) Able to accept the unknown and go forward. (Laughter.)
So today, we unveil another work of art dedicated to this public servant and this great American. And I join all members of the Foreign and Civil Service and the employees of the State Department in thanking you for the time that you spent here. It is a great privilege to serve in this position and to look at the portraits of my predecessors as I walk around the seventh floor and now, I will be able to look at your portrait as well and it will give me great pleasure.
Thank you so much for everything, Colin. (Applause.)
SECRETARY POWELL: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you so very much, ladies and gentlemen. And Secretary Clinton, Hillary, I thank you for your kind remarks and for hosting this ceremony. I especially want to thank your wonderful protocol staff. Kim Townsend, working closely with Leslie Lautenslager and Peggy Cifrino of my staff, pulled this all together, and I am deeply appreciative of all of this.
This is the second official portrait that I have. I have an official portrait at the Pentagon in the Hall of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That portrait was done during the Clinton Administration, and that was during the period where Al Gore was doing the Reinventing Government program. And so it is an 8-by-10 glossy that has been blown up. (Laughter.) So help me, it’s an 8-by-10 glossy that I do like, and it was blown up to full size, put in a frame, and hung on a wall. (Laughter.) You’re even today, Hillary. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, that’s how we balanced the budget. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY POWELL: The members of the Diplomatic Corps, members of Congress, former and current cabinet officers, family members, friends, and dear colleagues: I am honored and thankful for your presence today. So many people have come – friends and family from the Bronx, friends from my life as a soldier, my life here in the Department, my life and so many other aspects of life.
I can’t acknowledge everyone here or we’d be here all afternoon, but there are a few people I have to say a word about. First, I want to thank the artist, Steven Polson, for doing a marvelous job, and thank Ann Fader for her work in this. As I hope you will see, Steven is a wonderful artist, and I thank him for the magic that he has applied to this portrait, I hope. (Laughter.)
I also want to express my appreciation for people who have come from afar from other lands, and beginning with the Honorable Peter MacKay, minister of defense of Canada, a young man that I have gotten to know in recent years. And Peter, I thank you for making the effort to be with us today. There are other men here who I served with when I was foreign secretary, or Secretary of State, as we call it. And two of them are here, by the name Joschka Fischer, who was the vice chancellor and minister of foreign affairs of the Federation of Germany, of the German Republic, and Igor Ivanov, who was my counterpart in the Russian Federation. Joschka and I really intersected some 25 years ago when I commanded a corps in Germany, and it was the responsibility of my corps stationed in Frankfurt to guard the Fulda Gap. At that time, Joschka was the very radical head of the Greens Party in Frankfurt and in the state of Hesse.
Now, I didn’t really know him them, but we intersected from time to time. There was the day my commanders came in and said, “The Greens have just gone on to our tank-driving range and they have planted trees all over the place so we can’t drive our tanks anymore.” (Laughter.) I said, “What are you going to do?” “We’re going to run over the trees.” “No, no, no, you’re not. You do not run over the trees in Germany. This is not a time for overwhelming force.” (Laughter.) “This is a time for smart power, decisive power.” So we dug up all the trees, brought them to our housing area, replanted them, and then invited the Greens to come to our ceremony of dedication. (Laughter.) I don’t recall if Joschka was there that day or not – (laughter) – but we appreciated the effort on the part of the Greens to beautify the area. (Laughter.)
Joschka and I have been through many challenges as fellow foreign ministers. We worked on the expansion of NATO, supported him in the expansion of the European Union. We have worked on so many different issues that it’s hard to list them all without it taking an hour. But he was always a dear friend, a dear associate. This doesn’t mean we had no disagreements. We had severe disagreements, and many of you will remember the disagreement that we had with Germany over the Iraq situation in 2003, to the point where our leaders were somewhat estranged from each other.
But Joschka and I and our fellow diplomats on both sides were never estranged from each other, because we understood that even among allies, disagreements arise. And what’s important is to come back together, the ties that bind us together. And what I remember most vividly from those trying days is that Joschka would say to me, “Colin, we have to keep working together. We in Germany will never forget what the United States has done for us over these years, and so we have to make sure that these ties are never broken.” And Joschka especially wanted to do this in the period after the Cold War, when we were bringing hundreds of thousands of our soldiers home from Europe. And he was concerned that a smaller number of soldiers in Europe might break the link that we’ve always had with the German people concerning our commitment to the Atlantic alliance and our commitment to Germany.
And so of all the ministers that I’ve worked with, of all the people that I have had to deal with in the years, Joschka Fischer is one of the most prominent pro-American, pro-Atlanticist individuals I’ve ever worked with. And Joschka, I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. (Applause.)
Igor Ivanov, former foreign minister of the Russian Federation, he and I became exceptionally close friends over the years. We worked on a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and we got that treaty, the Treaty of Moscow, which took us down significantly with respect to nuclear weapons. We worked very closely together during the trying times when we watched Georgia and Ukraine emerge from their post-Communist period. Many a long night Igor and I spent on the telephone as we chatted through the Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution to make sure that these transitions took place without violence. We worked on so many issues that were difficult. But similarly, just as with Joschka, I could always count on his friendship. I could always count on his support. I could always count on his understanding, because we knew that we had to make sure that the ties that bind remained strong.
That’s what diplomacy is all about. That’s why we have a State Department – to make sure that the people of the United States and the President of the United States are representing the values of the United States to other nations. And we take into account their values and their sovereign interests. It’s a partnership with every nation in the world in one way or another. We must always advocate our belief in democracy, our belief in human rights, our belief in the will of the people. We should always be committed to extending the hand of American generosity to people in need around the world.
We should always be working to solve problems short of conflict and prepare to explain our reasoning when conflict becomes necessary – always respecting the right of other nations to disagree with us, and often, dealing with regimes that do not share our values.
In all of this, the President of the United States and the Secretary of State are blessed to have men and women throughout the Department of State who do a magnificent job every single day. While we are here in this beautiful Ben Franklin Room, there are thousands of diplomats, Foreign Service officers, Foreign Service nationals, Civil Servants around the world who are serving us so well. I’m often annoyed when I use to hear, “Well, they’re striped-pants diplomats.” They’re not wearing striped pants if they’re on a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan or Iraq. They’re not wearing striped pants if they’re in an embassy that’s under siege or under threat. They’re not wearing striped pants when they’re in the middle of a coup. They’re not wearing striped pants if they’re dealing with the challenges of the world, if they are out there providing antiretroviral drugs to people in need or solving the problem of hunger and clean water. They’re wonderful Americans who have dedicated themselves and their careers to the service of the American people.
I consider it one of the greatest honors and privileges I have ever had in my life to have been given the opportunity to be the Secretary of State and to lead the wonderful men and women of the State Department as they go about their work. And I thank each and every one of them from the bottom of my heart, and I thank President Bush for having given me that opportunity.
The portrait you’re about to see, I haven’t seen. (Laughter.) I’ve seen pictures of it. Steven took photos of it as we went along and he sent them down. But I don’t know what the last version looked like. But last night, as I was thinking about today, I took a look at the last photo that Steven sent. And I think it’s a pretty nice photo. But what grabbed my attention was the background. There’s nothing in the background. There are no bookcases, no flags, no window that I’m gazing out at. (Laughter.) It is a very dark background, as you will see, with highlights. You can’t tell if you’re in a building or outside of a building. You can’t tell if that’s sunlight you see coming in or just a spotlight. You can’t exactly tell what the color scheme means because, as you go lower in the portrait – you’ll see in a moment – the color of my suit blends in to the color in the background, and the only think really visible is my right hand.
Now, Steven and I haven’t sat down to psychoanalyze all this – (laughter) – but as I looked at it last night, thinking about why did Steven actually do it this way and why is there nothing in the background, it occurred to me that there was a lot in the background. I’m not alone in this portrait. There are images that kept coming across my mind as I looked at it, images of people that I have served with and worked with over the years.
One particular individual who couldn’t be with us today, my beloved deputy and friend Rich Armitage, who is in Asia, and as you all know, pulling the few hairs he has remaining out because he couldn’t be with us today. (Laughter.) There are other images of all the people who I have worked with in this Department, all the soldiers that I have served with. There are many images that I can see in my mind’s eye, the image of my wife Alma and our children and the 47 years that we have traveled this path together. Many images.
But always there is an image way in the back of two little people who came to this country almost 90 years ago with a belief in this country. They wanted to be a part of this society. They never forgot the land they left. Until the day they died, they called it home, but now they had a new home in America. And all they wanted to do was to create a new family and a new home and children, and they had two children. One went on to be a great teacher, the other one a soldier. And they passed onto their children and all the members of the extended family, so many of whom are here today, a belief in our nation and giving us all a desire to serve this nation, which we’ve tried to do.
This is the strength of our country. The fact that we can take in people from all over the world, that we are a nation of nations. We touch every nation and every nation on earth touches us. We have great soldiers to go forward and fight for us. We have intelligence people. We have all kinds of strength and assets. But the greatest strength we have, the greatest asset we have to deal with the problems of our world and the challenges that we face is the nature of our society, our openness, this wonderful diverse society that we have, a diversity that is the source of our strength. It is the glue that holds us together. It’s the lubricant that keeps us moving forward. And we must never forget that.
I remind myself of this every day as I think about my parents and I think about the great diversity that is America. What a wonderful country God has given to us and what we have done with it is remarkable, and the best is yet ahead as long as we remain open, as long as we touch the rest of the world, and as long as we believe in our values system and reach out to the rest of the world.
Anytime I have the slightest doubt about any of this, I use two little memory tricks, two little stories to remind me of what this country is all about. The first one has to do with a Japanese business man, very successful, a billionaire, he has conglomerates all over the world. And he was being interviewed on Japanese television one afternoon, and the interviewer said to him, “Of all the cities in the world that you visit, which is your favorite?” And he immediately said, “New York.” And the guy was surprised. Why not Rome, London, Paris? Why New York? He says, "Because New York is the only city in the world where, when I walk down the street, people come up to me and ask for directions.” (Laughter.) New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles – that is who we are. That is what we are. That is our destiny, and let’s never forget it.
The final story is also a New York story. I’m a New York guy. (Laughter.) Whenever I go back to New York, I love walking up one of the great avenues, usually Park, and admiring the buildings and see all of humanity going by. And I always stop at one of the numbered cross streets to buy a hot dog from the hot dog peddler, one of those New York dirty water dogs that so many of you are familiar with. (Laughter.) But it has to have the mustard, the Sabrett mustard and the red onion relish; that’s what makes a New York hot dog. And I do it all the time.
And not too long ago I was walking up Park Avenue and I was going to follow my traditional pattern of going over to the hot dog peddler. And I did. And I walked up to him and I ordered my hotdog – mustard, red onion, and relish. And as he was handing it to me, he said, “I know you. I see you on television a lot. You’re General Powell, yes? Oh.” And he handed me the hotdog and I handed him the money. And he said, “No, General. You don’t have to pay me. You can’t pay me. I’ve already been paid. America has paid me. I’m here. I’ll never forget where I came from, but now I’m an American. My children are American. So, General, I have been paid. Thank you. Please take the hotdog.”
And I walked up the street with a warm glow, remembering this is the same country that greeted my parents and all of your parents or grandparents over the years. And as long as we never forget that is our greatest strength, that is what makes us who we are, we will deal with the challenges that we face and we will create wonderful new opportunities for a better, brighter world. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Now the unveiling. Here it comes. They’re going to do it. You stand here.
(The portrait was unveiled.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I invite all of you to greet the Powells. I’m sorry we couldn’t recognize and acknowledge all of the people who are here, members of Congress, former members of Congress and the Senate, sitting senators, former members of Cabinets, so many wonderful people. I apologize, I have to go over to the White House for our meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan and the Turkish delegation, so I won’t get a chance to meet each of you individually and thank you for being here, but I know that the Powells would love to. So thank you again for joining us on this very happy occasion. (Applause.)