A devastating blow to John McCain

Endorsing Barack Obama, Colin Powell directly rebukes the GOP's fear-and-smear campaign.

By Joan Walsh
Published October 19, 2008 4:18PM (EDT)

Colin Powell destroyed the last hope John McCain had to defeat Barack Obama and become president. I have never heard such a devastating and thoroughgoing critique of McCain's issue-free, fear-mongering campaign. While Powell's endorsing Obama on "Meet the Press" Sunday was expected, the way he did it was stunning.

Powell called the current economic crisis "a final exam" for both candidates, and basically said McCain failed. "He was a little unsure how to deal with the economic problems. Every day there was a different approach," Powell told NBC's Tom Brokaw. Remarkably, he said he was "concerned at the selection of Gov. Palin," who he called "distinguished" but added, "I don't believe she's ready to be president, which is the job of the vice president." He saved his harshest words for his own Republican Party, which he said had "moved more to the right than I would like to see it." He blasted McCain and the party's focus on issues like Obama's connection to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, specifically denouncing the shameful "robo-calls" tying Obama to Ayers and terrorism.

To focus on Powell's damning comments about McCain, Palin and the GOP should not obscure that his endorsement of Obama was enthusiastic and strong. He called Obama "a transformational figure," praised him for his "inclusive" campaign, his "intellectual curiosity" and his leadership. He acknowledged his 25-year friendship with McCain and sounded genuinely sad when he said, "It isn't easy for me to disappoint Sen. McCain as I have this morning, and I regret that."

It's hard for me not to see Powell's endorsement of Obama as a way to clear his conscience for the role he played in selling the Iraq war, which Obama opposed from the beginning. Powell brushed aside Brokaw's questions about his role in making the case for war, insisting it's "not a correct assessment by anybody that my leaving the administration would have stopped it."

Leaving all the politics aside, like Glenn Greenwald, I was most moved by Powell's attack on the way the GOP is using rumors that Obama is a Muslim.

"I'm also troubled by, not what Sen. McCain says, but what members of the party say, and it is permitted to be said such things as: "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is: he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is: No, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she can be president?"

Powell's defense of American Muslims shouldn't be so remarkable, but it is. More than anything else, the Obama campaign's recent strength could show new limits to the politics of scapegoating and bullying that have defined the Bush years.

It's hard to know how many minds Powell will change. But combined with the astonishing $150 million Obama raised in September, it's going to be increasingly hard for McCain to gain ground in these closing days. Obama is right to warn supporters against complacence, but this race is closing fast.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2008 Elections