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Colin Powell drops a grenade

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 19 Oct 08, 11:56 PM GMT

Fayetteville, North Carolina: Colin Powell's intervention did not surprise me. I knew that he thought America was on the wrong track. Last summer I was speaking to one of his closest freinds. He phoned Colin Powell while I was with him and the former secretary of state was fixing his roof at the time.

The message of the friend - a man who had also been in government - was that America was alienating the world by showing a harsh face. He went on: America was at its strongest when it was at its most generous. The country, he said, had to live up to its ideals.

Colin Powell has now echoed that. Barack Obama would be a transformational president and his election would electrify the world, he said.

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His endorsement may not influence many Republicans. He was often regarded as a "soft" member of the party. His words may, however, carry weight with swing voters and independents. In essence what he was saying was "You can trust Barack Obama as your commander-in-chief".

Listening to him as he left NBC I sensed a real distaste for the tone of the McCain campaign. He took on the talk radio circuit and the blogosphere directly. It troubled him that people were suggesting Barack Obama was a Muslim. He's not, he's a Christian, said the former secretary of state, but he also challenged the idea that it would be wrong if he were of another faith.

He also attacked what some Republicans have been asking "Who is a real American, who is not?". "We've got to stop this kind of nonsense," Colin Powell said.

Watching him today it was impossible not to wonder whether there was a slight element of "revenge" in his comments. He has never, as far as I know, laid the blame for the debacle at the United Nations when he held up a tube and said this was the evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons programme. It later was shown to be false.

When he left office he said he got on the Interstate heading south of Washington and never looked in his rear-view mirror. He seemed a rare man who could shed power and prominence easily. But, at the same time, he would have known that his long years of public service were stained by those moments at the United Nation. He would not have wanted to "get back" at John McCain personally but perhaps there was a lingering resentment with the Republicans.

Only Colin Powell knows that.

But this was a pitch today for a generational change, for a country that was more inclusive and more diverse.

I was in Fayetteville today in North Carolina where Barack Obama was speaking. As he spoke of some news "this morning" the crowd erupted. I even heard screams. For many in the audience this was a big moment. But the Obama team must also be aware of the huge expectations they are building up.

The enigma of Barack Obama

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 19 Oct 08, 04:54 AM GMT

Kansas City, Missouri: Most politicians I have covered betray something; a weakness; a hunger; a passion. We as journalists try to smoke out their demons or insecurities. Barack Obama reveals little.

I watched Barack Obama closely the morning after the final debate. He was in Londonderry, New Hampshire. We were bone-weary after four hours sleep. I was looking for signs of strain after the pressure of 90 minutes in the ring with John McCain. I half expected a slight deflation in the candidate after the high-octane of debating
before 63 million people.

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The rain was falling by the time he arrived. He was wearing a casual rain jacket and what I noticed was his walk. There was something jaunty about him. He wasn't cocky but he almost strolled to the stage. Not only had he debated the night before but he had attended a fund-raiser in New York before appearing in New Hampshire.

And that is part of his enigma. At these events he is accessible but unreadable. He shows no strain. He is the effortless politician. After 21 months of speeches and shaking the hands of strangers he seems unhurried and at ease. His pursuit of power does not mark him as it does other politicians.

I remember with President Clinton his need to win you over. At a press conference you had to wait until he looked at you and then you asked your question. You held his gaze and he locked on to you enabling you to ask maybe two or three further questions. You could feel his desire to be liked and admired.

I covered the Kerry campaign. With John Kerry you could sense the sheer effort to be a popular politician. I remember after a brief interview with him, the speed the smile dropped.The famous jaw set rigid as he walked away. Towards the end of the campaign I detected a weariness as he sought to sell himself as an ordinary American.

Gordon Brown, too, finds campaigning difficult. It is not him. The small talk, the easy aside. I have watched him sitting with a group of ordinary people, his arms resting on the table, his hands clasped in front of him. You can almost sense his desire for the event to be over and for him to get back to his papers and his advisers.
His long pursuit of power is never disguised.

Barack Obama is a natural. I remember a few years ago meeting him in Chicago with a few other journalists. In the ballroom, where we talked, he was already turning heads. Way before he ran for the presidency the hands were outstretched, waiting for him.
Back then he was curiously detached from all the attention. He listened to us, he looked down while we spoke. He was intellectually curious. He did not dominate the conversation.

As a candidate he is immensely disciplined. During the second town hall debate the candidates rested on stools between questions. The Obama team had worked out that their candidate looked at his best with one foot resting on the floor, the other on the rung of the stool. The pose breathed assurance, relaxation, a man totally at ease. Having chosen this position he never strayed from it. Just one small example of his attention to detail and his ability to deliver.

During the primaries Hillary Clinton and her team said he was "untested" but it often seemed to me that what they were hinting at was that there was something "unexplained" about him, precisely because he gives so little away. He is on stage every day. He speaks, gives interviews but as to what really drives this extraordinary politician we as watchers, voters cannot be sure.

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