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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.

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