Interviews September 2004

A Conversation With Colin Powell

Colin Powell and P. J. O'Rourke discuss foreign policy, Volvos, Elvis, and more. The full transcript of an interview from the September 2004 Atlantic
More

Ideas are important, and, of course, actions are. But interviews are rude. Any child will let you know this when pumped about what he did in school that day. And imagine interviewing your spouse at breakfast: "What's your opinion of passing the toast? How do you feel about the eggs you made? Will we stay married?" On the other hand, conversation is good, even if—or especially when—it's polite conversation.

I talked to the Secretary of State in his office on June 21, 2004. In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs he'd written, "The sources of national strength and security for one nation need no longer threaten the security of others. Politics need not always be a zero-sum competition." "Zero-sum," a term from game theory, means any gain to you is a loss to me.

P. J. O'Rourke


P. J. O'ROURKE: Zero-sum thinking is an obsession of mine, but mostly in economics. I'd never heard the concept applied to foreign affairs. I got excited about that. I've got little kids. They regard everything as zero-sum.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, most of my career was in a zero-sum world—us versus the Russians. Zero-sum kind of takes you to places like Vietnam. The domino theory is a form of zero-sum thinking. My whole life, especially as a senior officer, we were always focusing on having to have the better tank, and they would immediately start working on a better tank than our better tank, and of course then we'd have to have a better tank than their better tank, and everything was zero-sum.

Let me give you a perfect example. It's a nuclear example. When you looked at how you had to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, there was a certain way you went about it. We're a fairly contained country, between two oceans and three time zones. They're across about three continents and eleven time zones. And the industrial base is different. They knew what they had to do to our industrial base, and we knew what we had to do with their much smaller industrial base. So it was two absolutely asymmetric target problems. But we had almost exactly the same number of missiles. We all worked like the devil, not so much to deal with what we needed to do for targeting, but to make sure they didn't have more than we did ... It was that kind of zero-sum mentality.

My favorite story is, after we got rid of the Pershing IIs and they got rid of their SS-20s, my counterpart Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet military general staff, visited Washington in 1991. We had brought one of each of the missiles to the Smithsonian. And he and I are down there with adoring fans watching this unfolding of their SS-20 model and our Pershing. Well, the SS-20 is a big thing. And the Pershing is small. It's much more efficient, a better missile. And so everybody is looking at this. And my wife, Alma, is with me. She pays no attention to any of this military stuff. She's only been a military wife for the past forty years. And she looks at it and says, "How come theirs is bigger?"

You always want your adversary to walk away thinking he prevails—not to the point where he can boast about it or make you look bad, but if you prevail and he prevails it's a win. And that usually takes non-zero-sum thinking, especially in a no longer zero-sum world. There's no longer just the United States versus the Soviet Union, but the whole West and international community against [here the Secretary gave a diplomatic, and apt, name to what opposes the West] the whole whatever-you-want-to-call-it. And so in my job especially—and I'm considered the multilateralist—multilateralism means finding areas of compromise.

Our nation also rests on a non-zero-sum concept. It was intended that Congress work by finding compromise, and from compromise you achieve consensus. Without compromise, you never get to consensus. It's through consensus that laws are written. The ugliest form of compromise is you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

As we have discovered, you really need to have friends and partners as you try to deal with the world's problems, and friends and partners come with their own needs and their own desires, and you've got to scratch their needs and desires.

P. J. O'ROURKE: What you've told me comes out of your personal experience. Is there any philosophical background to your ideas about zero-sum thinking? I was wondering, especially since I write for The Atlantic, if there's any sort of bookish input.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, I don't think so. I'm different from most people in senior foreign policy circles, both in the United States and among my colleagues overseas, in that I'm not an academic and was not raised to be a foreign policy intellectual. I'm fairly well read, but at the same time I'm not an academic. I'm a practitioner, somebody who was raised to see a problem, analyze it, have views about it, and have passion for a solution. I tend to go with my experience. My experience is in the soldierly things. Also, you know, my educational background is a B.S. in Geology and a Masters in Business Administration—data processing. It's not as if I was at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard. Most of my foreign policy senior level education came from the National War College. Till then, I was just another infantry officer.

P. J. O'ROURKE: In terms of non-zero-sum thinking, is our country in the unique historical position of wanting other nations to be as powerful as we are?

Powell looked at me over the top of his glasses.

SECRETARY POWELL: Wanting other nations to be as powerful? No, I wouldn't say that. I think our historical position is we are a superpower that cannot be touched in this generation by anyone in terms of military power, economic power, the strength of our political system and our values system. What we would like to see is a greater understanding of power, of the democratic system, the open market economic system, the rights of men and women to achieve their destiny as God has directed them to do if they are willing to work for it. And we really do not wish to go to war with people. But, by God, we will have the strongest military around. And that's not a bad thing to have. It encourages and champions our friends that are weak and it chills the ambitions of the evil.

A deputy secretary interrupted. "That's good," she said. "Did you just make that up?"

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah. Not bad, eh?

I tried to scribble down the exact words. The deputy press secretary offered me a tape.

P. J. O'ROURKE: A humorist doesn't really do that much note-taking.

SECRETARY POWELL: He can make it up, too. The question you asked was: Do we want people to be as strong as we are? I would like to see the whole world have an economy as strong as ours. That would benefit us. But it isn't going to happen anytime soon.

The Secretary recounted a "slip of the tongue" that reportedly had been made by one of the delegates to the European Council and the Intergovernmental Conference on a new EU constitution, which had been held the previous week.

SECRETARY POWELL: They were all in a room arguing, you know, saying things like, "Our system is a multipolar world, and how do we deal with the United States?" And one of them said, "The United States has had over three percent economic growth for nine of the past ten years. We have had over three percent economic growth for one of the past ten years. So we had better start looking at what the United States does right as well as criticizing and screaming at them all the time."

I had prepared a follow-up question on unilateralism, but only for a multilateralist answer.

P. J. O'ROURKE: You've kind of thrown me for a loop ...

SECRETARY POWELL: I would like to see the whole world have a strong political system resting on democracy and the rule of law, as we do. But I think the world is well served right now with the United States still having the edge on economic power and a heck of a margin with respect to military power. The reason for that is that no other nation, with a few exceptions, is yet as well grounded politically in the democratic system as we are, or to be trusted with the kind of military power that we have.

I asked the Secretary why the defense spending of our closest allies was, proportionately, so much less than our own.

P. J. O'ROURKE: The powers that are on our side, why aren't they pulling on their oars? I mean, the EU has as big an economy and as big a population as we do.

SECRETARY POWELL: First of all, I do think they're on our side. I think we had a big hiccup on Iraq, and we lost some of them. But that'll swing back. The pendulum will come back our way because we do have more common interests than disagreements: terrorism, the world trading system, so many other things. Now, the reason we have to spend so much more is that there is no German navy preserving peace in the Pacific, there are no British troops standing guard in Korea, there is no need for any of our European Union friends to have the ability to project an army in a week or two from wherever they are to a place like Afghanistan.

P. J. O'ROURKE: But, why not?

SECRETARY POWELL: Because they have never felt that that was their destiny or their obligation. The United States entered into partnerships and believes it has these worldwide obligations. Nobody can move things like we can. They have never invested in it. Now, with the EU up to twenty-five nations, they're looking at whether or not this is where they should be putting their investment. And I think they should. But their domestic constituencies will not permit the kind of spending on defense that our domestic constituency permits. The Germans are dropping their defense spending and reducing the size of their armed forces. Whereas we've held steady for some years, and now Congress is passing laws to increase the size of our army.

The American people have always been more willing to shoulder this burden than our European friends, particularly now when the Cold War is over. There is no Iron Curtain, there is no Soviet Union, and the average European citizen looking around sees some of these out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan and the Balkans and Iraq. They're willing to do a little there, but they're not willing to put up to three or four percent of their GDP into defense spending the way we are.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I was shocked when I was in the Balkans in the early '90s that this was going on so close to the EU, essentially the same distance as from here to Jersey City, and they were letting it. They had the power to stop it.

SECRETARY POWELL: They had the power, but they are a union that does not have a predominant leader. NATO had a predominant leader in the United States. The European Union has a lot of pretenders and contenders for that position, but they don't have it yet, as evidenced by the debates they had over the constitution last week.

But our great strength is the image we still convey to the rest of the world. Notwithstanding all you read about anti-Americanism, people are still standing in line to come here, to get visas and come across our borders.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Voting with their feet?

SECRETARY POWELL: Voting with their feet. So there's something right there.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Back in Lebanon in 1984, I was held at gunpoint by this Hezbollah kid, just a maniac, you know, at one of those checkpoints, screaming at me about America, great Satan, et cetera.

SECRETARY POWELL: Then he wanted a green card?

P. J. O'ROURKE: At the end of this rant, that's exactly what he said: "As soon as I get my green card, I am going to Dearborn, Michigan to study dental school." And he saw no disconnect.

SECRETARY POWELL: He's there now. He's not going back to Beirut.

P. J. O'ROURKE: He hated America so much and wanted nothing more than to be an American.

SECRETARY POWELL: They respect us and they resent us. But they want what we have.

A story I tell a lot—I think it's in my book—that same Russian counterpart was here—Moiseyev. I took him to the missile fields and he was not the least bit interested. "We have those." "Well, look at my new tank." "We have those." "You want to see how we build a submarine?" "We have one of those." We ended up having a potato peeling contest on the submarine because he didn't want to see the nuclear reactor. There's pictures in the book. He beat me.

When it was all over and we were driving to Andrews Air Force Base after a long dinner at the Russian Embassy, we were all having some fun. He and I were in the front car and his wife and my wife were in the second car. And his wife was a good Russian wife—quietly watched the whole week go by. She had to go to all these military bases but she also went to a Cadillac plant, and to the 21 Club in New York. We did lots and got to know each other pretty well. And she turns to Alma in the dark of the car as they're heading to Andrews and she says, "Well, I saw a lot this weekend." She says, "And I'm not jealous. I'm not envious of what I have seen. I'm just mad. I'm mad that we could have done this but we didn't. We wasted seventy years and I will not see it in my lifetime."

She was resentful, but the resentment was ... how can these Americans do this? Why can't we do this? And so there's respect that we can do it, and people want to learn it from us, but there's also resentment that we can do it.

What I find is that people are mad about our policies. They're not necessarily mad at us. And therefore, as policies are successful, attitudes can be changed.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Does any of this remind you of having a dad?

SECRETARY POWELL: Having a dad?

P. J. O'ROURKE: I mean all that stuff you said about resentment and being respected.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, and being a teenager. And then at twenty-three, you suddenly discover the old geezer was pretty smart.

P. J. O'ROURKE: That attitude, that adolescent attitude toward parents, is something that I feel I have encountered over and over in the attitude toward America. Which brings me to a question about the Arab world. Why has the Arab world, with this amazing, ancient, sophisticated civilization, suffered such huge political and economic failures?

SECRETARY POWELL: They even know it now. No doubt have seen the UN reports. [The UN Arab Human Development Report 2002]. Written by Arabs. Wouldn't have worked if we had written it.

P. J. O'ROURKE: It was remarkably frank.

SECRETARY POWELL: It went right to the heart of it. They just haven't advanced. They've allowed themselves to be stuck. They haven't been educating their people. They have regimes that have essentially been status quo regimes. They think, "Hey, we're doing okay, let's be friends with the Americans and the Europeans, but let's not emulate them." And so there's been too much political stagnation throughout the Arab world, and they don't have the kind of intellectual curiosity or entrepreneurial drive or spirit that we have, and they don't have the political system with which to do all that.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Well, they sure have the entrepreneurial drive once they get outside their countries.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, it's there. Why can't they do it inside their countries? Because the political systems constrain them. You know, sometimes you can't own property. And half the population is frozen within some of the societies. Can you imagine us if fifty percent of our population was not in the workforce? Not in the schools? It's not sustainable.

P. J. O'ROURKE: It does have something to do with the role of women in those societies.

SECRETARY POWELL: I think it does. And the interesting part of it is that, sometimes, to keep the women occupied they do let them go to schools. They let them go to universities in the United States. And then they bring them back home and say "Go back in your house and sit there." That doesn't work. Once you educate them, you open Pandora's Box, and they will demand more and more. You cannot afford to invest in this class of people and not use the investment. And you can't afford not to invest in them. You can't have fifty percent of your population just sitting around providing the services for the other fifty percent.

P. J. O'ROURKE: There's a certain kind of behavior in the Arab world that, to me, resembles the way young men behave when there is no significant influence from women in their lives. I won't say, Lord of the Flies or teenage gangs or even poker night at the deer hunting camp. But there is this absence of female influence in some of the behavior that I've seen in the Middle East.

SECRETARY POWELL: I see it in our urban areas. I don't want to lay it all off on women. Men have a role to play, too. The intention was for two people to have children and raise them.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Yes. But the Middle East does seem to be a world without the constraints that ... if I started acting like the Iraqis are acting, my wife would be after me: "You get right in here, stop looting and blowing up the car. If you blow up the car, how can I get the kids to school?"

SECRETARY POWELL: You've heard the wonderful story about the elephants? This was at a game reserve in Botswana or somewhere. They had found a dead rhinoceros, and they couldn't figure out who had killed it. The rhinoceros doesn't have any natural enemies. They looked and looked and found that there were these elephants, male elephants, that were killing rhinoceros. They were young elephants that had been brought from another reserve far away, but they had been brought just as two adolescent male elephants, and—

P. J. O'ROURKE: An elephant gang.

SECRETARY POWELL: An elephant gang. And so the game keepers didn't know what to do. They didn't want to kill them. And it occurred to some guy, very early one morning he said, "I've got it." They just went and got some older male elephants. They brought two male elephants, adult male elephants in with these teenagers, and within a few months, problem solved. The teenagers didn't know how to act. The male elephants made it clear to them: "Excuse me, boy. This is not what elephants do. We don't go around chomping on rhinoceri."

I've seen this in schools in Washington, D.C., where there are young men, about age eight or nine, who do not know the taboos of family, the shibboleths of the society, the expectations of a family, the need for self-restraint. They don't get it. And so what happens, they go bopping out, and they're out of control.

And then the Army's the same way. That's what drill sergeants do. Young recruits hate their drill sergeants with a passion. It's unbelievable the first week. They want to kill him. By the second week, they're kind of relaxing a little bit. By the eighth week, there's one overpowering emotion in those recruits. Know what it is? They want to please him. They'll do anything to please him, and they will never forget his name.

I was having dinner with Ted Kennedy once. We were kidding around. He was talking about some fight he had in the Army or something. And I said, "Ted, what was the name of your drill sergeant?"

P. J. O'ROURKE: And he had it.

SECRETARY POWELL: Instantly.

P. J. O'ROURKE: You know, that drill sergeant could have been a useful influence at times during his life. But I won't go there.

Something I really wanted to ask you about, because there's been so much whining about the war on terrorism. I don't have to tell you. Do you see any parallels between the early Cold War and the early part of the war against terrorism? It's not like we didn't make any mistakes then or didn't have any problems.

SECRETARY POWELL: I don't know. What were you expecting?

P. J. O'ROURKE: The way that Eastern Europe kind of got away from us and China fell. The Doctrine of Containment. I guess that wouldn't really apply. Mistakes we made in the Korean War.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I think there's something to that. A dawning recognition of a new kind of threat. The President spoke about it in his—I guess it was his May 24 War College speech—that we have to see this terrorism problem not just as a temporary aberration that's going to go away. He really saw it in the very beginning, right after 9/11, when he said this is not just a fight against al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, but against a persistent threat. And he took a little heat for it. We don't know when it's going to end. I mean, it took the Cold War forty years. It took World War II six.

P. J. O'ROURKE: And very few people were ambivalent about the Nazis.

SECRETARY POWELL: We were until 1941.

P. J. O'ROURKE: People don't own up to it now. But the Communists, that was another matter. A lot of people styled themselves as some kind of Marxists or Socialists. To all of a sudden regard this as evil, as the late Ronald Reagan did, twinkle in his eye and all. When he said "Evil Empire," people gasped.

SECRETARY POWELL: One of my colleagues thought all you had to do was détente them forever, and you'd do okay. But Reagan said no, they're evil.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I think it's been hard for people to understand how Islam can be a good religion, and yet the Islamists are evil. Those of us who have had experience with Islam understand this, just as we understand the difference between snake handlers and people going to church on Sunday morning. But I think a lot of people are having trouble getting their head around who's the enemy.

SECRETARY POWELL: There probably is a parallel to the Cold War. You need somebody like a George Bush to come along and say this is our challenge for this generation and then start to put together coalitions, as was done in the post-World War II period, with the creation of NATO, ANZUS, CETO and CENTO.

There was a growing realization of the threat. Even though it was localized initially in Europe and the Soviet Union. Suddenly we saw it could be China. And remember, Greece almost fell. And the Italian Communist Party had a hell of a good time for a long time ...

It was a real danger that could have swept everywhere. It was for real.

P. J. O'ROURKE: This is why I don't feel as discouraged by events in Iraq as some people do, because looking back, none of our previous fights have been instantaneous victories.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, and maybe we should never have characterized this thing as something that would be a tough fight but then it would all be over.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I don't think anyone did say that.

SECRETARY POWELL: I didn't.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Yet the feeling grew.

SECRETARY POWELL: The feeling grew.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Do you think, as in World War II and the Cold War, it may take us a while to find out what the right policies are going to be—what's most effective?

SECRETARY POWELL: Everybody thinks all you do is sit in a room and design a policy and that's it. But if you look at the experience of World War II and the Cold War, there was a great deal of trial and error, or as I like to call it, "audibling." You know, no plan—no military plan—survives first contact with a real enemy. Who was it who said that? Was it Clemens? Some humorist. "Even the most brilliant strategist must occasionally take into account the presence of an enemy." There's a thinking, breathing enemy out there and he's not subject to our policy whims. You have to respond to how he responds. Therefore, you are always modifying policy, changing policy, discarding that which doesn't work and looking for something that does work. Why this should shock and surprise people, I don't know. But it does. Everybody wants perfect answers right up front, and then they start criticizing right away if—

P. J. O'ROURKE: They want all D-Day, no raid on Dieppe.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Are we getting worry fatigue? Are we so worried about Islamicist terrorism that we're not looking at other things we ought to be worried about?

SECRETARY POWELL: I don't think we are. I don't think the President is. I don't think this Department is. If you were to spend a week with me and saw how much time I spend on economic issues, trade issues ...

P. J. O'ROURKE: I actually meant the public more than you.

SECRETARY POWELL: I think the public is worrying too much about terrorism. It's starting to affect us too much with respect to issues like traveling. I get all kinds of questions from people. Somebody came up to me at church yesterday and asked, "Do you think it's okay for my daughter to go to Singapore?" I said, "I can't think of anywhere on earth she's going to be safer." But they were terrified that their daughter was going to this faraway place and the terrorists were going to get her. I said, "Let her go and enjoy it."

And now everybody is running around and saying they're going to be bombing all the shopping centers.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I was wondering whether we should be concerned about issues like, we've got some countries out there that seem to be trying to decouple the idea of economic freedom from personal liberty and political liberty—something we once would have called Fascism.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yes, without naming countries, we're nervous about this trend, but I don't think it works. Because if you are going to be economically successful you can't really constrain your people too much. Your people are the ones who are going to make it happen for you. You have to turn them loose. They may originally start out being robber barons, but so did we.

The society eventually catches up with them and makes something useful. We had robber barons in the last century and we had junk bond dealers and a number of them went to jail. But, man, before they went to jail, did they get something going. The cellular industry, the computer industry—it was junk bond guys who did that in the '80s. We probably wouldn't have advanced as quickly as we did if it had not been for junk bond dealers who went to jail.

P. J. O'ROURKE: You're optimistic.

SECRETARY POWELL: I am optimistic because I think there's a historic determinism that's going on now, and people will learn that in this world success is going to come from solid political grounding, a vibrant economy, and economic progress. The key is to have a representative form of government where people are free to make choices, economic choices and political choices that adjust with the times. Anybody standing around thinking that centralized planning—"How do I cook the books so I can be elected again and again and again and again?"—will sustain this is wrong.

When you look at some of the undeveloped countries that we are working with now ... The Foreign Minister of [the Secretary named an undeveloped country ] was here. [This country ] doesn't get a lot of ink.

P. J. O'ROURKE: No, it doesn't. It's hard to spell.

SECRETARY POWELL: It is a country the size of Texas and Mexico combined, four million people, and the per capita income is $377 a year. It's been the same president for twenty years, so they've got a ways to go. And he locked up his opponent the day before the election and released him the day after. But, nevertheless, the Foreign Minister sat here and—not just to butter me up—he talked about reform. He knows what he needs to do and they are trying to figure out how to get there. And so I lectured him about locking his boss's opponent up the day before the election, and I told him, "We're going to be friends, we're going to have a good relationship, but we are going to nag you about this stuff all the time."

He had a woman with him who is a senator. They actually had a woman run for president. She didn't win, of course, but she ran. So they're trying to figure out how to make it work. They know that what they've got doesn't work.      

Same thing with [the Secretary named a country from the former Soviet Bloc ]. The ambassador was here. He was quite sophisticated. And he was going on and on about all the things they're doing. "Our economy is booming, we want to do more with NATO, but you guys keep ignoring us," blah, blah, blah. He said, "What do we have to do?" I said, "Have one decent presidential election." And so these guys, it's not that they are ignorant, they know what they have to do. It's just that it's a bitch for them to do it. So they almost like it when I lecture them. They don't like being screamed at and I don't scream at them. I just take them through it. They need it because they have got to be able to go home and say to people, you know, "This is what the guy told me."

P. J. O'ROURKE: It's kind of the swing coach that Tiger Woods fired.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah. Also, I'm stuck with all these regulations. I've got the human rights report, the trafficking in persons report, the global war on terrorism report. And in all of these reports I have to give report cards to all these countries, and they don't like it when they get singled out. But I think historically this is the determinant for more and more countries doing the right thing. I think ultimately we'll win. And in my almost twenty years of fairly—mostly—senior service in both political and military jobs, I have seen all my enemies of the Cold War go away.

All of the bad guys that used to be in Latin America have been replaced by fragile democracies. Only Castro is still out there. And they are all having difficulties of one kind or another. But, hell, so are we. If you look at Asia, it's pretty stable except for North Korea. Africa, they're starting to understand what they have to do. Russia also knows where its future lies. They can't just rely on $41 dollar barrels of oil forever. They've got to start making things that somebody wants to buy.

The deputy press secretary caught Secretary Powell's eye.

SECRETARY POWELL: It looks like I have time for one or two more questions.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Ok, well, this is the key one. Which is your favorite Beatle? I actually asked Bill Clinton that. When he was running for President, I interviewed him and I said, "Which one's your favorite Beatle?" And he looked quite surprised because he thought only policy questions would be asked. And it was Paul, wouldn't you know?

SECRETARY POWELL: That's what I would say. Because I know Paul. Paul's a bud of mine.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I'm sure he's a great guy and all, but I would have thought anybody in their right mind would pick Ringo. He wanted the act to last just long enough so he would have enough money to open a chain of hairdressing shops. And, by God, he did.

SECRETARY POWELL: And Paul ended up with the most money.

P. J. O'ROURKE: He did. And he is alive.

SECRETARY POWELL: You know what I like about him, he is so normal.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Yes, so I understand.

Clinton also liked the skinny Elvis stamp, which I thought showed a lack of self-confidence.

SECRETARY POWELL: I knew Elvis.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Really?

SECRETARY POWELL: I met him when he was in the Army. I was a lieutenant; he was a sergeant. He was in the neighboring regiment—or combat command, as we called it—in the Third Armored Division in Germany.

We were in the training area one day and I was driving my jeep around and suddenly came upon this unit from the other outfit and there he was. And so I went over and shook hands.

He was a good soldier. You never would have thought he was anything but a soldier. He had a pimple on his face and everything else. He was not a big star. He was just another soldier.

P. J. O'ROURKE: I'll be darned. Well, good for him.

To change the subject completely, is there symbolic or psychological significance to your fondness for Volvos?

SECRETARY POWELL: No. They just came into my life when my kids needed a car in college and they refused to drive their grandfather's Chevy Belair. They wanted something sporty; I wanted something safe. They wanted something distinctive; I wanted something safe.

I came upon this '77 Volvo and gave it to my son who took it to college. It was a pretty interesting car. I bought another one, an older one. I play with sophisticated non-zero-sum things all week long. On weekends, if I really want to relax—and I don't anymore, I can't relax because I'm too busy here—but there was nothing that was greater fun for me or more relaxing than a zero-sum problem with the car. It's not running? You put on a new distributor cap and it either runs or it doesn't. And so the joy for me was to take—drag—home a car. I mean literally drag it home. My driver and I would do it. We've been known to go through Alexandria with a Volvo on a rope dragging it home. People started calling and giving them to me. They heard about me. I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I'll give you a Volvo on a rope." The rope broke one day coming through the gate at Ft. Myer, with the MPs waving the Chairman through. We coasted until we could get another rope.

We used to do this all the time. Bring them to the house and Sergeant Pearson, now Mr. Pearson, and I would take them apart. We had extra engines, we had extra radiators, had extra transmissions.

P. J. O'ROURKE: Did you have room to do this? My wife gets upset about carburetors on the dining room table.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so I had five garages at Ft. Myer. On the weekends, I would go out there and start rebuilding cars. I still have one of them. I've had it for twelve years now. It's still out in my yard. And it just—it cleared my non-zero-sum mind.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to a Seaside Town in Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where the Wild Things Go

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Adults Need Playtime Too

When was the last time you played your favorite childhood game?

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In