“I’m a former everything,” Colin Powell jokes as he relaxes in his office in Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington. Indeed, he is a former national-security adviser, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former secretary of state. But before he was a former, he was a first: the first black to serve in any of those roles. And he may also, still, be a future. He turned 70 this year and makes a solid living these days giving speeches and serving on advisory boards, but he does not rule out a return to public service.
As secretary of state, when he was caught in policy struggles with Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, his smile often looked tense, pasted on his face. But when he smiles now, his eyes smile as well, and he is clearly more relad, as though he realizes that history is proving him right about the bureaucratic battles he lost. When I came to visit him on a quiet Friday afternoon earlier this summer, he was more relad than I’ve ever seen him. He exudes the genial courtesy of someone who is comfortable in his own skin, and he has none of the insecurity that in Washington often gets displayed as assertions of ego. He settled in on a couch, produced a couple of cans of Diet Coke, and started talking about his life, the changes he’s seen in America, and the current situation in Iraq.