Commentary: Powell gives voice to voters' thoughts

The following editorial appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on Oct. 21.

If one could subtract all political party identifications from the remarks Sunday of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, it could be said that he put a voice to what a lot of people, many of them political leaders, have been thinking as the race for president between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama has progressed.

Powell offered substantive reasons why he thinks Obama is the better of two candidates who, he said, would both make good presidents. At the same time, he made clear his exasperation with the diversions of the campaign that have little or nothing to do with the important issues of the day but seem intended to stir up antagonism and suspicion in the electorate.

Example A: the McCain campaign's emphasis on Obama's relationship with 1960s radical William Ayers, now a Chicago college professor. Ayers was indeed a member of a group that organized bombings of government buildings in opposition to the Vietnam war. And Obama did have some connections with him in Chicago. Yet while Obama has condemned what Ayers did as a protester, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, continue to harp on Ayers.

"Mr. McCain says that he's a washed-out terrorist," Powell said. "Well, then why do we keep talking about him?"McCain has received the endorsement of several other Republican former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger, James Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger and Alexander Haig. But Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a large enough public profile that he would have been a credible presidential candidate himself.

And though Powell, while head of the Department of State, was said to have been reluctant to have the Iraq war conducted in the way President Bush and Vice President Cheney wanted it conducted, he did his duty, making the country's case in a memorable appearance at the United Nations that was based on tragically flawed intelligence.Asked about Palin, Powell was polite but to the point: He called her "very distinguished," but said, "I don't believe she's ready to be president of the United States."

And he was skeptical of some of McCain's positions, saying: "In the case of Mr. McCain, I found that he was a little unsure as to how to deal with the economic problems that we are having," citing McCain's changing positions on the topic.

An endorsement by Gen. Colin Powell — he says he will not be on the campaign trail with Obama — puts a dent in the claims of Obama's opponents that the American people can't have confidence in him as commander in chief. And his call for a serious campaign about serious issues ought to give pause to the McCain campaign, where the current focus seems primarily intended to attack, attack, attack on topics such as William Ayers rather than to talk about the country's serious economic difficulties, their causes and how best to address them.

If McCain wants to convince people that he's an agent of positive change, fine. That would offer a good dialogue. Perhaps the profound setback to him of seeing a general he has known for decades support another candidate will convince him to change course, and to make the last two weeks of this campaign about more than personality and political pugilism.