tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations Bloomberg October 24, 2021 1:30pm-2:00pm EDT
david: did you ever think that one day that you would be chairman of the joint chiefs? colin: it was beyond any possible level of aspiration. david: people said this man should be president of the united states. colin: it had never occurred to me. david: any regrets about not having run? some people say it is a great job. [laughter] david: no? colin: prove it. [laughter] david: a new national security advisor came in and he wanted you as his deputy. >> i said if it is that important, why doesn't the president call me? [impersonating ronald reagan] hello, general powell. this is ronald reagan. yes, sir. >> would you fix your tie, please? david: well, people wouldn't recognize me if my tie was fixed, but ok. just leave it this way. all right.
david: i don't consider myself a journalist. and nobody else would consider myself a journalist. i began to take on the life of being an interviewer, even though i have a day job of running a private equity firm. how do you define leadership? what is it that makes somebody tick? we are here today at city college, a place that you graduated from a number of years ago. colin: thank you, david. david: why did you pick city college? colin: i was accepted at ccny. and i was accepted at nyu. and the reason i went to ccny is nyu was charging $750 a year. i couldn't handle that. family couldn't handle that, so i took ccny because it was free and because it was easy to get to and i had heard a lot about it. david: you grew up in the bronx? >> i was born in harlem about a mile from here.
i grew up in the south bronx, the hunts point section. david: your parents were immigrants from jamaica. colin: yep. david: so growing up in new york, did you enjoy new york as a young boy? colin: i thought it was a wonderful plaid. it was such a diverse place, that it really bonded on me that this is what the world is, full of people of different backgrounds, cultures, colors, you name it. and of course ccny replicated that perfectly. i learned a little bit of yiddish working for six years in another corner of the south bronx, a place called jay sixers which sold juvenile furniture, carriages, and toys. he was a russian jew. it was me, an irish driver, and an italian salesman in the store. and one story i love to tell is after i had been doing this for a couple of years with jay, he comes up to me and put his arm around my shoulder, and said my name, using the yiddish diminutive, don't think you can
stay at the store. this will go to my daughters and to their husbands. i want you should get your education and go somewhere and do something. and i had no intention of staying at that store and being what's called a schleper, somebody that just dragged boxes around. everybody knows what schlep means. it touched me so deeply that i remembered it for the rest of my life and wrote about it in my memoir. he thought enough of me to tell me that i should get my education and move up, and that is what i did. and ccny was the source of that education. david: did you ever think you would be the chairman of the joint chiefs and the secretary of state of the united states? colin: no. people ask me that all the time. it usually starts out with, what year did you graduate from west point? i did not go to west point. i could not have aspired to go to west point. well, did you go to the citadel, or did you go to texas a&m, or virginia military institute? i said, no, they wouldn't let black guys in then. it was beyond any possible level
of aspiration or expectation, but it happened. why did it happen? because i got a quality public school education that i did not know was of that high-quality at the time. elementary school, junior high school, high school, and then ccny let me in with my modest average. then it was rotc and ccny that really made the difference. david: you were a geology major. did you think you are going to go into the geology world? colin: no, i was a geology major because i busted out of civil engineering. ok? now you know. [laughter] colin: that did not need to come up, david. thank you very much. david: when you graduated -- when you are in rotc you have an obligation to go into the military. you went to the south for training. colin: i graduated in 1958 and then went to fort benning, which was still in a segregated state in a segregated city, columbus, georgia, so i knew well that on post i was like anyone else, but when i left post, there were places i could not go and i was
thrown out of hamburger joints in columbus, georgia. david: they would just say, we don't serve you? colin: it was even worse than that. i stopped at a little hamburger joint late one night, and i knew i could not go in, so i just went to the window and asked for a hamburger, and this nice white lady from new jersey said, i'm sorry. i don't know why, but i can't serve you. you can go around the back. i said, no thanks. so i went on to the base, that was in early 1964, and then the civil rights act of 1964, the accommodations act, was signed in july, just before july 4. and on july 5, i went back to that hamburger joint, and they served me. and what america discovered is that segregation was not just a burden for blacks. it was a burden for whites. we are living in a crazy system. david: you went to vietnam and you were injured. colin: yeah. david: and you came back to the tes you went back again to vietnam. colin: about five years later, i went back and got injured again. yeah. david: and when you came back, your career really took off a bit.
you became a white house fellow. colin: i did. i was one of about 15 people who would serve one year in washington in one of the offices of the cabinet. in my case, i worked in the office of management and budget, and i learned a lot about government in that year. david: after your white house fellowship, you did what? colin: i went to korea. to command a battalion, an infantry battalion in korea. it is a year that i considered one of the most rewarding years i've had in the army. we were just starting out in the volunteer army, and it was my opportunity not only to train these young people, but to give them a ged education and english as a second language. david: you eventually went to europe. colin: i was in europe as a young lieutenant for two years. and then, the period you are talking about, i worked for cap weinberger. david: the secretary of defense? colin: the secretary of defense, and i was his military assistant, senior military assistant. and we became exceptionally close. and after two years, it was time
for me to move on and get back in the army. and they got me an assignment in in germany where i was going to take command of a division. i was now a two star general. and one day the chief of staff walks in and says, we've changed. sir? the family is packed. we got the house sold. stuff is moving. mr. weinberger wants you to stay here for another year. i said, and not take a division? that's right. then he said something which is quite right, he says, just remember, colin, you are here to serve, and you serve where we need you. i can find division commanders anywhere. mr. weinberger, secretary of defense, wants you to stay longer. yes, sir. and then i went in that evening to see mr. weinberger, secretary weinberger. and he knew i was kind of disappointed. so he looked at me and said, well, you know, colin, you're not going to get a division now, and i know that disappoints you, but here you are going to get a corps, and that is two divisions. david: right. colin: a corps is a much larger organization. 70,000 people in the fifth
corps. a year later he let me go and i went to germany and took command of the fifth united states corps headquartered in frankfurt guarding a gap, one of the invasion routes week expected -- we expected the russians to use. david: that was a great job. colin: it was a great job. it lasted four months. david: there was the iran-contra scandal. colin: yep. david: new national security advisor came in and he wanted you as his deputy. colin: i said, frank, it can't be that important. he said, it is that important. i said, ok, see if you can risk your entire career by saying the next sentence -- well, frank, if it is that important, why doesn't the president call me? half hour later -- david: you get a call from? colin: [impersonating ronald reagan] hello, general powell. this is ronald reagan. yes, sir. [laughter] colin: [impersonating ronald reagan] i really, really want you to come back here. he's reading the talking points that frank gave him. [impersonating ronald reagan] i really really want you to come back here and be the deputy for national security. yes, sir. i will be right there. david: so you went back? colin: yeah. nine months later he was assigned secretary of defense. i said, good, i can go back into the army now.
one day i was chairing a national security council meeting, and suddenly the door opens and the president walks in, gets to the head of the table. and frank comes around to the side, and while the meeting is going on, frank rips off a piece of paper and scribbles something on it, and he sends it down the table to me. and i open up the little piece of paper and it says, you are now the national security adviser. no interview, no nothing. so the last year and a half of my time in the white house was with president reagan, became an extremely close and strong relationship. david: when the administration ended, you went back into a military position, but not that long afterwards, president george herbert walker bush, the president of the united states right after president ronald reagan said, i need you to be chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. colin: i am in atlanta, georgia with a great command, beautiful house, nice headquarters, and i'm at a conference in the baltimore area with all the army senior four-stars and i get a call.
secretary cheney, now secretary of defense, wants to see you. and so i said, uh-oh. so i go to the pentagon in chinos and a polo shirt and go into his office and he says, president bush wants to make you the chairman. david: all of a sudden when you're doing your book tour, people said this man should be president of the united states. colin: it had never occurred to me. and then suddenly the book came out, and it caught media attention, and lots of people were coming to me saying you need to run. david: any regrets about not having run? colin: no. why? david: well, some people say it is a great job. [laughter] david: no? colin: prove it. [laughter] ♪
david: early in the bush administration, saddam hussein invaded kuwait, and was it clear to you that we should go in and try to kick him out? colin: well, it was clear to me that this is a horrible invasion that could not be allowed to stand, and the first challenge was to make sure he did not go south into saudi arabia. and so general schwarzkopf was
the commander in this region, and he and i were pretty close. we talked about all of this. david: you invented something that became known as the powell doctrine. colin: not quite. it was invented by a "washington post" reporter who came to see me one day and he said, i am writing an article about the powell doctrine. i said, great, what is it? [laughter] colin: he said what you always say and what you did when we invaded panama and took out manuel noriega, one, make sure you go to war after all diplomatic and political possibilities have been dealt with, and there has to be a clear political objective, not just a military objective. and then the second part of the powell doctrine is i used overwhelming force once, but what i have always said is decisive force, so that people don't think you have to have a gazillion people. just have what you need to have a decisive outcome. david: you get the order from the president to kick saddam hussein and his troops out. colin: when that decision came down that we could not find a
diplomatic solution, i received the order, and i gave the order to norm, and we were ready. david: so there was a famous military maneuver, instead of going directly, you went around. whose brilliant idea was that? colin: any infantry captain could have figured this out. it did not take a general. and several generals have made claims. david: for it? ok. colin: it's the only conflict i have ever been in or ever read history about where i could say to the president of the united states there is no question about the outcome. the iraqis had made several horrible mistakes. they put their line of soldiers right on the border with saudi arabia, and they were stuck. they could not move. airpower would not let them move. and then they had four divisions along the coast. and they were very light. all we had to do was fix these two forces in place and go around them, the left hook, and that is what we did. but to my surprise the night we launched the ground attack after the air attacks for several
weeks, and i was expecting that the marines, who were right opposite the iraqis, were told, and i told them, attack, but don't get decisively engaged. i don't want to lose a bunch of marines. i just want you to freeze the iraqis in place. same thing on the coast. amphibious operations, but you're not going onshore. just freeze them. because we are going to go around them all. but the marines being marines, they did what they were told, but some soldiers in the marines -- they are marines -- found ways to penetrate the fire barriers that they put in place, the fire trenches, the barbed wire, the minefields, and cut a path right through the iragi army facing us. and so when that happened, military doctrine says exploit a success like that. so we told the marines, go, and they burst right through the iragi forces, and they were headed into kuwait city before we even launched the left hook. david: the war is over and you decide to write a book about your life, "my american journey." all of a sudden when you are doing your book tour, people
said this man should be president of the united states. colin: it had never occurred to me, and then suddenly the book came out, and it caught media attention. and lots of people were coming to me saying, you need to run. well, i did not ever think of running, and i have no particular passion then to run, but i felt an obligation to consider the matter, and so i did. i am a serviceman, and i try to do what i think is right. most of the republican party did not want me to run as republican. they even put out statement saying they did not want me in the party. david: because you were too moderate? colin: yeah, probably because i was too moderate. david: any regrets about not having run? colin: no. why? [laughter] david: some people say it is a great job. [laughter] david: no? colin: prove it. [laughter] david: so when you decided not to run a lot of people were disappointed. you stayed in the private sector, and then george w. bush is elected president and calls you and says, i would like you to be secretary of state. colin: i sensed he was the kind of republican i would want to
be, and so i was pleased to go back into the government and serve my country once again. david: so you are secretary of estate and 9/11 happens. when did you realize that you would have to be involved and the government would have to be involved in some kind of military confrontation? colin: well, you can't let something like that go by without doing something about it, and my job was not to immediately get involved in military matters, but to pull the international community together. and it was a very rewarding experience. for the first time in nato's history they invoked what is called article five, which said if any member of the alliance is attacked, we are all attacked, so they were all on our side. david: subsequently, we turned our attention to iraq, and president bush decided that we would do an invasion of iraq to go after saddam hussein. colin: what i said to the president before that was, mr. president, you need to understand that if you take out this government, you become responsible as the new government.
you become responsible for 27 million iraqis who will be standing there looking at us. you take on great responsibility, and you are sure you understand that and want to do it? and we were private when we were having this conversation and he said, well, what is the alternative? i said, the alternative is to have the u.n. be in the first position. they are the ones whose resolutions have been violated, so let's have a diplomatic approach. david: president bush said i agree with your idea of going to the united nations and convincing them. colin: he did. before taking military action, he wanted to present our case to the united nations publicly. and so on a thursday afternoon, i was in with him and he said, would you take the case? david: to the u.n.? colin: yeah. david: you made the case that we thought saddam hussein had or we thought he had weapons of mass destruction. when it turned out he didn't, do you think you were embarrassed by that, or do you think that the u.s. was embarrassed, or do you think had we known he had not had weapons of mass distraction, president bush would have gone ahead anyway? colin: no, he would not have
gone ahead, and i asked him that specific question when we were going through this. i asked him, mr. president, if saddam hussein can prove he has no weapons of mass destruction, then you do not have basis for war. are you prepared to accept that, even if it means saddam hussein will stay in place? hesitantly he said, yes, i will accept that. so that is why i went forward. so i went out and spent three days at the cia with the intelligence communities and prepared the document that i would present, and every word in there was approved by the cia, was written by the cia. and so we went. i gave the presentation. it seemed to go well. i was confident that it went well, but then within a few days or a couple of weeks, it started to fall apart, so yes, i was more than embarrassed. i was mortified. because even though the president had used the same information, congress had used the same information, secretary rumsfeld, condoleezza rice, all of us were using the same
information, but i'm the one who made the biggest presentation of it, so it all sort of fell on me. that's show business, huh? david: today in hindsight, would you say the invasion was a mistake? colin: i would say the execution of the invasion was not done properly. we abandoned the army without any discussion back in washington, and then we abandoned something worse, the baath party, and said anybody who worked for the baath party could not work in the new government. those were two monstrously bad strategic decisions, and we did not have enough force in there to do what we wanted the iraq army to do, and the place fell apart. now, right now, iraq has a democracy. it is tricky, but it is a democracy. they have elections, and they are trying to restore order in their country. if they do all that, i think it is bad that we went about it in such a terrible way, in my humble judgment -- others will not agree with me -- that if
they come out through this difficult process right now as a democracy, no weapons of mass destruction, no saddam hussein, then i think you have to judge this differently than it is being judged in now. david: what is it, in your view that makes a person a great leader? colin: a person who understands that they are leading followers. a person who understands that they are there to put a group of human beings into work that has value, that has a purpose, and the leader will give them the inspiration needed to achieve that purpose, and the leader will make sure they have everything they need to get it done. ♪
david: president bush is reelected. in the second term, you retire as secretary of state and do things in the private sector. one of the things you did was to set up the colin powell school at ccny. tell us about the colin powell school. colin: when i left the state department, i came up here to see a little center, the colin powell center, that had been endowed by the rudin family. and i wanted to see what they were doing. and the answer was they had not been doing much. it was more of a mini think tank. and i sat sat in the conference room here at ccny, and about a dozen students came in, and i saw incredible diversity among these 12 kids, and i saw passion
in their eyes. i saw them hungry for a better life. i knew that most of them came from families where nobody had yet graduated from college. this was the first generation of that family. and when it got back to me, i said, my god, this is me. this is me 50 years ago. i have got to be a part of this. david: i know you are very proud of the school, as you should be. as you look back on your life in public service, did your parents live to see your success? colin: they both saw me make colonel. they were very proud of that. but my father was failing. i could see that. he died about a year and a half later. he did not see me make general, but mother was there when i was promoted to general. and she stood there in this line of people, very proud. she was only about this tall, 5'3" or so. there was the secretary of defense and the deputy secretary of defense and all these generals watching, and she was very proud.
she and my wife pinned my stars on, and from then on in, in an almost yiddish expression, she would say to everybody, my son the general. [laughter] david: you have seen many great leaders in your career -- political leaders, military leaders. obviously you have been a great leader yourself. what is it, in your view, that makes a person a great leader? colin: a person who understands that they are leading followers. a person who understands that they are there to put a group of human beings into work that has value, that has a purpose, and the leader will give them the inspiration needed to achieve that purpose, and the leader will make sure they have everything they need to get it done. so i have always taken on every job i've had, what am i trying to do, what is the purpose, what is the vision, what is the purpose, why are we here, what are we doing? and then get that down to the lowest person in the organization, and then make sure they have whatever they need, whether it is diplomatic weapons
or real weapons of war, make sure that i took care of them and gave them every opportunity to be successful. so that is what leadership is all about, inspiring followers. there is a story about lincoln that i have always appreciated. in the early days of the civil war, he would go to the old soldiers home outside of the swampy area in washington up in the north part of the city, and there was a telegraph office there. and one night a message comes in, and the telegraph operator writes it down and, mr. president, it is not good. and he hands it to him. and the message says, the confederates have just raided a union outpost out by fairfax station and they have captured 100 horses and a brigadier general, and lincoln says, oh god, i hate to lose a hundred horses. the telegraph operator asked him, what about the brigadier general? and then lincoln's reply was, i can make a brigadier general in
five minutes, but it is hard to replace 100 horses. somebody gave that to me the day i made brigadier general. [laughter] colin: and it has been by my desk ever since, to this day. it is there if you came to the house now. you would see it. it always reminded me that your job, powell, is to take care of the horses. don't worry about being a brigadier general. take care of the soldiers, the employees, the clerks, the students, the faculty, whatever it takes to be successful in whatever it is you are trying to achieve. ♪ (announcer) looking for a better way to lose weight and feel good?
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♪ david: this is my kitchen table and also my filing system. over much of the past three decades, i've been an investor. the highest calling of mankind, i've often thought, was private equity. [laughter] then i started interviewing. i watched your interviews, so i know how to do some interviewing. [laughter] i've learned from doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top. >> i asked how much he wanted, he said $250k, i did not negotiate and i did no due diligence. david: i have something i would like to sell. [laughter] and how they stay there. you don't feel inadequate now