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General Colin Powell: The Story of the Man Behind the Stars

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 16, 2024 3:01 am

General Colin Powell: The Story of the Man Behind the Stars

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 16, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, General Colin Powell was the youngest and the nation's first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position in the US Military. He was also the first black man appointed Secretary of State, the world's leading diplomat. The world saw him as a military leader, a diplomat, a senior statesman, and an advocate for young people. To friends and family, he was so much more. Leslie Lautenslager is the author of My Time with General Colin Powell: Stories of Kindness, Diplomacy, and Protocol.

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No purchase necessary. And we continue with our American stories. General Colin Powell was the youngest and the nation's first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest position in the U.S. military. He was also the first black man appointed Secretary of State, the world's leading diplomat. The world saw him as a military leader, diplomat, senior statesman, and an advocate for young people. But to friends and family, he was so much more. We have one of those friends here to share some of the stories about the general.

Let's take a listen. I'm Leslie Laudenslager, and I have recently written a book called My Time with General Colin Powell, Stories of Kindness, Diplomacy, and Protocol. And in essence, it's a memoir of my over 25 years serving beside him, mostly on the international speaking circuit, but also with him at the State Department. And in July of 2016, the Powell's were in the Hamptons on vacation, and I was in Atlanta, Georgia for my annual conference. On this particular day, we were gathered for a plenary session focused on state funerals. We were at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the plenary was taking place in the fellowship hall. While I was doing something that I preach on for everybody else, do not look at your cell phone when you are in an event.

At a show, whatever, do not look at your cell phone. However, I was in the back of the room, and General Powell was texting me. Naughty as I was, I looked at it and reminded him where I was. He knew where I was, you know, at the conference, but he, at that moment, did not realize I was in fellowship hall of Ebenezer Baptist Church, which to put it in context, that of course is where Martin Luther King was a co-pastor, and also that was where his funeral had taken place.

And for us to be having a state funeral plenary session there, it was very specific and very, very meaningful. So I reminded the General, you know, basically, don't bother me, quit texting me, I'm here for this plenary session. And a moment went by, and he texted back, and he said, Little Bird, one of his nicknames for me, Little Bird, you do realize you'll be doing that for me one day, don't you? And I froze. I felt the blood drain from my face. I broke out in a cold sweat. I teared up, of course. And he then texted right away, and he said, you know, Leslie, you're not surprised by this, are you? And I admitted, in a quick text back, and I said, well, okay, maybe I'm not surprised, but why are we talking about this? This is not something we need to talk about.

Well, he then went on and did his normal bullet list of, no, where you will use Gawler's funeral home when it happens, which in the end, we did. We will not have the service at St. John's Episcopal Church, which was his local church there in McLean, Virginia. We won't have it there because I realized it's probably too small. We will not have it at the National Cathedral in Washington.

It is too big and too important. And I will be buried, of course, at Arlington National Cemetery, but not near the eternal flame, not near the tomb of the unknown soldier. I want to be buried down with the troops. Now in the end, we did use Gawler's funeral home. We negated his thought not to have it at the National Cathedral.

In the end, that was the appropriate place. And he is in fact buried down with the troops. And if you look at his tombstone, it is a very basic tombstone. He had many very important titles that could have been on the tombstone, but it's not.

It is the simple soldier. So that was a sobering moment in 2016 to be faced with this. And he did say at the time, texted at the time, okay, we'll talk about this. I realize we don't have to talk about it right now, but we'll talk about, we'll have an ongoing conversation about it.

We never talked about it again. So my over a quarter century with General Powell started out very serendipitously. As I said, I had had a career in protocol during the Reagan administration. So it was soon after I graduated from college, I fell into a job at the State Department with Lucky Roosevelt as the chief of protocol. So at the end of the Reagan administration, my job ended when his administration ended.

But I had gone on to do other things in protocol. I worked with the Battle of Normandy Foundation. And then in April of 1996, out of the blue, I get a phone call from a friend of mine saying there's this job with my name on it, with the Washington Speaker's Bureau, with somebody to take care of, in essence, the golden goose, one of the world's most popular speakers on the international speaking circuit, i.e. General Colin Powell.

And sure enough, I was offered the job. And the world, if this were on camera, I would demonstrate by saying the world knew him as a military leader, and I would put my hand to my forehead in a salute. And then I would also say the world knew him as a diplomat, and I would put my hand over my heart. That's what the world knew, from the headlines, from the camera, from whatever.

But he was so much more. General Powell had been invited to present a series of awards and a gala dinner, a black tie dinner. It was in Washington, D.C., and it was at the Ronald Reagan.

It was after we were at State Department, so he's back in private life. And also presenting awards was Tom Selleck. General Powell and I got to the VIP reception early. We worked the crowd, the VIP reception.

As soon as the General had worked the room, it was time that he could then, when I say escape, get out of the feeding frenzy, so to speak, and retire to a private holding room that had been set up for him. And then we got word that Tom Selleck had arrived. But Tom Selleck did not have a Leslie.

Tom Selleck was by himself. And he was in the VIP reception, and General Powell realized that he needed to take pity on his friend. And Tom Selleck and General Powell were friends. And so he said, Leslie, go save Tom. Just see if he wants to come out and hang with us in the VIP holding room. Side note, General Powell knew that I was a big Magnum PI fan.

I had been in love with Magnum PI since I was a teenager. So he knew this was not a hardship for me, but he also knew it was something that probably would make me blush. So I wade through the VIP reception, probably a hundred people. And sure enough, they are feeding.

It's a shark attack feeding on him. So I kept him on the shoulder. I said, Mr. Selleck, excuse me, my name is Leslie Lunsinger. I work with General Powell. And your friend, the General, has asked me to say, would you like to join us in the whole room?

He, of course, absolutely. So he hightails it out of the crowd with me, go into the room. So they're catching up, whatever. Well, then we're joined by the rest of the VIPs that are at the hit table. And again, this is black tie. So the gentlemen are in tuxedos.

The ladies are in twinkly sequins and heels. Well, one of the women who's part of the hit table comes in and jumps into General Powell's arm. Colin, Colin, I'm so happy to see you. And she proceeds to tell the rest of the VIP hit table people the story that Colin saved my life one day.

We were seated at the table together at dinner at the White House. And I started choking on a piece of chicken. And the General saved my life. He did the Heimlich maneuver. And sure enough, I escaped death's clutches. Well, Tom Selleck then says, well, you know what?

I live in fear that one day I will be at a dinner and somebody will choke and will die because I do not know how to do the Heimlich maneuver. Suddenly, I see the twinkle in General Powell's eyes. And I think, oh, sugar, I know exactly what's coming next. General Powell pats Tom Selleck on the shoulder and said, Tom, tonight's your lucky night.

I'm going to teach you the Heimlich maneuver. And he looks across at me with twinkles in his eyes and yells, Leslie, come here. When you've been listening to Leslie Luttenslager tell the story of General Colin Powell, my goodness, the part of him being buried with the soldiers at Arlington is just well, it's Colin Powell. Here's what his tombstone says. Colin Luther Powell, General US Army, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, April 15, 1937, October 18, 2021. No mention of his service at the State Department. No mention of his service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Power was not really what Colin Powell was after. He wanted to be buried with his boys, with the soldiers, with the men and women who served the country.

And that tombstone says it all. When we come back, more of General Colin Powell's story here on Our American Stories. I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now, I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

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Also available in grapefruit and lavender scents at a nearby retail store. And we continue with Our American Stories and with Leslie Lautenslager. And she's the author of My Time with General Colin Powell, Stories of Kindness, Diplomacy, and Protocol. Let's pick up where we last left off. So I dutifully, with beet red face, I have no doubt, I toddle over in my little high heels. General Powell grabs Tom Selleck's arms, puts them around my waist, tells Tom, okay, no, no, no, do it a little tighter now. Now you squeeze here and he goes into great choreography in making sure that Tom Selleck now has dutifully been taught the appropriate procedure for saving a life with a Heimlich maneuver on me.

My only regret is that there was no photographer in the room who could take an official picture of me as the dummy used to teach Tom Selleck the Heimlich maneuver. When we first went to the State Department, the Secretary of State of the United States of America has suddenly burst into the room. And he says, okay, on Wednesday, so maybe this was a Monday, it was on Wednesday, it will be my time to host the foursome. And the foursome was the National Security foursome, which was the Vice President, in this case Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State. So it's going to be Secretary Powell's turn to host this monthly lunch.

So he's telling my staff, because where's Leslie, and they explain, oh, she's at this meeting, so what can we do, what can we do, and taking notes. He said, okay, on Wednesday, for this lunch, I want it to be in one of the problematic receiving rooms upstairs. And for those of you who don't know, the State Department has the third largest collection of American antiques next to Winterthur and Colonial Williamsburg. Beautiful, one of the times American history is just resplendent in the eighth floor diplomatic receiving rooms.

And that was where we did all our entertaining. Well, for this small lunch, he was going to have it in one of those rooms. He wanted spotless tablecloths and napkins. He wanted the perfect crystal etched with the great seal of the United States. He wanted the beautiful china with the great seal of the United States, the silver, everything beautiful. And then he wanted each plate to then have the silver domy things, as he told my staff, the cloches.

Wanted each one to have a silver dome. Now, my women, my staff, they're taking fast and furious notes, because he's very, very serious about this, giving them orders. He said, and then I want that the white staff, I want them to be in black tie, and I want everything choreographed so that at exactly the right moment, they reveal, and a cue, I want them to reveal, take the silver domes off the plates.

And then I want served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and white bread, a bag of chips, a cookie, and what's that yucky chocolate drink that, you know, yahoo, yuhu, whatever that chocolate drink is. And I want it all in a brown paper bag, and I want scribbled over the top in crayon, rummy, candy, chainy, and my staff. But he was serious. And Isaac, the one who was most traumatized, I had a calligrapher on my staff, and she's so talented.

I think she was more traumatized than nobody else, because the idea of using a crayon to scribble on a brown paper bag when she's used to doing dip pens and ink. And sure enough, that's what we did. So when it comes time for the luncheon, these very important officials of the United States of America, they come in, and I've got the white staff, we're all dressed, and we're behind each chair. And I get the wink from the general of the secretary, and I cue the others, and we grab the silver domes, pull it up, ta-da, and there's a moment of silence. And then Cheney looks up and says, good one, Colin, good one. So that was the general.

Yes, make everybody work hard, but make sure that everybody realizes that there's joy in life. You know, when the general died, my father died when I was eight, which of course, nothing is like that. But I had General Powell three times longer than I had my own dad.

But it was devastating. And I was out of town at the time and got a text from Michael, the son. So I texted Michael right back, and Michael had kindly said, Leslie, you're not to work the funeral. You're family. And I said, but I have to.

This is what I do. This is my gift to him. And I, of course, let everybody know about the conversation he and I had back in July, the text conversation from the basement of the Ebenezer Baptist Church about, you know, little bird, you'll be doing this for me one day.

So then the agreement was that, okay, they would let me plan and help organize the funeral, but the day of the funeral, I would be seated with the family, and in part of the family, that was fine. But we were able to make sure that the funeral had very special treats in it. The military musical group that Pershing's own, they incorporated Dancing Queen from ABBA. General Powell was a big ABBA fan. So Dancing Queen from ABBA was part of the musical tribute. Also, Bob Marley's Three Little Birds.

Michael Powell, the oldest of the three Powell children, had a breathtakingly beautiful part of the service. My sisters and I were raised under the stars. The stars of the story, General, we eulogize today. Dad was famous for his 13 rules, but our family life was unregimented. No mourning revelry or marching drills.

It was a warm and joyous and loving home anchored by our strong and graceful mother Alma. Our parents taught us right. They taught us wrong. And they taught us to take responsibility for our actions and never to blame others.

Disappointing them was the worst punishment you could imagine. The example of Colin Powell does not call on us to emulate his resume, which is too formidable for mere mortals. It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that. We can choose to be good. One of the General's favorite singers was the Scottish singer Lulu, who made famous the song To Serve With Love, which was written by Don Black and Mark London for the movie of That Same Name starring Sidney Poitier.

Although the lyrics of the song are written as if sung by a young schoolgirl adoringly to her teacher, my eyes tear up whenever I think of that last verse. A friend who taught right from wrong and weak from strong, that's a lot to learn. What can I give you in return? If you wanted the moon, I would try to make a start, but I would rather you let me give my heart to serve with love. If I could have given him the moon to go with his four stars, I surely would have. As a military leader and later as a senior statesman on the world stage, he had our admiration and respect. As a boss, a dear friend, and a surrogate father, he had my heart and I will forever rejoice in being able to share the gift of his memory, his lessons, and his joie de vivre. To serve with love, indeed. And you've been listening to Leslie Lautenslager, her book My Time with General Colin Powell, Stories of Kindness, Diplomacy, and Protocol. My goodness, that eulogy delivered by his son Michael, one of the most powerful eulogies I've ever heard. And I remember we had done that story of that eulogy, and I actually commented at the end that there are two kinds of men in the world and two kinds of women.

People whose sons and daughters speak about you that way, and people who don't. And we all get to choose which that is. The story of General Colin Powell, the story of the man behind the stars.

To serve with love, this is our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA. He says somebody's in the house and I screamed. Listen to Uncanny USA wherever you get your BBC podcasts, if you dare.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-16 04:23:41 / 2024-05-16 04:32:37 / 9

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