U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell | Teen Ink

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell MAG

Maria A., Sussex,NJ, Mike Seningen BRONZE, Wilmington, Delaware
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   [Mike asks] Growing up in the Bronx, what was your most memorable experience, and how did it shape you?

I never answer questions like that for this reason:Everybody always wants to know what's the worst or most memorable thing that's happened to me, my greatest achievement, my greatest failure. Life doesn't come at you that way. I have had many memorable occasions, many memorable things happened to me growing up in the Bronx and in my public career. I think that life, especially for young people, should be taken as a total experience. You should not always be looking for these turning points.

There were many turning points in my life, though. The thing that always comes to me late at night when I'm thinking about my growing up years is the sense of close family. I was not anything to speak of as a teenager and without my close family who believed in me, I wouldn't have gotten out of the Bronx.

I wouldn't have been put on a road that brought me to this point without mentors. And not mentors in the sense of, "You're my mentor, " which is very popular now. It was those people who passed through my life as a teenager, whether it was the gentleman who hired me to work in his toy store, or the guy who ran the drugstore on the corner who would always stop and talk to me; I wanted to be a pharmacist though I realized I wasn't going to be able to do that.

And so, life comes at you this way. But the most memorable part of growing up in the Bronx was a strong network consisting of family, neighbors and friends in a very diverse environment that said to me, You may not be showing that much potential now, but we believe in you.

[Maria asks] You have helped set up programs to assist children in America. Some people believe that if they don't have basic needs they may grow up angry or violent. Do you think poverty could be something future terrorists use to manipulate and recruit disadvantaged teens?

Not in America; we don't really have a terrorist experience. People who become terrorists in America are psychopaths.

[Maria asks] But in other countries, do you think?

Other countries ... anybody who ultimately sees no future, no hope in their political system or economic system, could potentially be a terrorist.

And so, in any society, you have to invest in your children, you have to educate them, you have to give them role models, you have to raise them. You cannot have a functioning society that does not raise its children. Adults have to care for them, provide safe places, education, healthcare, food.

The most basic necessities in life are required to raise a child, and without them, a child grows up stilted, grows up with a propensity for the wrong kind of behavior, and is on the path to getting in trouble.

Could this lead to terrorism? Yes, but at the same time, it's not the only thing that can lead to terrorism. Look at Osama bin Laden; he has no roots in poverty, he grew up rich, but somewhere along the line he went down a path that made him a terrorist.

All the terrorists who came here to conduct their activities on the 11th of September were middle-class, educated people who had nothing to do with poverty; they had fallen for a false, evil ideology and become criminals.

[Olga asks] As Secretary of State, you have to withstand amazing pressure. How do you sleep at night, knowing the decisions you make influence so many people within the United States and across the world? How do you put up with it?

Because you have to. I've been doing things like this for many years, so I have learned to deal with the pressure in a number of ways. One, there will be a new crisis tomorrow; two, make sure you get a good night's sleep.

I was trained in the military that no matter what's going on, get your rest, because you're the one who has to have a clear head. I cannot afford not to get my rest; I could not afford not to take care of myself physically, because I have to be there.

When I leave here in the evening, I usually take home several hours of work, but I go home to a wife who's been there for 40 years. And there's a constancy and stability in my life with the people who have been there for all these years, and no matter what's go-ing on in the office, what crisis is under way, who is calling me all kinds of names, or what kind of criticism I'm subjected to, I go home to an environment that is mentoring, that is a safe place.

Adults need these things just as much as young people do; I try to keep a balance in my life, I try to remember that my job is to do the best I can. I'm not Superman. I'm just an average guy trying to do the best I can at the job I've been given.

Whenever the pressure gets too hard, I always think of Jefferson's first inaugural address. It's a wonderful speech where he gives the most perfect description of the Democratic system you can imagine.

As he ends his address, he says something about selfless service. He said, "I go now -" this is not exact - "I go now to the task that you have put before me, knowing that it is in your power to make a better choice" - meaning you could do better than me, but you've chosen me, and so I'm going to do the job to the best of my ability. I can do no more, I will do no less.

Those words tend to keep me anchored when the newspapers are bothering me, or things are not going well. And you have to keep that balance in your life, you need something other than work; you need family, you need friends, and you need your own self. What keeps me stable now are the things that kept me stable in the Bronx 50 years ago.

[Mike asks]I am part Native American, and there are certain scholarships I can apply for because of my background, but I feel it's wrong to do this. Do you agree?

It depends on the nature of the scholarship. First of all, people who create scholarships can decide how the money will be used, so I think each scholarship should be looked at on its own terms. Is it an honest motivation that's consistent with the principles and values of our country?

If somebody says that you are to receive this because you are a Native-American Indian or Hispanic or Asian-American, and the scholarship is put forward as a way of compensating for past failures to invest in these communities, I don't find that inappropriate but, frankly, quite noble.

[Maria asks] In European history, we just learned about Peter the Great, and for some reason he fascinates me, as does Rasputin. What historical figure interests you?

I am interested in many historical figures, but there are two that I keep referring to. One I've already mentioned is Thomas Jefferson, the other is former Secretary of State George Marshall.

Their ability to communicate a vision, and their concepts of selfless service to the nation have always intrigued me. I tend to look more for my inspiration from American history than European history - not that I'm unfamiliar with European, Asian and other history, but in terms of historical figures whom I watch the most and get inspiration from, I'd say Jefferson and Marshall.

To some extent, George Washington would be one also, except he was a different kind of historical figure, he was a doer, not a thinker; he didn't leave a lot for us to read, although he had some beautiful addresses, but his is not quite the same legacy as Jefferson's.

A contemporary figure is Martin Luther King, of course, but I think you were referring to historical figures and Martin, although marvelous, isn't quite historical yet; he will be in time.

[Olga asks] Many of my friends are worried about terrorist acts after the whole 9/11 shock. Is there anything teenagers can really do to prevent these things from happening, or contribute to helping the nation deal with it?

I think remaining alert, being prudent, watching what's going on in your community, watching - there may be fellow students who are having problems that could lead to the kinds of behavior we saw so vividly in Colorado, or young people of the kind that produced the Oklahoma City bomber.

We have domestic terrorism; it has nothing to do with ideology, it just has to do with a sick mind.

So, I think teenagers should be on the lookout for young people who seem to be having the kinds of problems that if addressed now, you could avoid real problems.

I don't like to think that teenagers in America are walking around afraid; they're more likely to get killed in a car accident than by terrorists.

We are going to have to live with terrorism; we've had it before, we'll have to live with it in a new way for many years to come, and we should protect ourselves and be alert, but we cannot walk around afraid.

[Mike asks] About a year ago, I participated in a play where one of the props was a meat cleaver. When a friend brought in this plastic prop, he was suspended for many days. Is a zero tolerance policy too severe in some cases?

Without knowing all the circumstances or your school policy, I would say that every school and community has to judge what is acceptable behavior.

There are instances - and I don't want to use yours without knowing more - where it crosses the line of reasonableness, when you're so hypersensitive that you are making youngsters too afraid of consequences. Eventually you're going to have to have some exceptions, so I tend to avoid zero tolerance, zero anything.

I believe that if you put in place leaders in schools and other community activities who have a sense of balance and perspective and are not running afraid all the time, you can usually find the right answer to these issues.

There is also, in public life, a tendency to slam the pendulum too hard to one side or the other as you're dealing with a problem, but Americans are very common-sensical people. A famous Frenchman once said "If given enough time, even Americans will usually find the right answer. " [laughter] And we usually do; we're exceptionally good at problem-solving.

So, even though this might have been an overreaction, I suspect that more sensible policies will prevail in your school.

[Maria asks] Even though there's not much of a problem with racism and religious tolerance in my school, there's definitely one when it comes to homophobia. Do you think racism, religious discrimination and discrimination against homosexuals should be treated equally?

I think any form of discrimination has to be looked at. As you know, the military has the policy, "Don't ask, don't tell, " so that somebody who is openly homosexual does not serve. I'm an advocate of that policy, I helped put that policy in place and I'm accused, therefore, of supporting homophobia.

But I think it's a different matter with respect to the military because you're essentially told who you're going to live with, who you're going to sleep next to, and it's a different set of circumstances in a military environment.

Out of a military environment, in a school, I think any act that suggests someone should be discriminated against or in some way stigmatized because of their racial background, ethnic background or sexual preference is not appropriate.

Here in the State Department, sexual preference makes no difference; we have gay ambassadors and employees throughout the Department. I don't know who they are and it's none of my business, as long as they do their jobs.

[Olga asks] On the lighter side, hundreds of people in my school want to know about your relationship with President Bush. The media gives us the sense that you have your own struggles with each other. How close are you with the President after the meetings are over; do you have a couple of beers and watch football games together?

He doesn't drink.


[Olga asks] How about Christmas presents?

He hasn't sent me anything yet. [laughter]

We're very close; we were together last night at a diplomatic reception. Laura and I are on a first-name basis and have been for years, as are my wife Alma and Laura.

He and I joke a lot; we're from different backgrounds, and I'm quite a bit older than the President. Yeah, don't laugh. [laughter] But we have a lot of fun, we tell jokes, we kid with each other.

[Olga asks] Anything you want to tell us about?

Oh, no. [laughter]

We rib each other a lot; I wore cowboy boots the other day when it was snowing, just to have fun with him, and he said, "Are you really wearing cowboy boots?"

He is the Texas guy - he is the Crawford, Texas guy - and within the administration, I am the "white-wine swilling Hamptons guy. " They go to Texas for their vacation and I go to the Hamptons, so we're different - our backgrounds are different.

But in terms of our relationship, it is fine, despite what you read in the newspapers; if what you read in the newspapers were true, I wouldn't be here, because he would have seen to that.

But we get along just fine, and I won't repeat what he said at the diplomatic reception last night, because I'm too modest. [laughter] He and I get along just fine.

What makes news is not just issues, but people. Personalities make news. You can't write a book without having dramatic conflict between people. And so, the press loves to find tension and debate and conflict between people in order to have a story. And guess what? We have it.

Mr. Cheney and I have worked together for years; he used to be my boss when I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he was Secretary of Defense; Don Rumsfeld and I have known each other for 25 years, he was Secretary of Defense when I was a colonel; there's a great picture in my book of me saluting him. Dr. Rice and I have worked together for years; the President and I have known each other for a shorter period of time, but I've known him since his father was President.

And so, we know each other. There was a great line in an article recently about all this so-called fighting that's going on, that said, "They know each other, they like each other, and they trust each other well enough to fight with each other. "

We're supposed to sharpen the edges of debate, we are supposed to argue with each other, we are supposed to examine issues fully and without filters to help the President with issues.

So, if Don Rumsfeld comes from one point of view and I come from another, and the Vice President does and the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet does, and we argue and debate and fight about it, this doesn't mean the place is falling apart, it means it's working.

Creative tension and finding consensus and compromise are essential hallmarks of the American political system.

You see it on the Hill all the time with the Democrats and the Republicans arguing, so it shouldn't surprise anybody that it happens within an administration.

The beauty of it is that we have a President who is strong enough to deal with personalities and their strong points of view that often differ but coexist within his administration. The reason he can do it is because he's strong enough to make the decisions that we all then execute. I think the nation is served well when you have a strong President and Cabinet officers who have strong views and are willing to argue those views.

I've said to the President, "You don't pay me to give you happy talk, you pay me to tell you what I think. "

I've told this to many of my bosses over the years -if you don't want me to tell you what I think, then you need to find somebody else, because if you ask me a question, I'm going to answer it, and it's kind of irrelevant to me whether you like the answer. I hope you like it (that's always preferable).

This is also good advice for young people - you've got to learn early to stand up for what you believe and take the consequences; speak your mind, speak the truth as you see it. It may not be right, but if it's what you think, and you have the courage of your convictions, then you ought to standup and speak to those convictions, not with the promise of reward - which you may not get. In fact, you might get punished, but you'll be rewarding yourself when you look in the mirror.

And sometimes you will fail; one thing I wanted to talk about and kids should talk about, is how young people should deal with failure.

I find too many young people don't fail often enough, and therefore they're not learning, they're not experiencing something you have to experience early in life to be successful later. How do you deal with the days that go bad, when things are just awful, and you go to bed and don't want to getup the next morning, but you've got to get up - how do you deal with it, how do you deal with failure?

Maybe we don't put our young people in situations often enough where they're allowed to fail. When you fail, that's how you gain experience, and hopefully with enough experience, you don't fail as often, although I haven't proven that point yet.


[Olga asks] One last thing, between the two of us. Turn off the microphone. Area 51, is it for real?

Wait a minute, now, you're not talking about spooky people in Roswell, New Mexico?

No, c'mon.


[Olga says] We just had to ask that.

That's burning in the minds of teenagers out there?

There are no little green people in Roswell, New Mexico, sorry.

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This article has 9 comments.

i love this so much!

on Sep. 1 2010 at 7:19 pm
Karma_Chameleon SILVER, English, Indiana
8 articles 0 photos 236 comments

Favorite Quote:
To be able to say "I love you" one must first be able to say "I" - Ayn Rand

Anytime, political talks are my favorite! =)

whatever... said...
on Sep. 1 2010 at 6:06 pm

Yes...i understand that, IF it's private.

Thank You!

on Sep. 1 2010 at 5:55 pm
Karma_Chameleon SILVER, English, Indiana
8 articles 0 photos 236 comments

Favorite Quote:
To be able to say "I love you" one must first be able to say "I" - Ayn Rand

I understand what you're saying - I am finding it increasingly difficult to find scholarships that still give to white or caucasiun students, and it can be incrediblely frustrating.  And I certainly agree that there is an insanly unfair double standard in many of these issues.  But my point is, if a private individual or organization chooses to give out scholarship money, than they should be able to give to who they find deserving of a portion of their funds.

whatever... said...
on Sep. 1 2010 at 5:21 pm

But can 'whites' do that? Can they eliminate certain minority groups from their scholorships? I don't believe that they can.

You know that in some states when companies hire people to work for them, they have to interview a certain number of 'african americans' per day/year or whatever, but what would happen if an 'african american' owned a business (or anyone else) and only hired african americans? IS this any different? Someone please explain....

on Aug. 31 2010 at 8:43 pm
Karma_Chameleon SILVER, English, Indiana
8 articles 0 photos 236 comments

Favorite Quote:
To be able to say "I love you" one must first be able to say "I" - Ayn Rand

Fair enough, it may not be the best situation morally, I agree with that.  Best if individual organizations want to support students they find deserve a portion of their own funds, they have every right to give it to who they choose.  If it's a government organisation, however, then race-based scholarships are definitely not something I could support.

whatever... said...
on Aug. 31 2010 at 8:11 pm
But...don't YOU think that everyone should get an equal chance? Minorities are not eliminated from other scholorships, so why are 'whites' eliminated from theirs? That doesn't make sense...that would be like saying that we are trying to give a certain minority group rights to get money for something that 'whites' can't. How come 'whites' can't have a scholorship just for them? Because that would be being "racist", right? So why can minority groups have the right to discriminate against us by having a scholorship just for them? Whites aren't allowed to do that. I really don't believe that 'whites' (in general) owe minority groups anything like that.

on Mar. 30 2010 at 8:33 pm
Karma_Chameleon SILVER, English, Indiana
8 articles 0 photos 236 comments

Favorite Quote:
To be able to say "I love you" one must first be able to say "I" - Ayn Rand

I don't neccessarily think these scholarships are bad - if they were directly stating that other races are inferiour, than I would most certainly be against it.  But I think the scholarship providers are more likely trying to empower minorities so that the minority members are feeling more urged for greatness and supported where they could otherwise fell lesser than others...
But I do see where you're coming from.

Semiveggie said...
on Jul. 29 2009 at 6:38 pm
So, building on Mike's question about racial based scholarships, Colin Powell feels it is "honorable" to create and maintain scholarships that by their very nature exclude certain racial and ethnic groups from availability for those scholarships? I only think that offering scholorships to certain ethnic groups puts other ethnic groups at a disadvantage. Way to go, Mike: I agree with you that it is dishonorable to apply to for scholorships based on race. Everyone that wants a scholarship should earn it on their own merits.