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A one-sentence obit for Colin Powell

The tone of all the obits and recaps I read about Powell ranged from respectful to celebratory, except for one, a single run-on sentence at the beginning of the latest weekly installment of the Harper’s Magazine feature called “Weekly Review.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a vial that he described as one that could contain anthrax, during his presentation to the U.N. Security Council in New York, February 5, 2003.
Secretary of State Colin Powell holding up a vial that he described as one that could contain anthrax, during his presentation to the U.N. Security Council in New York, February 5, 2003.
REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

Like most of you reading this, I suppose, I felt sad at the passing of Colin Powell, the former general, secretary of state and national security advisor whom I recalled as an honorable public servant.

The tone of all the obits and recaps I read about Powell ranged from respectful to celebratory, except for one, a single run-on sentence at the beginning of the latest weekly installment of the Harper’s Magazine feature called “Weekly Review” of the news, a column I have often admired for saying a lot of things very quickly.

It began with a single sentence that skipped over everything that caused many Americans to remember Powell fondly or with at least some measure of admiration. Here’s the sentence:

Former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell—who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, armed and trained the Salvadoran military and the Nicaraguan Contras, and knowingly presented false claims about nuclear and biological weapons in Iraq before the United Nations—died from COVID-19.

Perhaps you are shocked. I was – and not only by the slam on Powell, but by the audacity of publishing such a savage and one-sided takedown of Powell’s accomplishments on the day after he died.

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After that sentence, Sam Needleman, the author of this edition of the long-running Harper’s feature, said no more about Powell and moved on to other notable and/or quirky events of the past week. His “Weekly Review” ended with:

After years of hypothesizing about the presence of the word “slut” on the last page of John Steinbeck’s handwritten Grapes of Wrath manuscript, English-speaking scholars were informed that it means “the end” in Swedish.

There were four footnotes in the Powell send-off sentence providing backup for some of the facts in the sentence. I don’t doubt Needleman has backup for all his assertions. Assuming Needleman’s facts are correct, there remains a question of balance, or perhaps taste in using a single sentence on the passing of a famous man, a distinguished public servant to bring up three awful things Powell did during his long military and diplomatic career.

But the audacity of it was so strangely refreshing that I decided to pass it along. I hope Needleman isn’t assigned to write my obit, but I was strangely in awe of his sentence and of Harper’s for publishing it.