Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks to Tom Brokaw during a taping of Meet the Press Sunday in Washington. Powell spoke about endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks to Tom Brokaw during a taping of Meet the Press Sunday in Washington. Powell spoke about endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, saying the Illinois senator would be "a transformational figure" and represent "a generational change" at a critical time for the nation and the world.
Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Powell said his choice did not reflect any lack of respect or admiration for his longtime friend, John McCain, the Republican nominee.
"As gifted as (McCain) is, he is essentially going to execute the Republican agenda, the orthodoxy of the Republican agenda, with a new face and a maverick approach to it," Powell said.
The endorsement will help Obama deal with charges that he lacks the experience and preparation to lead on national security issues.
Powell's popularity has transcended party and racial lines since he emerged as a hero of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He remained in that job through the first eight months of Bill Clinton's first term as president.
Indeed, Obama began making reference to the endorsement at his first appearance of the day, an outdoor rally in Fayetteville, N.C. He said he was "beyond honored and deeply humbled" at the endorsement by Powell, whom he called "a great soldier, a great statesman and a great American [who] has endorsed our campaign to change America."
And, Obama added, "He knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as one nation — young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat."
By making his vote public, Powell also denies McCain an endorsement the Republicans might have used to change the momentum of the contest, adding instead to the sense that Obama has the upper hand.
There had been rumors that Powell was sympathetic to the Obama candidacy, in part because Powell was the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Obama would be the first black president. Powell said if that had been his motivation, he would have endorsed months earlier.
The retired general is also a Republican whose name was once touted as a possible presidential candidate. He has also been a longtime adviser to McCain, whom he has known for three decades. Powell reportedly had told friends this summer that he would not endorse either candidate because of those loyalties.
But Sunday morning, Powell told NBC's Tom Brokaw that he was uncomfortable with the direction the GOP had taken in recent years and with the tone of the campaign McCain had run this fall. He said McCain was "a different kind of Republican," but that it was not enough.
He also objected to the negative tone of much in the McCain campaign, as well as the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president and some of McCain's maneuvers responding to the economic crisis.
"Almost every day," Powell said of McCain, "there was a different approach to the problem, and that concerned me, sensing that he doesn't have a complete grasp of the economic problems that we had."
By contrast, Powell said his comfort level with the Democratic nominee had increased. He said Obama, as a senator, candidate and nominee, had shown the necessary depth of judgment to be president, as well as "a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems" that would serve him well in the White House.
McCain responded that he and his friend had "a respectful disagreement" about the endorsement and the issues at stake Nov. 4.
"I've always admired and respected Gen. Powell," he said. "We're longtime friends. This doesn't come as a surprise. But I'm also very pleased to have the endorsement of four former secretaries of state — Kissinger, Baker, Eagleburger and Haig — and I'm proud to have the endorsement of well over 200 retired army generals and admirals. I respect and continue to respect and admire Secretary Powell."
McCain was referring to two secretaries of state under President George H.W. Bush — James A. Baker III and Lawrence Eagleburger; to Alexander Haig, who served under President Reagan; and to Henry Kissinger, who served Presidents Nixon and Ford.
Powell said he would cast his own vote for Obama but did not have plans to campaign for him. That may change in the days ahead, as the two spoke for about 10 minutes after the endorsement Sunday.