September 25, 1995:

Several dozen reporters and photographers are packed into the room, bright with TV lights. The mayor steps to the microphones with a formal welcome for Colin Powell, who strides to the podium. He looks very executive in a black pinstriped suit, a crisp pastel blue shirt, a tasteful burgundy tie. From the start, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gives off authoritative confidence.

Powell, on tour for his new autobiography, is considering a run for president. Here in San Francisco, like everywhere else, he’s big news. Journalists are asking easy questions. He discusses race, then talks about next year’s presidential campaign, then launches into an explanation for why so many Americans are now extremely proud of the military—“the superb performance of the armed forces of the United States in recent conflicts, beginning with the, I think, Panama invasion, and then through Desert Shield and Storm”—but a voice breaks in from the back of the room.

By the time the star-spangled cover reached Sunday breakfast tables, NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia were underway; the U.S.-led bombing campaign would last for seventy-eight straight days.

“You didn’t tell the truth about the war in the Gulf, General.”

The loud voice is coming from a middle-aged man in a wheelchair.

Powell tries to ignore him, but the man persists, shouting about civilian dead in Panama and Iraq. Finally, Powell acknowledges the interruption. “Hi, Ron,” he says, “how are you? Excuse me, let me answer one question if I may.”

“But why don’t you tell them, why don’t you tell them why—”

“The fact of the matter is—I think the American people are reflecting on me the glory that really belongs to those troops,” Powell says. “What you’re seeing is a reflection on me of what those young men and women have done in Panama, in Desert Storm, in a number of other places …”

Beneath Powell’s amplified voice, Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic can be heard only in snippets: “… 150,000 people … the bombing …”

“… So it’s very, it’s very rewarding to see this change in attitude toward the military. It’s not just Colin Powell, rock star. It’s all of those wonderful men and women who do such a great job.”

Later, after Powell leaves, I see a small knot of journalists around Ron, who’s on a tear: “I want the American people to know what the general hid from the American public during the Gulf War. They hid the casualties. They hid the horror. They hid the violence. We don’t need any more violence in our country. We need leaders who represent cooperation. We need leadership that represents peace. We need leaders that understand the tragedy of using violence in solving our problems…. Did Colin Powell really learn the lessons of the Vietnam War? Did he learn that the war was immoral? I think that he learned another lesson. He learned to be more violent, to be more ruthless. And I’ve come as a counterbalance to that today. I’ve come as an alternative voice…. I came down today because I just can’t allow this to continue—this honeymoon, this love affair with someone who was part of a policy which hurt so many human beings.”

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