Colin L Powell, the soldier-diplomat who became the first black secretary of state, has been remembered by family and friends as a principled man of humility and grace whose decorated record of leadership can serve as a model for generations to come.
“The example of Colin Powell does not call on us to emulate his resume, which is too formidable for mere mortals,” his son, Michael, said in a touching tribute at his father’s funeral service at Washington National Cathedral.
“It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that.”
The funeral drew dignitaries and friends from across the political and military spectrum. They included President Joe Biden and former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, former secretaries of state James Baker, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, former defence secretary Robert Gates, and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen Mark Milley.
Two recent presidents did not attend — Bill Clinton, who is recovering from a severe infection, and Donald Trump, whom Mr Powell had criticised.
Mr Powell died on October 18 of complications from Covid-19 at age 84. He had been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but his family said his immune system had been compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment.
Funeral attendees were required to wear masks. Not all did.
As guests gathered in the cavernous cathedral that has hosted the funerals of several past presidents, including Dwight D Eisenhower, the US Army Brass Quintet played a range of tunes, including Dancing Queen by Abba, a favourite of Mr Powell’s.
Richard Armitage, who served as the State Department’s second-ranking official while Mr Powell was secretary of state during the Bush administration, recalled the day Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, came to call and — knowing of Mr Powell’s affection for Abba — presented him with a full CD set of group’s music.
“Colin immediately went down on one knee and sang the entire ‘Mamma Mia’ to a very amused foreign minister of Sweden and to a gob-smacked US delegation. They’d never seen anything like it,” said Mr Armitage, who described a 40-year friendship with Mr Powell that began while both served in the Pentagon.
Madeleine Albright, who was Mr Powell’s immediate predecessor as secretary of state, called him “a figure who almost transcended time,” and “one of the gentlest and most decent people any of us will ever meet”.
“He relished the opportunity to connect with other generations,” she said.
“This morning my heart aches,” she added, “because we’ve lost a friend and our nation one of its finest and most loyal soldiers. Yet even as we contemplate the magnitude of our loss, we can almost hear a familiar voice asking us — no, commanding us — to stop feeling sad, to turn our gaze once again from the past to the future and to get on with the nation’s business while making the most of our own days on Earth, one step at a time.”