Just three Sundays before Election Day, the Great American Video Game that is U.S. presidential politics was being played out before a nation of news-talk channel surfers.
It was one of the few days of a cacophonous Campaign 2008 in which the hardcore themes of message politics converged and actually reinforced each other. Right before our eyes.
On NBC’s "Meet the Press," we saw the distinguished former Army general and extinguished former secretary of state, Colin Powell. At the start of the 21st Century, I thought he would be America’s ideal transformational president, as either a Republican (which he’d long been) or a Democrat.
But then the general undid himself, and us, by becoming the loyal soldier, publicly supporting George W. Bush’s Iraq war when he knew better. Even after learning he had misled the world with bum intelligence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction.
Even in 2004, when asked if he’d have supported invading Iraq knowing Saddam Hussein no longer had WMDs, Powell ducked: "I don’t know."
Which led a certain Washington newspaper columnist (whom I shave each morning) to write: "Three years ago, The General rode into Foggy Bottom on a white horse. Today he’s riding a weasel. It is not a pretty sight."
But on this autumn Sunday Powell was no longer riding side-straddle — but was back in the saddle again, riding tall atop the white stallion of truth that must be democracy’s ultimate straight-talk express.
He was a Republican endorsing Democrat Barack Obama for president. But his point-by-point endorsement was hardly the usual rah-rah. Powell said our next president must "start using …the power of his personality to convince the American people and to convince the world that America is…going to move forward." He called Obama "a transformational figure…a new generation coming…onto the world stage."
Powell expressed repeated disappointment with the judgment of his fellow Republican and friend, John McCain in this campaign. On the economic crisis — "almost every day there was a different approach." On picking Sarah Palin to be on-call as our next world leader — "I don’t believe she’s ready to be president of the United States." And on McCain’s attack-politics, including Obama’s never-close ties to the 1960s anti-war terrorist Bill Ayers, who emerged as a widely praised education reform leader today — "Mr. McCain says that he’s a washed-out terrorist. Well, then, why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have these (GOP-sponsored telephone) robo-calls going on around the country…trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings? … I think that’s inappropriate."
Click: On Fox News Sunday, McCain was demonstrating the validity of Powell’s points. No longer the happy warrior (where he is most appealing), McCain was tense and flashed angrily, repeatedly interrupting questions. On Ayers and his team’s automated phone calls _ first McCain said "I don’t care about Mr. Ayers," then, "We need to know the full extent of that relationship. That is an accurate robo-call…" On the request from his Maine co-chair, Sen. Susan Collins to halt these robo-calls: "Of course not. These are legitimate and truthful."
And a final click of the remote control showed us the final piece of our big picture politics. Obama praising Powell and gratefully accepting his endorsement: "He knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as a nation — young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Republican and Democrat."
It was that final image-shift on our screens, from McCain to Obama that was the ultimate confirmation of Powell’s central point about the need for this change. Obama, sitting in the Oval Office, will of course be generational and also presidential. But mainly, he will be the change most needed in these tumultuous times — the change Powell himself once might have been: Transformational.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)