I was at a benefit last night for an organization called “Best Friends” which has the difficult mission of encouraging teens to remain chaste until marriage. It was founded by Elayne Bennett, Bill Bennett’s wife, and Alma Powell. I don’t know them, but friends had tickets for us, so we went.
It’s been around for twenty years, and early in the festivities they showed some video of the principals vamping about on stage during the first annual benefit. There was Colin Powell, in shades, pretending to rap, and AOL’s Steve Case, and a more svelte Bill Bennett, along with the women who run the organization. A striking triumvirate, these three. In 1988 and for several years after, Bill Bennett was probably the person I most wanted to run for president of the United States. Colin Powell, a top NSC aide, was only months away from his triumph in Gulf War I (the magazine I then worked for, The National Interest, titled its post- war essay “All Rise for Chairman Powell.”) And Case and his AOL was relatively unknown, but if you invested in his first-to-exploit-the-internet company then, you would have done very very well.
America in 1988 was on the verge of winning the Cold War, and one could sense that. The country was years away from its massive 90’s technology based boom, its most prosperous decade since the 1950’s. I’m sure some things looked gloomy at the time, but who today wouldn’t want their problems instead of ours?
Look at the three men in the video. Case of course is now very rich, but no longer of the cutting edge of anything. Bill Bennett has become a not terribly important neocon talking head, a good deal less influential than Ann Coulter. After his gambling escapades, his virtue talk gives off the Spitzerian odor of hypocrisy.
Powell is the most tragic of all–the one man in the Bush administration who fully understood what a disaster Iraq would be, and yet out of a horribly misplaced sense of loyalty (never reciprocated in his case) kept silent. His public resignation would have slowed march towards war and changed the debate in Washington. Instead he sold the invasion wholeheartedly, putting his hard won integrity on the line in the service of various lies concocted by the neocons in the administration. Now we have the quagmire from hell, and with little prospect of it ending soon. As Thomas Powers says in the current New York Review of Books, “Invading the Middle East is the kind of imperial overreach that breaks the spine of great powers.” Who could not not look at that video from twenty years ago without feeling wistfulness and regret at the possibilities of a past now beyond recovery?