Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, now College prof, goes Obama

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October 21, 2008

2:17 AM

Lawrence Wilkerson, a professor in the government department and former chief of staff for Colin Powell during Powell’s years as Secretary of State, does not want Sen. John McCain to be the next President.

A self-described Republican and outspoken critic of the Iraq War, Wilkerson also has become an outspoken critic of McCain throughout the course of the election. However, he also said he was “shocked” and “stunned” by Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Wilkerson and Powell worked personally with McCain in 2005 to get anti-torture legislation through the U.S. Senate, but Wilkerson describes his history with McCain as “association by service.” Much of his knowledge concerning McCain came through Wilkerson’s own professional relationships with Navy officials who had personal connections with the former Navy captain.

“The military is a fairly tight community, and people in it learn a great deal about others in it, or who have been in it, particularly if they achieve some fame as McCain did,” Wilkerson said.

Throughout the course of this election, the McCain campaign has drawn on the senator’s military service as evidence of his leadership abilities. Wilkerson, a retired army colonel himself, takes issue with the idea that military service, in general, should be counted as valuable in the evaluation of a presidential candidate.

“Military service is a true indicator of ability to lead and manage at the highest levels of responsibility if that service is the service of a Dwight Eisenhower or a Colin Powell,” he explained. “It is not much of an indicator if all the individual has been is a lieutenant commander or a commander in the Navy.”

Wilkerson also noted that lack of such extraordinary service easily could be counterbalanced through the choice of distinguished and experienced advisors.

In addition to disagreeing with a number of McCain’s policy stances, Wilkerson questions McCain’s character and judgment.

“I disagree with McCain’s position on Iraq, his position on taxes, his belligerence in general,” Wilkerson said. He points to McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate as an example of “extremely poor judgment,” in which the senator catered to his political needs rather than national interest.

“McCain has prostrated himself before the Republican base and, in doing so, he has squandered his principal attribute: his capacity to put country above politics,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson now unenthusiastically expresses support for Barack Obama.

“At this point, I will likely vote for Sen. Obama and cross my fingers,” he said, citing Obama’s position against invading Iraq in 2003 as an indicator of good judgment. Furthermore, he acknowledges Obama’s political capabilities.

“He has one of the skills that is so important for our president: the skill to use well the Bully Pulpit,” Wilkerson said. “In our democratic republic, that is key.”

Finally, Wilkerson addressed the nation’s financial crisis, expressing dissatisfaction with the current economic policies and the lack of response from Republicans.

“There is an extraordinary domestic imbalance in America today; the wealth of our country is in the hands of far too few people and we are seeing the effects of that in the ongoing financial crisis,” Wilkerson said. “We need to correct this imbalance and the only candidate who seems to want to do that is Barack Obama.”

Wilkerson noted that Powell’s decision was probably a difficult one after serving in public office for years as a supporter of the Republican Party.

“After years of supporting Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush, it had to be a painful choice to do what they would see as essentially violat[ing] their trust,” Wilkerson said.

Powell and Wilkerson both said that disillusionment with the McCain campaign and broader trends within the Republican Party had influenced their decisions.

“A year ago, I would have supported John McCain,” Wilkerson said.

However, he said that in the course of this campaign, McCain has caved to political pressures.

“McCain, who in the course of his senate career was never too corrupted by the process, has run a campaign that proves he wants so badly to win the Oval Office that he was willing [to] sacrifice his integrity and character and found himself in the thrall of vested interests,” Wilkerson said.

In contrast to Powell’s recent endorsement of Obama, Michael Powell ’85, his son and rector of the College, publicly endorsed McCain in January.

“I can’t imagine they haven’t discussed this and I’m sure [Rector Powell] understands his dad’s motives,” Wilkerson said. “Although I’d be very surprised if he came out and echoed it, I’m sure he would fully support his dad’s choice to make an independent decision.”

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