General Colin Powell died on the most important day of Filipino American History Month, Oct. 18, a day when the Filipinos are documented as first to step foot on American soil in 1587.
First has to count for something.
Powell was a first too. He was the epitome of what I call “Firsterism,” that drive, that calling that motivates an Asian American or any BIPOC, to follow their dreams. That’s what’s needed to give you more than a good chance of being a “Firster.”
It’s just one of the many lessons to glean as one meditates on the life and death of the esteemed American soldier, diplomat, and BIPOC role model.
But perhaps most urgently, Powell’s death serves as a public reminder to vaccinate, and then vaccinate again when warranted.
The 84-year-old Powell, who as a cancer patient was among the most vulnerable in society, was vaccinated, according to reports. But others he came in contact with clearly were not. The honor system goes only so far in the pandemic era. There’s trust, no trust, and then ultimately betrayal. The death of Powell, an American solider, patriot, and hero is on the unvaccinated.
I never met Powell, but he stood as a model for all Asian Americans, from the most liberal to the most conservative amongst us.
He was a man who was beyond race, beyond politics, who could stand on principle, and principle alone. As a Republican, a Reaganite at that, he knew Obama was being railroaded by the birther nonsense. So Powell did what was right. In 2008, Powell endorsed Obama, and not John McCain. Obama became the first African American president of the U.S. Some still feel that Powell could have been president had he chosen to run in 1995. But at the time, Powell didn’t have the political weaponry needed to wage that battle. He stayed the principled Republican until Jan. 6, 2021, when Republicans lost their way. Powell saw that insurrection day for what it was, a threat to our democracy. He reacted the way any true patriot would. He left the GOP and declared himself independent.
Powell tried to stay above politics and race. But he was not beyond virus. That should have been a point of unity for the country in the middle of a public health crisis. When you have 726,389 deaths due to Covid, the virus has exceeded even the deadliness of war.
But no general, no surgeon general (not even a first, an Asian American like Vivek Murthy), no American hero seems to have been able to pierce the stubbornness of a large part of the American public, the unvaccinated.
In this ongoing war against Covid, they remain the enemy within.
A CELEBRATED FIRSTER
There was much to admire about Powell’s style. He was not some wonky brainiac nerd. He was born in New York City, the son of Jamaican immigrants. He wasn’t a great student and talked about getting C’s and D’s at City College of New York. But he excelled in ROTC and graduated an officer. He didn’t go to West Point. He followed his passion and climbed up the ranks to break barriers to be a first.
A first, of course, can be of any race, age, or gender. We have Asian American examples all around. From low to high.
I was the first Filipino American television reporter for a network affiliate when I began my career in San Francisco. Where were the others? Doing what Filipinos were allowed to do, in restaurants and kitchens. Not on network affiliate TV stations in 1981. And in 1989, I was the first to host a network news program at NPR. Other Filipinos were there, one news writer/producer, another a technician. Not the host. But when they saw me, they cheered me on. We broke through the barrier together.
Now the opportunities have broadened. And there are many more chances to be a “first.”
For Filipino Americans, Rob Bonta is a first. He is the first Asian American Filipino to be Calfornia’s Attorney General. His predecessors notably are all firsts. Latinx Xavier Becerra, now head of HHS. And African American/South Asian Kamala Harris, now vice president of the United States.
Bonta was already a typical firster. He was the first Filipino American to be elected to the California legislature in history, as an Assemblyman representing Alameda County. He just didn’t stop there.
Just as Powell didn’t stop at being an example of “firsterism.” Four-star general and the Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command in 1989 good enough? Why stop there. Powell kept rising, busting through barriers. The 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The 65th U.S. Secretary of State.
Firsters keep topping themselves when they continue to be the only BIPOC in the room.
HUMILITY WHEN IT MATTERED
Powell kept ascending, yet regardless of his high position, he stayed humble and principled throughout. Even when he was wrong. And that will be what is probably most noteworthy for our country.
Powell was major league wrong in 2003 when he told the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was based on U.S. intelligence and used to justify the Iraq War. But the intelligence was wrong.
When Powell knew it, he owned the mistake. Later, he did what few political leaders would consider doing now. He admitted the error, calling it a “blot” on his resume, and moved on. He wasn’t scared of the truth and never tried to cover it up. He wasn’t concerned about losing a job. Honesty was everything.
Compare that to political leaders and public figures who when wrong won’t admit it. Their response? To “double down” and insist they were always right. A lie, of course. But that’s where we find ourselves most often in public discourse today.
Maybe that’s what killed a man like Powell in the end, a moral failing in our country. His death creates a void–a need for someone to take the challenge and rise. To show the way. Another first? Soon, hopefully.
Right now, it seems we’re in need of that kind of breakthrough in all areas of American life. Charismatic leaders who could put our divided country together again. Not polarizers, but principled unifiers we all could trust.
It will take a team of them. The last truly great one may have died this week.
NOTE: I will talk about Powell on Show 160,161 with Prof. Dan Gonzales and again show 162 on www.amok.com, my Emil Guillermo YouTube Channel and on Facebook.