Sixteen days before the 2008 presidential election, George W. Bush’s former secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.), appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press to reveal his much-coveted endorsement.
Powell felt Barack Obama and John McCain were equally fit for office, both distinguished, patriotic and “dedicated to the welfare” of America. Obama, however, offered an “inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations” of Americans, whereas McCain, Powell’s “beloved colleague and friend of 25 years,” took the increasingly narrow approach championed by his running mate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
“I’m troubled,” Powell explained, “by what members of the party say, and it’s permitted to be said. ‘Well, you know Obama is a Muslim’ … He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”
“But,” he continued, “the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? The answer is no.”
Had more Republicans followed Powell’s lead in pushing back against the explicit pandering to extremes, they may not be retreading this ground, eight years on, at the behest of their presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
In 2004, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan sacrificed himself for his men while in Iraq, and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. At the Democratic National Convention, the Muslim-American soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, delivered a powerful antidote to the rhetoric Trump has used to fuel his political rise.
“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims, disrespects other minorities,” Khan said, before asking of Trump: ”Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Indeed, Trump dodged military service through five draft deferrals, later equating his dating during the Vietnam era to fighting the war. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” Trump told Howard Stern in 1997, for “surviving” free of STDs. He declared it a “personal Vietnam.”
Trump similarly dismissed Khan’s challenge, compared his supposed business acumen to Humayun’s sacrifice, then proceeded to impugn the character of the Gold Star parents by insinuating their true sympathies lie with terrorists.
The abhorrent treatment of the Khans drew scathing condemnation from decorated military personnel and veterans’ organizations, and earned direct denunciation from fellow Republicans. “In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” wrote McCain, whose own heroism was once trivialized by Trump. “He suggested the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
In 2008, Powell backed Obama over McCain, and in doing so, described a pivotal moment in solidifying his decision: “It was a photo essay about troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he explained, where one poignant image, “a mother in Arlington Cemetery … her head on the headstone of her son’s grave” caught his attention. “As the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star; showed he died in Iraq. Then, at the top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.”
“His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan … He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he (could) serve his country, and he gave his life.”
That was Powell’s America, one threatened by the bottom half of McCain’s ticket, the Palin-wing of the party, which metastasized into the poisonous movement that propelled Trump to the top of the 2016 ticket.
Though it’s a different Khan resting in Arlington whose story has moved conservatives, it’s again an extraordinary Muslim-American providing the catalyst that has principled Republicans now distancing themselves from what their party has become.
Far from defending the debasement of the Khans, when Trump’s campaign issued an “urgent” plea for vocal support, congressional allies instead leaked the memo to the press. Trump’s indifference to the constitution factored into an open letter signed by 50 senior Republican national security officials, one detailing Trump as a threat to “national security and well-being.”
Former president Bill Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The vigorous, bipartisan defence of the Khans offered a glimpse of what remains right with America, and that precise “greatness” threatens to fell the very demagogue claiming it doesn’t exist.