Powell was “the voice” of Eisenhower documentary
By Dr. George Colburn
I have interviewed four Presidents, a British Prime Minister, a French Premier – and lots more “prominent people” during my 30-plus years of writing and producing 10 broadcast documentaries on Dwight D. Eisenhower and 20 other documentaries designed for classroom use.
Significant “witnesses to history” in these programs were plentiful e.g., the son and son-in-law of Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party in the USSR from 1953 to 1962, who came to see “Ike” in the U.S. in the interest of peaceful co-existence.
Over the years I heard several witnesses to the “The Eisenhower Era, 1941 – 1961” describe coming into contact with “Ike” and vividly describing their moments of being in the presence of a “great man.” Their stated awe decades later usually meant their comments found their way into my programs. I was awed by their memories.
But not until I met General Colin Powell (USA, Ret.) had I ever encountered greatness myself.
First of all, I had never met Gen. Powell until he showed up for the shoot… and I had nothing to do with Gen. Powell’s decision to host my 4-part series for the Disney organization. It was Abbott Washburn who made it all happen. He was a World War II intelligence officer in the European Theater who headed the Voice of America operation for Ike in the 1950s. I liked to call Washburn the project’s “godfather” due to many “gifts” he brought to us – in terms of contacts, locations and funding.
Let me share some highlights of that day when I first met Gen. Powelland realized that this encounter is what so many witnesses to history saw in their encounters with Ike.
A bit of a spoiler first: My day with greatness turned out to be the most difficult day in my 40 years of involvement in film-making.
When Gen. Powell and his aide walked into the Washington, DC library of the Army-Navy Club on a hot July morning in 1997, all noise on our set in the club library immediately ceased. “The General has arrived” was the whispered word that traveled quickly to the far corners of the long, narrow room designed to handle a few book browsers.
The room that summer day was crowded, maybe overcrowded. There was a TV crew that was larger than normal to handle extra equipment – at least a dozen people. And there were at least that many “friends” of the series we were producing – people who had known Ike as President, or people who knew “The General.”
They were waiting to witness this great man deliver introductory remarks to the four programs I had written and produced for the Disney Channel, and to close out the series with appropriate and thoughtful remarks at the end. No other documentary programming had taken Ike’s entire public life, 1941 – 1961, as a topic. And no documentarian had come forth with a “revisionist” point of view about Ike as President.
The General had to deliver about 15 minutes of pointed commentary I had written after we completed a rough edit for the “suits” at Disney who were thrilled that could deliver such a “star” as the face of the series. The scripts were already loaded into the teleprompter. We were ready to go – except for the distraction of my churning stomach.
As the General and I exchanged pleasantries in the presence of the Director of Photography, I noticed that I was sweating considerably. This was my “moment” of realizing I was not only in the company of greatness, but that he and I were a team producing key elements of programs that millions would see. It is a physical feeling, one that is remembered many years later.
By the summer of 1997 when we met, Gen. Powell occupied no powerful office in the federal government or in the military. He was a retired 4-star Army general who had written his autobiography the year before. But more importantly, he carried the invisible mantle of “everyone’s candidate for President.” And that mantle gave him limitless power in the minds of his fellow citizens. In the minds of many Eisenhower era survivors, he could become “the next Eisenhower.”
But the former National Security Adviser (under Reagan), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (under Bush 41) was unlike Ike when it came to politics. He had chosen not to leave the Army and enter the political arena in 1992 or 1996. He was by 1997 a registered Republican who would soon become super famous for his UN speech on behalf of Bush 43’s agenda for solving problems in the Middle East.
After the pleasantries, The General and I then adjourned to a somewhat quiet corner of the room to consider the script that I had delivered to his aide 2 or 3 weeks earlier. He had “some questions”, he said.
I had called his office many times in prior weeks for some script feedback, but was told by his aide, “George, not to worry; we have done this before.” Needless to say perhaps, I sweated some during those weeks as we continued to edit the series that had taken me and others to the U.K, the U.S.S.R., France and Germany for very special interviews with those who knew Ike in World War II and as President. In my view, this was not to be your ordinary documentary series about an important historical figure.
Having Colin Powell be “the face” of the series meant this series of four programs would get special notice. The “suits” at Disney were thrilled that an ex-Eisenhower aide had brought in The General as host of the series.
After trying to say “no” to the invitation from Abbott Washbun to do a documentary on Ike as President a few years earlier, I had gotten myself so wrapped up in the project that I had moved from L.A. to D.C. to be hands-on every day in the studios of Gancie Television at the NBC affiliate in DC.
As coffee turned cold on that fateful day in 1997, it quickly became apparent that The General was not overly familiar with the printed document in front of us. And it was clear that he didn’t like what he read in his script to introduce Program 3, an analysis of three major domestic issues that had confronted President Eisenhower during many of his eight years in the Oval Office.
As everyone waited – somewhat impatiently – for our “show” to begin, we remained in the corner dealing with words and phrases about McCarthyism and civil rights. I recall that the “buzzing” in the room made me nervous. There was no talk about the third topic in that program, i.e. how Ike managed to keep the budget under control in a time of escalating defense costs.
New research on the McCarthy and civil rights issues had begun appearing in the early 1990s, and no one but a presidential scholar (and a nervous filmmaker-historian ready to bring his point of view to millions) would be aware of what was now coming out in academic circles via documents that until recently were buried in the archives at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, KS.
“No, no,” he would say after reading a sentence…. then another. I did not have the time or inclination to try to reach Professor Stephen Ambrose, my main content advisor, and author of a recent best-selling biography of Eisenhower. So, in frustration, I finally said, “General, you just don’t know the recent history of Ike as President.” The buzzing seemed to dissipate after that.
But he politely just ignored my comments…. and, in the end, they didn’t matter, I could tell. So, I went off to the opposite side of the room – behind the camera – and tried to redraft the script that opened Program 3. I fretted because our time standing around would impact my very tight post-production budget. I started to second-guess my production decisions to visit Moscow, London, Paris and Bonn for interviews that would make the series “special.”
And I redrafted and redrafted. In the crowded room, many in our audience came to my corner, looked over my shoulder and suggested word changes, or new sentences. Outside, it was hot and humid. In the library, it was worse.
We finally got a draft that The General found acceptable. It was vaguely positive… and it avoided any mention of Eisenhower’s role in the sudden destruction of U.S. Senator McCarthy’s political power after Ike was elected. McCarthy lost his voice and influence by the time of the midterms in 1954 – in the Senate and with the public-at-large. Ditto for Eisenhower’s important role in getting the first civil rights bill since the Reconstruction era through the Democratic Congress in his second term.
So off we went to feed that new script into the teleprompter.
And our little show finally got underway for our small audience. What had changed was one introductory script. The 75-minute program that followed the introduction by Gen. Powell was not re-edited to fit the new introduction.
Here is the link to General Powell’s opening remarks prior to Program One of The Eisenhower Legacy series for Disney.
The General got what he wanted. My production assistant, who closely observed the back-and-forth of our discussion, said later: “You knew he was The General even without his uniform.”
At the premiere later in the year, he said to me with a smile, “You did all the work, but everyone will think it is my series.” And then he was off to see the important people in the room.
My several hours with Gen. Powell was a moment that I will always remember. So, I offer a final salute to a dedicated public servant who rose to the highest levels of government and the military – one who broke through many barriers on his way to the top.
May he rest in peace and be remembered always by the country he served so well for most of his adult life. We could use many more Colin Powells as we face the challenges of a very uncertain future.
Dr. Colburn welcomes your comments on this essay. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.