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Executive Dir. Jack Rives reflects on Gen. Colin Powell’s life, legacy

Jack Rives, the American Bar Association’s Executive Director and friend and former colleague of Colin Powell, remembers the general. For more, listen to the National Security Law Today podcast episode "Remembering Colin Powell, A National Security Legend." 

The American Bar Association is deeply saddened by the news of Gen. Colin Powell’s death and sends its condolences to his wife and family.

Gen. Powell served our country his entire life. In his distinguished military career, he rose to the rank of four-star general. He served as National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State.

General Colin Powell and Lieutenant Colonel Jack Rives (c. 1993)

General Colin Powell and Lieutenant Colonel Jack Rives (c. 1993)

Department of Defense photo

I had the great honor of working for Gen. Powell for several months before he retired from active duty in 1993, when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I was a Lieutenant Colonel judge advocate in the Air Force. I saw firsthand Gen. Powell’s deep respect for all with whom he worked, including his high regard for attorneys.

In 1991, Gen. Powell told the ABA Journal that in war, “decisions were impacted by legal decisions at every level. Lawyers proved invaluable in the decision-making process.” He meant it.

Gen. Powell enjoyed working with lawyers and respected their input. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he required any material that reached his desk to go through the legal office first. We had access to his daily schedule, and he issued a standing invitation to the lawyers in the office to attend any meeting.

Gen. Powell’s high regard for lawyers was also evident in his interactions with the ABA. In 1995, he spoke at an ABA Business Law meeting in Chicago, impressing attendees with his modesty, warmth, and good humor.

Despite the many demands on his time, Gen. Powell did his homework. I learned not to be surprised when he was given a thick legal brief with multiple attachments, and he returned it with detailed notations or questions. He enjoyed playing devil’s advocate with the legal staff, often carefully questioning us and citing possible inconsistencies in our positions.

In his 1995 book, “My American Journey,” Powell wrote “Don’t be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard. … Moments of stress, and confusion, and fatigue are exactly when mistakes happen. And when everyone else’s mind is dulled or distracted the leader must be doubly vigilant.”

Gen. Powell took a personal interest in his staff, and he treated all of us well. It wasn’t unusual for him to ask about our families, to know our spouses’ names, to ask about our children. One day, I was walking with him back to his office from a deposition, and he took the time to speak with an Army Major who was showing around his parents visiting from out of town. Gen. Powell shook their hands and told them, “I just want to thank you for your son’s important work.”

In a review of the book, “An American Journey” for the ABA National Security Law Report, John Allen Williams wrote of Gen. Powell: “He is also a contradictory figure: a warrior not eager to use force, a moral man who is not a prude, a man who has received a knighthood yet retained the common touch, and a believer in civilian control who would confound his civilian bosses on issues he deemed important.”

The ABA appreciates Gen. Powell’s dedication and lifetime of service to our nation. We have lost a truly great American. His legacy will endure.