On Colin Powell's death, and lies about war and disease

From Powell's legacy on Iraq to what his death means amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the distortions are abounding

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Every time a Republican who wasn’t Donald Trump dies now nostalgia grips the media. And it immediately results in revisionist history.

George H.W. Bush’s legacy was whitewashed when he died in 2018, as the media clamored for a time (which really never existed) punctuated by more civil Republicans. There was little analysis of how Bush and the GOP paved the way for Trump, nor of his ignorance and callousness in dealing with crisis, particularly the AIDS epidemic, which I wrote about upon his death.

The same phenomenon has transpired since the death of Colin Powell was reported on Monday. There’s a lot of emphasis on his military career as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the barriers he broke and his leadership on military conflicts before the Iraq War. But the Iraq War, in which he offered all of his credibility to Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush as Bush’s Secretary of State, backing the invasion and wrongly claiming at the UN that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, is his legacy.

Thousands of American troops died, while hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Iraq became a hotbed of terrorism, as ISIS formed, and the entire Middle East was further destabilized. The world was left in chaos and Powell helped it happen. He was critical in fact. It was nice that he later admitted he was wrong, unlike Rumsfeld, and that he backed President Obama’s candidacy.

But nothing could undo what he’d done, and to see much of the media coverage in the last few days you’d think it was a footnote, as they overwhelming laud him and his career. It’s part of their continued romanticization about a mythical old GOP. They long for a time when they believe both parties were somehow equal and less partisan — so they could go back to the horserace coverage — when the truth is the Republican Party has been cruel on both domestic and international policy for many decades, harming so many people and spending billions of American dollars on it, while cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

And it was that party and its policies that birthed Trump, who pushed the same ideas but out in the open rather than with a dog whistle.

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Then we have the Covid-19 denialists and anti-vaxxers — and the right-wing media and the Republican politicians who pander to them —who’ve seized upon Powell’s death at the age of 84 due to Covid-19 as proof that vaccines don’t work because he’d been fully vaccinated.

And again, the larger media has let us down. The initial reports in many major newspapers and cable networks didn’t emphasize that Powell suffered by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer which ultimately would have killed him and which literally attacks the bodies ability to make antibodies — the process which is needed in order to fight a virus and for vaccines against a virus to work effectively. Powell had also battled cancer a few years earlier.

This is such a key fact, and it did come in out later reporting, but the failure to immediately focus on it allowed the right-wing media and anti-vaxxers to ramp up the propaganda at a time when we’re fighting against vaccine lies. The right has been able to trot out this lie, using it for political purposes. On “Fox & Friends” and on the far-right Newsmax the lies abounded that Powell was one of many people who’d been hospitalized even after they were vaccinated — when hospitalizations are in fact rare for those who are vaccinated and have a breakthrough case.

Fox News anchor John Roberts tweeted that the death of Powell "raises new concerns" about the vaccines. He was lambasted and removed the tweet, but not before Republican politicians were using it.

My own father battled multiple myeloma and I saw the way it weakened his body. Beyond its direct attack on the immune system, the disease, like any that requires infusions, takes a toll on the entire body. The truth is, at 84 and with multiple myeloma, the common flu could had killed Powell.

The Covid-19 vaccines have an enormously high efficacy rate, but are not 100% — just as every other vaccine for many other illnesses. Those for whom there’s still a danger even after being vaccinated against a virus are those who have underlying conditions, which can be even worse with advanced age.

The initial headlines, instead of saying “Powell dies due to Covid” should have said, Powell, “battling blood cancer, died after complications from Covid.” (The New York Times was a great exception, and rightly went with, “Colin Power, whose immune system was weakened, died of Covid-19 after fighting cancer.” )

But just as in reporting on his legacy, much of the media engaged in initial distortions and omissions. Though they often correct these in days to come, it allows a narrative to set. And that is grossly irresponsible.

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