RSA 2007: Colin Powell--soldier, diplomat, VC and stand-up comic

The closing keynote at RSA 2007 featured Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first-term George W. Bush administration Secretary of State.
Written by Dan Farber, Inactive

The closing keynote at RSA 2007 featured Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first-term George W. Bush administration Secretary of State. Following his public service career, Powell has been on the lecture circuit, raking in the big bucks and also playing venture capitalist as a limited partner with Silicon Valley's high profile Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He is also an accomplished stand-up comic, poking fun at himself and making his points about his career and the role of America in the flattened world with great comic timing.

I blogged about a speech he delivered at the salesforce.com Dreamforce event in October last year, and his speech at RSA was very similar, but with one major difference.

Regarding the U.S. policy in Iraq, Powell said that if the situation doesn't improve by the end of the year the troops should leave.

"Sectarian violence is ripping the country apart. It's not what strategy or surge we put in. The Iraqis have to figure it out. We have to stay with them until that happens, six months or to the end of the year to see if current policies work. If not, they are on their own," Powell said. He also advocated standing behind the Afghan government against the surging Taliban and drug lords.

The Middle East is particularly vexing to Powell. "Six billion people are trying to move forward, and 150 million in the Middle East band are a cause of trouble," he said.

The first part of the speech was his very solid stand up comedy routine, talking about the travails of retirement and being absent from the corridors of world power. 

He then gave a few commercials. He talked about his work at Kleiner Perkins, working with young entrepreneurs and investing in green technology and biomedicine. He is also a founder and investor in former AOL Chairman Steve Case's Revolution Health startup. He asked the audience to give all their health data to Revolution Health and use the service to select caregivers. He also discussed his non-profit work at the Powell Center and for an education center associated with the Viet Nam War Memorial. 

He addressed the issue of not having the world's problems on his shoulders. "I always want to see what's around the corner, not looking the rear view mirror," and then joked about missing his 757--they gave it to Condi. Even hearing the joke a second time, it was funny. Maybe he can borrow the Larry and Sergey Google plane.


For some undisclosed reason photography was not allowed for the Powell keynote. This photo as taken last year the salesforce.com Dreamforce event.

General Powell leaned into some of the issues facing the country, such as limits visas that keep foreign students out of the U.S., where they could learn to love the U.S. "American has to be open and encourage people to come here for our our own people to go oversees," Powell said. "The greatest strength against terrorists is our openness, our willingness to let people see who we are."  

He went on to say, "We must not lose that sense of values we have. The terrorists can never kill our values and principles, only we can do that to ourselves."

Then gave his version of how glasnost happened and his impression of the current Russian President Vladimir Putin, which I wrote about when I saw Powell's speech at DreamForce.

He told of how President Ronald Reagan sent him on a mission to talk with Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. He said that the Russian head of state wasn’t in a good mood and took it out on him, and he started to get annoyed. “A suspicious look came across my face that said I don’t care what you say, you are still a commie,” Powell said. “Gorbachev stopped, looked up and his face softened. He smiled and leaned forward. ‘General, General, General, I am sorry, sorry. You will have to find a new enemy.”  Powell jokingly responded that he didn’t want to find a new enemy—and give up all his troops, funding of $300 billion a year, and a battle he had trained fight to for 30 years. In the next two years, the walls came tumbling down. 

He quoted President George Bush saying, “When I looked in [Putin’s] eyes, I saw his soul.”  Powell then quipped, “I look in his eyes and see the KGB.” (The actual Bush quote is: "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.")

China, Powell said, is also gone as an enemy, and India is a strategic partner of the U.S. "The real story is there is likelihood of real war or regional war in our lifetime in Asia," Powell said. He then joked about his first visit to Japan with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and the prime minister's love of Elvis Presley.

Powell views the world today as a playing field, not a battlefield. The game is economic growth, and energy, the environment and education are critical factors. "As a nation of only 300 million competing with billions, we have to invest in education," Powell said. "The challenge is not universities, but K through 12. Too many kids are left behind, and with only 300 million we have to invest in the K-12 system."

For Powell, American is a land of promise for the rest of the world and U.S. leadership is key. "Constancy in American leadership is key....When you don't care and don't try to solve problems, you are no longer leaders."
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