The first time I read John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany I was younger, Catholic, and not quite connecting with the narrator’s obsession with the Reagan administration. This time around my husband and I are listening to the audio book while on long car trips and like the narrator I am older, Episcopalian, and obsessed with the actions of a presidential administration, although in my case it’s the George W. Bush administration.

I’ve written a few posts about the Afghanistan war and the 2 Iraq wars and yesterday another piece of that shameful mess came to the foreground with the death of Colin Powell. I remember the first time I saw him on television as the leader of the invasion of Panama. That invasion was absolutely wrong and it launched his career.

After Bush left office, Powell had a pretty good racket going. He said the right things to defend Barack Obama and he didn’t vote for TFG. But he never left the Republican Party until the 1/6 insurrection. Everything else that the GOP allowed TFG to do—banning Muslims, separating immigrant families on purpose and losing their contact information, putting immigrant children in camps, conspiring with Russia to throw the 2016 election, all of it—was fine with him. Some hero.

Powell was the only person who could have stopped the war in Iraq. He knew what he was telling the United Nations was a lie, and he did it anyway. And because of his seemingly sterling reputation, he was believed by others in the US government, and that disastrous, wasteful war that damaged so many people (and the US economy) began.

A confidence man is someone who gains your trust before they knowingly defraud you. Powell was the Bush administration’s confidence man. He had meticulously worked his way up the ranks using his keen political sense to obtain incredible power. People really trusted him, even though he had led an illegal invasion of another country.

And because so many people in the press, in politics, in the military, and in academia had staked their careers and reputations on the Iraq war, they held up the lies as truth even after the truth itself came out.

John Irving has the last word:

I know what my grandmother used to say, whenever she saw or read anything that was just a lot of bullshit. Owen picked up the phrase from her; he was quite lethal in its application, our senior year at Gravesend. Whenever anyone said anything that was a lot of bullshit to him, Owen Meany used to say, “YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? THAT’S MADE FOR TELEVISION—THAT’S WHAT THAT IS.”


  1. YOU HAD ME AT PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY (those who have read it get the all-caps).

    What you wrote about reminded me of the most recent episode of Ezra Klein’s podcast, guest hosted by Jamelle Bouie while Ezra is on paternity leave. It’s an interview with a historian about the ideal of the Founding Fathers, and the reality of the Founding Fathers, and he said something like “I wish we thought less about ‘heroes’ and more about ‘heroic.'” Meaning, we lionize people and erase their faults. Powell had plenty. He did do heroic things, like his “so what if Obama was Muslim” statement on Meet the Press that had people howling at the moon.

    But in other things? Yeah, not great.

Comments are closed.