Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state in the US, died Monday morning due to complications from COVID-19, his family said. He was 84.
"We have lost a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American," his family said in a Facebook post.
He was fully vaccinated and was being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, they added.
Powell, a Republican for most of his career, served as secretary of state under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.
Powell was reportedly earlier diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of cancer that affects white blood cells, according to CNN and NBC, and he was honored as a keynote speaker at the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation fundraiser in 2019. His longtime aide, Peggy Cifrino, told the New York Times that Powell had been successfully treated for it.
The accumulation of cancerous cells impairs the body’s ability to make antibodies, making people with the condition more vulnerable to COVID-19. A study published in July also found that people with multiple myeloma respond less strongly to the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines.
“People have impaired immunity both from the underlying disease and the treatments,” James Berenson, medical and scientific director of the Institute for Myeloma & Bone Cancer Research and the lead researcher on that study, told BuzzFeed News. “The majority of myeloma patients do not achieve an adequate immune response to the first two vaccinations.”
In their statement on Facebook, Powell’s family did not say when he was first vaccinated, or whether he had been given an additional dose following initial vaccination. The CDC has recommended that people with compromised immune systems who receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should get a third shot at least 28 days after receiving the normal two doses.
In a statement, President Joe Biden called Powell a "dear friend and a patriot of unmatched honor and dignity."
"Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people," Biden said.
Powell, who was born in Harlem to Jamaican parents, first rose to prominence through his military career. He served in the Vietnam War, then rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser and George H.W. Bush’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
Powell was popular for years among both Democrats and Republicans and at times was considered a possible presidential candidate. But his career was irreparably damaged when, in a speech before the UN Security Council in 2003, he pushed for war with Iraq, asserting the country had weapons of mass destruction. The speech was found to be riddled with erroneous claims, and Powell later described it as a “blot” that “will always be a part of my record.”
Despite identifying as a Republican in 2008, Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president, calling him a “transformational figure” and “a new generation coming onto the world stage.”
In the following years, he became increasingly critical of the Republican Party and endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. In leaked emails months before the election, Powell had called Trump “a national disgrace” and an “international pariah.”
He was also vocal in denouncing Trump’s “birther” campaign against Obama, which he called “racist” in the leaked emails. In a Meet the Press interview in 2008, Powell further criticized that and other conspiracy theories, saying, for example, that the issue wasn’t just the false claim that Obama was Muslim — it was the implication that being Muslim might make someone an ill fit for the nation’s highest office.
“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America,” Powell said. “Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He's a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”
After right-wing insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in January, Powell renounced his support for the Republican Party, saying Trump had incited the attempted coup and lawmakers in his party had allowed him to do so. "They did, and that's why I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican,” he said on CNN. "I'm not a fellow of anything right now. I'm just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat throughout my entire career. And right now I'm just watching my country and not concerned with parties.”
Powell is survived by his wife, Alma Johnson, and their three children.
A statement from George W. Bush remembered Powell as a “great public servant” whom many presidents relied upon.
“He was such a favorite of Presidents that he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom — twice,” Bush said. “He was highly respected at home and abroad. And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said he was “devastated” by Powell’s death. “He was a wise, decent & generous spirit,” he tweeted. “He & Alma were married on the same day that we were and most yrs on that day we'd talk with & tease each other. Our hearts are heavy & our thoughts are w/ Alma & their family.”
DNC Chair Jaime Harrison called Powell “a statesman who put his country & family above all else.”
“As a young Black man, he inspired me & showed that there are no limits to what we can be or achieve,” he tweeted.