Powell steps down amid a cascade of honors



WASHINGTON (AP)—Colin Powell stepped down as the nation’s top military officer Thursday amid pomp and pageantry, hailed by President Clinton simply as ‘‘first and foremost, a good soldier.’‘

At a retirement ceremony under sunny autumn skies, Powell saluted the troops, then bade an emotional and eloquent farewell.

‘‘I loved every single day of it and it’s hard to leave,’‘ the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a crowd of hundreds assembled on reviewing field at Fort Myer in suburban Virginia.

‘‘I have never wanted to be anything but a soldier and my dreams have been fulfilled for almost four decades.’‘

Clinton awarded Powell the presidential Medal of Freedom—the general had received the same award earlier from President Bush—as Powell was feted with a cascade of awards, 21-gun salute and military flyover. Bush and his wife, Barbara, were among the honored guests.

‘‘As a young soldier and a not-so-young soldier, he was always first and foremost a good soldier,’‘ Clinton said of Powell.

‘‘His remarkable balance of prudence and courage … and his unfailing sense of humor have been there through the difficult times of now two presidencies,’‘ Clinton continued. ‘‘He clearly had the warrior’s spirit and the judgment to know when it should be applied in the nation’s behalf.’‘

Queen Elizabeth II, adding accolades from afar, approved an honorary knighthood for Powell.

The 56-year-old chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is retiring with sky-high popularity ratings at an age when many political careers are just taking off, prompting speculation that Powell may run for the presidency.

Taking note of Powell’s popularity, Defense Secretary Les Aspin joked that his ground-breaking accomplishments included becoming the first chairman of the joint chiefs ‘‘to appear as a full-size cardboard cutout’‘ on capital streets so tourists can get their pictures taken with him.

Powell’s reticence about matters political has been part of his allure.

Acknowledging that he still feels ‘‘an obligation … to do something in public life,’‘ Powell has kept quiet about his political designs.

Clinton mentioned only that Powell had ‘‘a bright future.’‘

Powell spoke movingly of his 35-year military career—college days in ROTC, cold nights in Korea, terrifying days in Vietnam, warm reunions with family—and ended with an emotional tribute to his wife, Alma.

‘‘Thank you, darling,’‘ he told her, as she blew him a kiss.

When it was over, Powell was mustered out by Army chief Gen. Gordon Sullivan, who saluted his colleague and then embraced him.

As a private citizen, Powell plans to write his memoirs—for a reported $6 million—and is expected to haul in top dollar on the lecture circuit. Beyond that, his intentions are unknown.

He is the all-American success story, a role model for the rising generation.

After a modest upbringing in the Bronx, Powell graduated from City College of New York with a degree in geology. He was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army in 1958. He worked his way up to become the first black to serve as White House national security adviser and the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Powell took note of his background, telling the crowd, ‘‘the Army took in a young black kid from ROTC in the south Bronx and brought him to this point.’‘

Mindful of his sway with younger Americans, Powell has been a frequent visitor to inner-city schools, where he ‘‘orders’‘ youths to stay in school and avoid drugs.

Powell’s career spanned a period of sweeping change in America’s attitude toward its armed forces: He saw combat in Vietnam, argued against using force to oust Iraqi invaders from Kuwait and opposed intervention by U.S. ground troops in Bosnia. As the president’s top military adviser, he was a central planner of the military actions in Panama and the Persian Gulf.

Clinton summoned Powell to the White House early Thursday, where they spent an hour discussing his career but not politics, according to spokesman Mark Gearan. He had lunch with the military chiefs of staff and heads of military commands around the world.

Powell departs with a load of new medals—including two repeats. He was awarded his second Medal of Freedom and fourth Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Department’s highest non-combat award, as well as distinguished service medals from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

Mrs. Powell was awarded the Army’s decoration for distinguished civilian service and a certificate of appreciation for her public service.