By Joseph Williams, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Retired General Colin Powell, President Bush's former secretary of state and an influential Republican, endorsed Barack Obama today, a major political move which boosts Obama's credentials as a potential commander-in-chief and could influence moderate Republicans and independent voters -- two constituencies John McCain, Obama's GOP rival, is depending on to stay competitive with Obama in crucial swing states.
Breaking his months-long silence, Powell requested an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" to tell Tom Brokaw that Obama has "the intellectual vigor" to become president. Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, said Obama is "a transformational figure" who "brings a fresh set of eyes, a fresh set of ideas to the table" at a time the nation urgently needs it.
"He has both style and substance," Powell said. "He has met the standard of being president."
Speaking with reporters afterward, Powell praised McCain as a "gifted" senator, but had withering criticism for his party and the direction of McCain's campaign -- especially his inconsistent actions during the recent economic crisis, his recent focus on Obama's loose ties to former 1970s radical William Ayers, and McCain's selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
"I think that Senator McCain, as gifted as he is, will go on to execute the Republican agenda" when the nation urgently needs a new direction, Powell said, noting that he and McCain have been friends for 25 years.
Palin, Powell said, is clearly not ready to be president in McCain's place, a "troubling" prospect given the magnitude of complex problems the country faces: two wars, a financial crisis and crumbling national infrastructure and schools.
"I don't believe she is ready to be president of the United States, which is the job of the vice president of the United States," Powell said.
"We have two wars, we have an economic problem, we have education problems, we have infrastructure problems," Powell told reporters. "Those are the problems people want to hear about, not Mr. Ayers, not who is a Muslim and who is not a Muslim" he said, referring to Palin's stump-speech attacks on Obama and persistent false rumors from conservatives about the Illinois senator's faith.
Though Obama is a Christian, his or any other candidate's faith is irrelevant, Powell said, because "if you're an American, you're an American. We have got to stop this kind of nonsense and pull ourselves together and realize the strength of this country is our diversity and our unity."
While Obama's campaign hailed the announcement, McCain, who had actively sought Powell's backing, told Fox News Channel he was disappointed but not surprised by Powell's decision. McCain pointed to the endorsements he has received from retired generals and four former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and James Baker.
Obama highlighted Powell's support at a rally this afternoon appropriately enough in Fayetteville, N.C., just outside Fort Bragg, one of the nation's largest military bases.
"With so many brave men and women from Fayetteville who are serving in our military, this is a city and a state that knows something about great soldiers. And this morning, a great soldier, a great statesman, a great American has endorsed our campaign for change. I have been honored to have the benefit of his wisdom and his counsel from time to time over the last few years, but today, I am beyond honored, I am deeply humbled to have the support of General Colin Powell," Obama said.
"General Powell has defended this nation bravely, and he has embodied our highest ideals through his long and distinguished public service. He and his wife Alma have inspired millions of young people to serve their communities and their country through their tireless commitment and trailblazing American story. And he knows, as we do, that this is a moment where we all need to come together as one nation -- young and old, rich and poor, black, white, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Republican and Democrat. This is a moment to stand up and serve because this is a moment of great uncertainty in America."
Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, responded, "Only an unproven and inexperienced politician like Barack Obama would have to rely so heavily on an another man's resume in making the case for his own candidacy -- and it shows that he's just not ready."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said on CNN today that while he has the "highest regard" for Powell, he thinks he is wrong about Obama.
"I don't see the same things in Barack Obama that Colin Powell sees. I just come to a different conclusion.
Asked about Powell's description of Obama as "transformational," Giuliani replied, " What I see is a very traditional liberal Democrat, really a throwback -- even a throwback before the Clintons. Someone who supports union organizing in a way that we're not even going to have the benefit of secret ballot any longer, so that people could get intimidated to be in unions. Someone who supports government medicine. Some who really does seem to believe in redistribution of wealth, which I think at this point in our economy is a terrible idea."
"I think General Powell is wrong, respectfully," Giuliani added. "I believe he has come to this conclusion, you can see, in an agonized way, because he likes both men very much. I know he's a close friend of John McCain's. He has great respect for Barack Obama."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.