Understatement of the year. The GOP still has a huge problem with racism and doesn't seem too terribly concerned about remedying it any time soon. Powell takes their racist cheerleader in chief Rush Limbaugh to task for his statements about Judge Sonia Sotomayor being a reverse racist.
KING: We are about to have a Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearing, and it is clear now from all involved that we're going to have a spirited conversation about affirmative action. It is an issue that you have discussed many times over the course of your life.
Any advice for the senators in both parties as this goes forward? Let me ask you first if you know Judge Sotomayor?
POWELL: No, I do not.
KING: She's from the Bronx.
POWELL: She's from my neighborhood, yes. She seems like a very gifted and accomplished woman. She certainly has an open and liberal bent of mind, but that's not disqualifying. But she seems to have a judicial record that seems to be balanced and tries to follow the law.
And so I hope we do have a spirited set of hearings. And Supreme Court confirmation hearings tend to always meet that standard. And she ought to be asked about everything from both the left and the right. What we can't continue to have is to have somebody like a Judge Sotomayor who is announced, and based on one simple tricky but nonetheless case at the Supreme Court has now decided, have her called a racist, a reverse-racist, and she ought to withdraw her nomination because we're mad at her.
Fortunately the senators who will sit on this hearing in the Judiciary Committee after a few days of this kind of nonsense said, let's slow down, let's examine her qualifications the way we're supposed to at a confirmation hearing.
KING: You wrote in your book some time ago about this issue, about serving in administrations. You wrote: "Never in the two years I worked with Ronald Reagan and George Bush did I detect the slightest trace of racial prejudice in their behavior. They led a party, however, whose principal message to black Americans seemed to be, lift yourself up by your bootstraps. Some did not have boots. I wish that Reagan and Bush had shown more sensitivity on this point."
Let's fast forward to where we are today. Does the Republican Party have that sensitivity now? You just mentioned the divergence of opinion when this nomination first came up. Are you confident those in, let's say, elected leadership positions have that sensitivity now?
POWELL: Well, if you look at the results of the election last fall and make a judgment on the basis of how the party did with respect to the Hispanic vote and the African-American vote, realizing that President Obama -- candidate Obama had a significant advantage with those constituencies, we haven't done well enough.
And when you have non-elected officials such as we have in our party who immediately shout racism or somebody who is quite prominent in the media says that the only basis upon which I could possibly have supported Obama was because he was black and I was black, even though I laid out my judgment on the candidates, then we still have a problem.
Now, affirmative action is an issue that I thought about and worried about for many, many years. But let me summarize it this way. If you have a public institution, say, a college, such as a college I went to, City College in New York, where you're responsible for educating the public, not just a part of the public but the public.
And as you are looking at your student population, if you find that there are some parts of the public who are not properly represented in your institution, shouldn't you do something about that? Don't you have an obligation to do something about it?
You don't have an obligation to bring in anybody who is not able to do the work. You should always have qualifications. But once you've established those qualifications, is there something wrong with a taxpayer-funded institution not making sure that it is representing the entire public, the entire population?
And I think that's a good rule for private institutions as well. Call it affirmative action, call it diversity. It goes under a lots of different names. I have a hunch that maybe 55 years ago somebody took a look at my rather mediocre high school grades, but at the same time, thought, maybe this kid can make it, and let me into the City College of New York.
KING: Worked out OK.
KING: The guy who used the term "reverse-racism," you didn't name him, but it's Rush Limbaugh. And he has said some not so favorable things about you, saying this guy says he's a Republican but then he supported Obama, so he's not really a Republican.
You're a Republican.
POWELL: Yes. And Mr. Limbaugh, of course, is entitled to his opinion but he's not on any membership committee. He doesn't decide who I am or what I am no more than I decide who he is or what he is.
So we've had this running debate, let's call it that. And he's entitled to his opinion and I'm entitled to mine.
KING: One of the questions people would ask when you say, I'm still a Republican, you've supported President Obama and you did make quite clear your reasons for doing so. Are you going to support him for reelection or is it too soon to answer that question?
POWELL: It's too soon to answer that question. And I get asked questions like that all of the time. I have voted Democratic over the years, I've voted Republican. I voted twice for Ronald Reagan, twice for the first Bush, and twice for the second Bush.
And I voted for Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. I always try to find the person that I think is best qualified for the highest office in the land. I believe that our country is best served when there are two strong parties, strong parties that have opposing points of view -- political points of view. That's what makes this country great. And they can debate those points of view.
I think we run into dangerous territory in this country when the two ends of the political spectrum become so dug in and nasty and everything is ad hominem and driven by cable television and blogs and all kinds of other things that our positions get so hardened that we can't find a way toward the center, which is where the country is.