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Book Review: My American Journey (The Autobiography of General Colin Powell)

January 1, 2015


Before reading this book I thought Colin Powell would have been a good president. After reading, I’m convinced he would have been not just good, but great.

This book review is a departure in several ways from my previous reviews. First, I actually read this book. I’ve been using my commute time over the past several months to listen to what I continue to think of as “Books on Tape.” Of course they are on CD or on my iPad.

My American Journey was a gift. I collect autographed books and this one was signed by General Powell.


At 617 pages it’s not a short read. It was funny to me that in the forward General Powell promises not to write “a ‘doorstopper’ of the kind I was warned about by one of my media friend.”

The doors at Powell’s house must be large indeed if this tome won’t hold them open. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the book. I did. I liked it a lot and was somewhat disappointed when I reached the end.

What I Liked

But first, the parts I liked. Powell is upfront about the fact that he wrote this book with Joseph E. Persico. Both names appear prominently on the cover. I don’t know how much of the tone was Persico and how much was Powell, but the voice is very natural sounding. I imagined sitting down for an afternoon and listening to Powell tell stories.

And the stories were fascinating. I learned what those “advisors” in Vietnam were doing. I thought it was a clever way of saying, “We have soldiers fighting, but we’d rather not acknowledge that.” Instead, Powell takes us through what an advisor did and why their role was critical. But, they were different than having our own soldiers fighting.

I’m a lover of history and follow politics as a spectator sport. Powell served three presidents, Reagan, Bush Sr and Clinton. It was fascinating to go inside and hear how some of the events that shaped our lives in the 80’s and 90’s transpired. His retelling of the Iran/Contra events were riveting even 30 years later.

General Powell was the first black man to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He worked his way up from an ROTC cadet to become a 4-star general. I have children in the Army and I have black children. Powell gave me an education about both that I don’t think I could have gotten any other way.

What I Didn’t

My American Journey suffered from three problems for me. First, while Powell tried to avoid the “. . .and then I went to lunch with” passages, often the narrative of the story was interrupted by a roll call. From a historical perspective these references might be important. And I can say from personal experience that friends love to see their names in print. Powell seems to have attempted to credit each person who was part of a memorable or momentous event. That’s a laudable goal, but makes for a choppy story at times.

The second issue I had with the book was that it was written while Powell was considering a run for president. While the general himself avoids any direct reference to his future political ambitions, his editors were not so circumspect. In the flyleaf they describe him as “the man the country would most like to draft as president.”

I was one of those people. But, because the book was written against a backdrop of a potential presidential bid, at times it comes across as more of a campaign flyer than a story of the most successful African-American to ever put on the uniform of the United States Army. Parts appear sanitized for general consumption and other parts seem written to highlight a particular “presidential” trait.

My final criticism of the book, and it really isn’t Colin Powell’s fault, was that it ended in the mid-1990’s. Obviously Powell never ran for president, but his story was so engaging and pulled me into his life so thoroughly that it made me curious what the ensuing 20 years have brought. And that’s hardly a criticism at all.

What It Means For You

Powell teaches a lot about leadership and decision making in his storytelling, even though that’s not the point of the book. If you are a student of modern American history, his perspective is refreshingly non-partisan. He served with equal devotion under a Democratic president as he did under Republican ones.

His insights on presidential decision making are extremely useful since he brings an outsider’s perspective. He often was the proverbial “fly on the wall” during some of the most important meetings of the last two decades of the 20th century.

I enjoyed My American Journey very much. I’m grateful to General Powell for his service to our country and grateful he wrote about it, so that I could vicariously tag along for the ride.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (And yes, the pun is deliberate)

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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