Colin Powell Once Serenaded Foreign Official With Abba Song, Friend Recalls at Funeral

Colin Powell was viewed as a serious man dealing with serious matters during his career initially as a soldier and later as the first Black U.S. secretary of state. But he would occasionally move to a lighter side, too.

Richard Armitage served as the State Department's second-ranking official while Powell was secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. Sweden's foreign minister, Ann Linde, met with Armitage and Powell and presented the latter with a full CD set of Abba's music. Powell had long been a fan of the Swedish pop group that rose to stardom during the disco craze of the 1970s thanks to songs like Dancing Queen and Waterloo.

"Colin immediately went down on one knee and sang the entire Mamma Mia to a very amused foreign minister of Sweden and to a gob-smacked U.S. delegation. They'd never seen anything like it," Armitage said Friday at Powell's funeral.

The U.S. Army Brass Quintet played Dancing Queen on Friday at the funeral, AP reported.

The ceremony at Washington's National Cathedral drew a large crowd along with President Joe Biden, former presidents Barack Obama and Bush, as well as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Former President Bill Clinton did not attend because he is recovering from a severe infection. Former President Donald Trump, who attacked Powell in a statement following his death, did not attend.

Powell, 84, died on October 18 from complications of COVID-19. He had been vaccinated, but his family said he had been compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment. Powell's death quickly became another point of debate around vaccinations.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Colin Powell, Funeral, Iraq War
The flag-draped casket of former Secretary of State Colin Powell is carried into the Washington National Cathedral for a funeral service in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) Associated Press

Powell was remembered by family and friends Friday as a principled man of humility and grace whose decorated record of leadership can serve as a model for generations to come.

"The example of Colin Powell does not call on us to emulate his resume, which is too formidable for mere mortals," his son, Michael, said in a touching tribute. "It is to emulate his character and his example as a human being. We can strive to do that."

The funeral on a sunny and chilly day drew dignitaries and friends from across the political and military spectrum.

Funeral attendees Friday were required to wear masks. Not all did.

Madeleine Albright, who was Powell's immediate predecessor as secretary of state, called him "a figure who almost transcended time," and "one of the gentlest and most decent people any of us will ever meet. He relished the opportunity to connect with other generations.

"This morning my heart aches," she added, "because we've lost a friend and our nation one of its finest and most loyal soldiers. Yet even as we contemplate the magnitude of our loss, we can almost hear a familiar voice asking us—no, commanding us—to stop feeling sad, to turn our gaze once again from the past to the future and to get on with the nation's business while making the most of our own days on Earth, one step at a time."

During her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Albright sometimes clashed with Powell, although they became good friends. Both have recalled the time, during his final months as Joint Chiefs chairman, when she argued for a U.S. military intervention in the Balkans, asking why the United States had built a superb military if it couldn't be used in such circumstances. Powell recalled being so irritated by her statement, "I thought I would have an aneurysm."

Powell's view was that the United States should commit its military only when it had a clear and achievable political objective, a key element of what became known as the Powell Doctrine, which embodied lessons learned from the U.S. failure in Vietnam.

The story of Powell's rise to prominence in American life is a classic.

In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell recalled a 1940s childhood in the Hunts Point section of New York City's South Bronx, where he was a mediocre student—happy-go-lucky but aimless.

He caught the military bug during his first year at the City College of New York in 1954. Powell was inspired by seeing fellow students in uniform, and he enrolled in the school's Reserve Officer Training Corps.

"I felt distinctive" in uniform, he wrote.

Although he was only 4 when the United States entered World War II, he had vivid memories of the war years. "I deployed legions of lead soldiers and directed battles on the living room rug," he wrote—a fantasy forerunner of his Army years.

Powell would serve 35 years in uniform. Commissioned in 1958, he served around the world, including two tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.

He distinguished himself at the Pentagon even before he attained flag officer rank. In the late 1970s he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in 1983 as a brigadier general he became the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. He later served in the White House as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, and in 1989 he was promoted to four-star general. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush selected him to be the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

It was a trailblazing American dream journey that won him international acclaim and trust.

He put that credibility on the line in February of 2003 when, appearing before the United Nations as secretary of state, he made the case for war against Iraq. When it turned out that the intelligence he cited was faulty and the Iraq War became a bloody, chaotic nightmare, Powell's stellar reputation was damaged.

Still, it wasn't destroyed. After leaving government, he became an elder statesman on the global stage and the founder of an organization aimed at helping young disadvantaged Americans. Republicans wanted him to run for president. After becoming disillusioned with his party, he ended up endorsing the last three Democratic presidential candidates, who welcomed his support.

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