Colin Powell with Jon Meacham at Belmont Tonight for Salon@615

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The Salon@615 series gets newsy this week, with Colin Powell in conversation with former Newsweek editor and best-selling Andrew Jackson biographer Jon Meacham. The retired four-star general, first-and-only African American chairman of the joint chiefs (under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton) and former Secretary of State under George W. Bush has made news recently by saying he supports same-sex marriage and criticizing GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's foreign policy advisers.

Tonight he'll be discussing his new book, It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership. Chapter 16 has an overview:

Powell’s love for the stories he has accumulated is obvious, and they can at times seem too self-referential. But as full of the pronoun “I” as they are, the stories are just as often heavy with praise for others—from those who gave him his start in life to others who taught him how to lead. Because of his background, his examples come almost exclusively from military or government service, but he carefully explains how they should apply to any good manager in the private sector. In a chapter about correcting mistakes, he notes, “These truths are known to every good classroom teacher, every good coach, every good violin teacher, every good parent, and every good construction foreman.”

Powell acknowledges making many mistakes in his long career, and he includes some of them as examples of how to learn from failures. In a section titled “Reflections,” the general finally addresses the elephant in the room, the mistake of all mistakes, which happened on a date, he writes, that “is as burned into my memory as my own birthday.” On February 5, 2003, acting as secretary of state for George W. Bush, Powell stood before the United Nations Security Council and laid out America’s case against Saddam Hussein. It was a powerful, effective speech that turned out to be dead wrong in its most important aspect: the claim that Saddam possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Here was one of America’s most trusted leaders apparently forgetting that “You can’t make good decisions unless you have good information and can separate facts from opinions and speculation.”

This horrific mistake, which Powell admits is a “blot” on his record, is one for which he accepts responsibility but for which he is also quick to share blame. His questions about the veracity of the information were not answered completely, he writes, and some officials withheld their concerns about the intelligence sources. It is clearly, nine years later, an open wound—for both Powell and America: “I have never before written my account of the events surrounding my 2003 UN speech,” he writes. “I’ll probably never write another.”

Tonight's event begins 7 p.m. at Belmont University's Massey Concert Hall.

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