WASHINGTON — Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, told attendees at CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference that they need to keep at work preserving hope and should never forget that the great strength of America rests in how it welcomes immigrants who come to the U.S. with goodwill.

Powell, the son of immigrant parents, regaled the conference goers with praise for the work of credit unions in his own life and history and for the work they continue to do.

Building on the themes of both aging (Powell is 71) and retiring from positions of great public recognition, Powell discussed what it had been like in his life to be the “little guy” to be young in the military, unsophisticated about finances and receiving an education from Pentagon Federal Credit Union to get his financial life in order.

He also discussed how he has dealt with the shift since leaving his position as Secretary of State. “I miss my plane,” Powell lamented, to a chuckle from the crowd. “And I miss the way I used to travel on it.”

Powell recounted when President Ronald Reagan sent him to Moscow for a preliminary meeting with then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in advance of Reagan’s own trip. Powell and Gorbachev met in a beautiful Kremlin room and Powell recalled that it had first not gone well. Gorbachev had lectured Powell, saying that he and the U.S. were clinging to their outlook as generals and cold warriors when he, Gorbachev, needed the U.S. to be more than that.

“Then,” Powell remembered, “he got quiet. He looked for a moment at the beautiful ceiling of the room and then looked back across the table at me and a small smile crossed his lips. ‘I’m sorry, General,’” Powell recalled Gorbachev saying, “but you will just have to find another enemy.’”

Powell told the audience that his first reaction had been, “No! I don’t want a new enemy.” Both sides had grown comfortable with the other as enemy, Powell said, “and the change that Gorbachev represented was going to mean moving into a time of change and levels of discomfort.

All change is fundamentally like that, Powell said, and credit unions will succeed if they can face change squarely and work with it to build the future and to do so with hope and optimism.

“I wish sometimes that I could bottle some of the confidence and self-reliance that I find in Americans all over the country, bring it back to Washington and dump it over the heads of some of our politicians. Sure we have difficulties and challenges, but credit unions and Americans will get through them,” he said.

–dmorrison@cutimes.com