Former Secretary of State Colin Powell brought a crowd to its feet Friday as he delivered the keynote address to dedicate Rubenstein Hall, a new building in the Sanford Institute of Public Policy.
The event, held in Wilson Recreation Center before approximately 1,115 administrators, alumni, students and local residents, was so well-attended that nearly one thousand people were shut out due to space constraints. Loudspeakers set up outside allowed the overflow crowd to hear Powell's words.
The hour-long speech shifted between personal anecdotes and a serious discussion of the war on terror. Entitled "Diplomacy: Persuasion, Trust and Values," the address offered a defense of foreign policy under President George W. Bush's administration.
Powell attributed recent war protests to the fact that "democracy is a noisy system," reminding the assembled group that the Iraqi people face bombs every day for a chance to participate in democracy.
"We have to stay the course in Iraq," he noted.
Powell also emphasized a myriad of foreign policy successes, including the fact that Europe is "whole, free and at peace" for the first time in 200 years.
Even though other countries sometimes resent America, he said, they still turn to the country for help.
"We are a welcoming nation, an open nation, a nation that touches every other on earth," Powell said, adding that as long as Americans abide by their values, opponents will never win.
He underscored this theme with a story about a group of vacationing Brazilian teenagers who made a mistake with the exchange rate and found themselves in a Chicago restaurant where they could not pay the tab.
The manager told the teens not to worry about it, and Powell cited that generosity as indicative of America's role in the world.
"Leaders don't lead themselves, they lead their followers," Powell said, urging the audience to set of high standards in all aspects of life.
Powell also discussed the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a contentious issue at Duke especially in light of last year's conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement.
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Powell said if he had one wish from a genie, it would be to have a peaceful Palestinian state next to Israel.
Senior Elisse Zhou, who described herself as not very supportive of the Bush administration, said Powell did a great job of putting faith back in young people. "Now I'll have a more open mind," she said.
But for all the heavy foreign policy talk, the speech was defined more by its levity than anything else.
Powell had to pause dozens of times to allow the laughter in the room to subside. He recounted the story of how he once paid for a flight in cash and took no luggage, with predictable results.
Within minutes, he was being frisked.
"My clothes [were] off" he said, as the crowd roared with laughter.
Another comedic moment came as Powell championed the importance of information technology, noting that he encouraged the Department of State to purchase Blackberries for its employees. Many of the younger associates just used the phones to boast about their close connection to Washington's elite.
"I was buying all these guys chick magnets," he said.
As he took 15 minutes of questions after the speech, Powell surprised the audience with queries of his own about their academic interests and personal backgrounds, leading one student to interject, "Is it okay for me to ask a question now?"
Powell's own educational background is one of stark contrast to his current success. He was a self-described "not great" student in high school. He said he was lucky to gain admission to the City College of New York.
"For those of you bouncing around with C's, there's hope," he said to the applauding crowd.
Freshman Stacy Chudwin said she found Powell funny and charismatic.
"It made me a lot more interested in public policy," she said.