(CNN)When Colin Powell announced that he would not run for president in 1996, he also made a promise.
"I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln," Powell said, a line that was, in the words of The New York Times, a "clear reference to the issues of race, opportunity and social welfare that had him at odds with ranking conservative Republican ideologues who threatened fierce resistance to his candidacy."
By the time of Powell's death on Monday from complications of Covid-19, his 25-year-old pledge to transform the Republican Party into a diverse coalition organized around opportunity and social welfare seems deeply quaint -- a hope unrealized as the GOP moved well beyond the extreme bounds of what even Powell could have envisaged two-plus decades ago.
Powell's personal journey from potential -- and much-coveted -- Republican presidential candidate in the mid-1990s to pariah within the Trump-ified GOP tells the story of how the party went from one that recognized the changing face of America and the need to adapt its policies as a result to one organized around the often-intolerant views of a single man who, it's worth noting, spent less time as a Republican than Powell did.
At the time of his death, in an acknowledgment of how far the party had moved away from his views, Powell no longer considered himself a Republican.
"I can no longer call myself a fellow Republican," Powell told CNN's Fareed Zakaria earlier this year. "You know, I'm not a fellow of anything right now. I'm just a citizen who has voted Republican, voted Democrat, throughout my entire career, and right now I'm just watching my country and not concerned with parties."
Powell's separation from the party he chose back in 1995 when both sides coveted him as a candidate in the wake of his star turn as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War had been a long time coming.
Powell said at the time that the GOP had "moved more to the right than I would like to see," but added that he still considered himself a Republican.
When he endorsed Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012, Powell hinted at his growing disillusionment with a party that was growing in a direction far from the one he had hoped. "I think I'm a Republican of more moderate mold and that's something of a dying breed, I'm sorry to say," Powell said at the time. "But, you know, the Republicans I worked for are President Reagan, President Bush 41, the Howard Bakers of the world, people who were conservative, people who were willing to push their conservative views, but people who recognize that at the end of the day you got to find a basis for compromise. Compromise is how this country runs."
The rise of Donald Trump in 2016 -- a man who aggressively positioned himself against the very establishment figures that Powell modeled his version of the GOP after -- wound up being the final straw for the retired general.
Powell called Trump a "national disgrace," and an "international pariah" -- insisting that the billionaire businessman was leading a "racist" movement in hacked personal emails revealed in September 2016. In late October of that year, Powell revealed that he would be voting for Hillary Clinton.
In June 2020, Powell said he would be voting for Joe Biden for president. "I certainly cannot in any way support President Trump this year," he told CNN's Jake Tapper.
Trump, never one to overlook a slight, shot back at Powell with this: "Colin Powell, a real stiff who was very responsible for getting us into the disastrous Middle East Wars, just announced he will be voting for another stiff, Sleepy Joe Biden. Didn't Powell say that Iraq had 'weapons of mass destruction?' They didn't, but off we went to WAR!"
Powell's alienation from the party he chose for himself following a long and highly decorated military career speaks to just how much that party changed underneath him over that time. The idea of a moderate Republican in the mold of Powell simply disappeared from the GOP landscape entirely.
As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote in a hugely important study back in 2012:
"The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
And things have only gotten worse in the intervening decade.
Colin Powell didn't leave the Republican Party. It left him. And it's the worse for that decision.