My dictionary offers this definition of statesman: “a senior politician who is widely respected for integrity and impartial concern for the public good.” On Meet the Press, the much decorated Colin Powell declared that he was voting for Barack Obama. Thereby Powell clutched for the statesman ring that he forfeited five and a half years ago in front of the U. N. Security Council.

The cynic will say that Powell has discovered that it’s repositioning time in America. Still, Powell’s speech, delivered to Tom Brokaw in large blocs of virtually uninterrupted text, should give the cynic pause. The fact is that Powell went beyond conventional political phrases. He made arguments in behalf of Obama, he commented on what, politically, is at stake, and he offered Obama ammunition that might come in handy in budgetary wars he will have to fight if he is president.

The latter first. Unnoticed in the commentary about Powell’s endorsement was this little exchange:

BROKAW: Given the state of the American economy, can we continue our military commitments around the world at the level that they now exist?

GEN. POWELL: We can. I think we have to look as to whether they have to be at that level. But we have the wealth, we have the wherewithal to do that….And so, first and foremost, we have to review those commitments, see what they are, see what else is needed, and make sure we give our troops what they need to get the job done as we have defined the job.

The italics are mine but the sentiment was Powell’s. He was giving Obama leave to consider cutting the Pentagon budget—a subject that both parties collude in ignoring during the campaign.

Powell blew some kisses at McCain but lauded Obama for “an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge and an approach to looking at problems like this and picking a vice president that, I think, is ready to be president on day one. And also, in not just jumping in and changing every day, but showing intellectual vigor.” Intellectual curiosity, intellectual vigor—when was the last time a high government official, present or recent, lauded those qualities? Democrats can’t say such things. Pundits won’t.

And if that wasn’t enough, Powell, son of Harlem and City College of New York and the U. S. Army, declared that “all villages have values, all towns have values, not just small towns have values.” Such comments also have become controversial, I suppose.

And if that wasn’t enough, Powell declared himself “disappointed” that the McCain campaign was resorting to “demagoguery,” making “inappropriate” charges about the significance of Bill Ayers. “A little narrow” was one euphemism he used for his party’s modus operandi.

But if that wasn’t enough, Powell said this:

I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was twenty years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could go serve his country, and he gave his life….

John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know. But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

(The unforgettable photo that Powell referred to is here.)

Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.