Bright Young Thing

How Michael Powell Rose From GOP Obscurity to a Shot at Becoming the First Black President

Were the Republican Party to design its ideal up-and-comer in a Gattaca-style genetics lab, the result would look and sound a lot like Michael K. Powell. A scion of Beltway royalty, Secretary of State Colin Powell's only son is that rarest of political gems—a black Republican diehard free of the kooky far-right vibes that dog Alan Keyes and J.C. Watts. John McCain loves him, as do a number of starstruck Democrats bewitched by his lineage and smarts. For many, the junior Powell seems a younger and brighter version of George W. Bush.

Unlike Bush, however, Powell has not squandered his youthful ambition on failed oil derricks and Texas keggers. At the tender age of 38, he is the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the five-person panel that lords over Big Media and the Baby Bells. Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, made light of his wonkish might in March, at Powell's first Capitol Hill appearance as head of the FCC. "People are always asking me to compare you to your father," Markey said. "What I always tell them is you're just as smart as your father, but you have a lot more power to affect the world."

If insiders are right, the FCC gig may be only a stepping stone. Some are touting Powell as a Virginia congressman or governor, maybe even a Bush cabinet member. And if he bides his time and plays his cards right, he could well become the first African American president.

Powell's press office did not return calls seeking comment, but his actions as FCC chairman have made his pro-business, consumer-be-damned politics more than evident. In an administration bent on rolling back regulations, Powell is the consummate good soldier, zealously blasting decades-old rules to the delight of the $950 billion communications industry.

Last week, aghast at the FCC's recent handiwork, South Carolina Democratic senator Ernest Hollings accused Powell of fostering "an erosion of diversity in our local markets." Hollings has introduced legislation to stop the slash-and-burn juggernaut, but few expect his bill—designed to protect caps on market dominance—to ever become law.

Communications conglomerates, by contrast, are rapturous over Powell's quick success in defanging the FCC. They rejoiced when he coaxed the commission into relaxing its longtime ban on letting one company own multiple television networks, clearing the way for Viacom to retain UPN even after it bought CBS. The decision could pave the way for the sale of NBC to AOL Time Warner, or—if the rule is relaxed still further—to Viacom. In June, Viacom president Mel Karmazin announced he "would absolutely love" to purchase his broadcast rival, a deal that would make the world's third largest media conglomerate (2000 revenues: $20 billion) an even more pervasive presence.

In the name of free-market efficiency, Powell has also expedited dozens of merger reviews, including the $29 billion marriage of VoiceStream and Germany's Deutsche Telekom. He quickly pushed through 32 radio deals in March, claiming that "further delay is neither warranted nor just." Among the big winners was San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio group, which added seven more properties to its 1200-station empire. As Salon's Eric Boehlert reported in April, Clear Channel already controls 60 percent of the country's rock-format stations. Outgoing FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani, the panel's token liberal, sharply condemned Powell's move. "This commission has departed without reason from its prior standards," she said, "and set the public interest adrift on uncharted seas."

At the same time, Powell has been an outspoken critic of providing low-power radio licenses to community or religious groups, citing the "cost . . . to existing stations that provide equally valuable service to their communities." He did not elaborate on how one of Clear Channel's vanilla Top 40 outlets can provide service on a par with that of an independent, or how a station relegated to the FM dial's nether regions could possibly harm the bottom line of a Dave Matthews-playing titan.

Powell's laissez-faire machinations could be more easily forgiven if not for his flip dismissals of the FCC's role in helping customers—as the agency's handbook notes, its mission is to protect the public's "best interest." At a recent American Bar Association panel, however, Powell curtly pooh-poohed the notion of a public-interest standard, calling it "about as empty a vessel as you can accord a regulatory agency."

The statement was in line with an earlier quip, in which he mocked the idea that the FCC should get involved in ensuring the spread of technology to underprivileged communities. Digital divide? Not according to Powell. "I think there's a Mercedes divide—I'd like to have one; I can't afford one," said the chairman, whose federal salary is $133,700 a year. "I think that's an important social issue. But it shouldn't be used to justify the notion of essentially the socialization of the deployment of the infrastructure."

One wonders if the 20 million Americans who remain without telephones, to say nothing of Internet access, share that view.

Powell's hijacking of the FCC has delighted his benefactors, including some of Capitol Hill's most recognizable names. He owes his FCC entrée to McCain, who plucked a greenhorn Powell from the shadows in 1997. In a move widely viewed as a kowtow to Powell's papa, McCain single-handedly nixed a second term for the highly regarded Rachelle Chong and backed his friend's son instead.

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