Bright Young Thing

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

When Powell was tapped for Chong's seat, he was just four years out of Georgetown Law School and had been in government less than two months, as chief of staff to Department of Justice antitrust czar Joel Klein. Prior to that, he'd worked for O'Melveny and Myers, an über-connected law firm whose partners have included Warren Christopher and whose clients include Disney, Sony Pictures, and GTE.

But sucking up to a four-star father was not McCain's sole intent; in Michael, he found the ideal bureaucrat to appease Big Media. Despite his reformist rhetoric, the Arizona Republican has close ties to communications interests. No senator has received more money from the industry over the past eight years than McCain ($685,929 as of 2000, according to the Center for Public Integrity). When Viacom and CBS merged last year, for example, FCC rules dictated that the company would have to sell off several stations to meet the 35 percent audience cap. McCain quickly introduced a bill that would raise it to 50 percent—now a moot effort, thanks to Powell's likely intention to dump the limit altogether. Viacom has given McCain over $50,000 in hard-money contributions alone since 1995.

Powell enjoys an even closer connection to Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin, a relationship critical to his ascension from FCC commissioner to chairman. Tauzin heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the agency. Telecommunications interests have showered the congressman with lavish perks, including a $400,000 Mardi Gras-themed party at last year's GOP convention that was jointly underwritten by SBC, BellSouth, and Comsat. According to the Center for Public Integrity, media companies have taken Tauzin and his staff on a whopping 42 junkets; in December 1999, for example, Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day, $18,910 trip to Paris, courtesy of Time Warner and Instinet.

One of Tauzin's first Bush-era acts was to engineer Powell's promotion. Beltway wags expected the FCC job would be given to Pat Wood III, a Bush crony who headed the Public Utility Commission in Texas. But on December 8, Powell keynoted a conference at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, an FCC-bashing think tank funded by the likes of AOL Time Warner.

Surrounded by a host of industry luminaries and lobbyists, Powell delivered a crowd-pleasing speech in which he compared the agency to Dr. Seuss's Grinch—a nonsensical brute that was ruining corporate America's profiteering with a misguided emphasis on the public interest. "The oppressor here is regulation," he proclaimed, to thunderous applause.

Tauzin then took the dais and boldly named Powell his pick to head the FCC. "He is the brightest light on the commission, the brightest mind," gushed Tauzin, whose aide later insisted the speeches weren't coordinated.

"The next sound could have been the air being let out of the candidacy of Pat Wood," Broadcasting and Cable wrote. Powell was promoted just after the New Year.

As a relative rookie, Powell wouldn't dare mess with the wishes of a player like Tauzin—or, for that matter, with Big Media, who pumped $1.07 million into Bush's campaign coffers. Like Tauzin, Powell wants to toss the rules governing cross ownership in the same market. Those are the same regs vexing moguls like Rupert Murdoch, who has already obtained one waiver in order to own both the New York Post and the city's Fox affiliate, and who would like to expand his reach further.

"I don't know why there's something inherent about a newspaper and something inherent about a broadcaster that means they can't be combined," Powell told reporters in April. Murdoch's sentiments exactly.


Despite his insensitive gaffes and obvious pro-business sentiment, Powell's mere appearance in the corridors of power touches off a bipartisan lovefest. At his first Capitol Hill hearing, for example, Powell was greeted with praise more befitting a Medal of Honor recipient than a bureaucrat. Aside from the expected flattery from Tauzin ("I almost want to applaud after your statement"), Democrat John Dingell of Michigan commended Powell's deregulatory blather as "right on the money." Jane Harmon, a California Republican, added, "If you bring those skills to reforming the FCC, the rest of the federal government should come next."

Harmon is not the only Washington insider who's gaga over Powell's political outlook. "He's just a very likeable guy, kind of like Bush," says Charles Cook, a political analyst for the National Journal Group and editor of The Cook Political Report. "You wouldn't mind going fishing or having a beer with him, or going to a cookout. . . . He doesn't come across as an idealogue or terribly partisan."

Powell's Web site (www.fcc.gov/commissioners/powell) features unintentionally comic photos of him mugging with Diana Ross and the Osmonds, publicity shots that ooze nonthreatening geekiness. Reporters who gain access to his inner sanctum are invariably regaled with the tale of the jeep accident that cost him his army career, which he illustrates by whipping out old CAT scans of his shattered hip.

That charm has enabled Powell to develop a Teflon resistance to criticism. The fact that his chief of staff, Marsha McBride, previously served as a Disney lobbyist has barely merited a mention. And Powell's questionable conduct during the AOL Time Warner merger review has largely been forgotten. Though his father sat on AOL's board and held options to purchase 320,000 shares of stock, Powell, with legal clearance, refused to recuse himself from the vote. On January 11, the same day the FCC gave the merger its final approval, Colin announced his resignation from AOL's board and his intention to exercise those options. His net profit should be in the neighborhood of $9 million.

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