Bright Young Thing

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

Powell was just reconfirmed for a second FCC term, which won't expire until 2007. Yet few believe he'll serve that long. Embarrassed by the sea of lily-white faces at the Philadelphia convention, Republicans are desperate for a rising African American star—a Great Black Hope, as it were. That title was formerly held by J.C. Watts, the Oklahoma congressman who once rebutted a Clinton State of the Union Address with a metaphor about magazine cutouts. But Watts was too visibly tied to the religious right's moral agenda, and has since faded from the GOP's national spotlight. Race alone is not enough to spur party switching among minority voters.

Powell, for his part, flaunts his centrist credentials. "I'm not a blind idealogue. . . . It's fair to say I'm a moderate," he told an interviewer in 1997, mimicking his father's middle-of-the-road politics. But FCC veterans haven't been fooled by his conciliatory posturing. "Everyone knows Powell's not like Daddy," says one former aide to William Kennard, the last FCC chairman under President Clinton. "He's a Republican all the way, really keeps with the party line."

Unlike his father, for example, Powell opposes affirmative action. Yet he has evaded criticism from African American leaders by coauthoring a bill with McCain that offers tax credits to minorities who buy media companies—a pleasant-sounding "trickle down" measure that benefits only the most privileged. And Powell has conveniently become a champion of several non-objectionable crusades, such as asking Congress for the power to levy stiffer fines against corporate scofflaws—though the rare $10 million penalty is unlikely to trouble a Baby Bell with annual revenues upward of $60 billion.

He's mum on the future, but even Powell's supposed critics acknowledge that he's primed for a larger stage. "Michael Powell's political prospects are great," says Gigi Sohn, ex-director of the Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy group. "He's smart, very politically savvy. . . . Bush talks about being a uniter, not a divider. Michael Powell is one."

Ah, yes—another junior member of a modern right-wing dynasty, itching to let corporations unite in the name of laissez-faire—and content to let the divide between Big Media's mandarins and the captive public grow ever wider. A scientist could scarcely clone a better candidate.

Brendan I. Koerner is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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