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.
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.
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.