Like father, like son

As Colin and Michael Powell exit the Bush administration, they leave legacies of failure.

Published January 24, 2005 3:29PM (EST)

Four years ago, when they were tapped by George W. Bush for high-profile government positions, Colin and Michael Powell radiated confidence, and also gave Republicans a brash new look. Trusted and widely admired, the African-American father-and-son team boasted gold-plated résumés. As the most famous soldier of his generation -- retired Army general, national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Colin Powell oversaw the State Department while Michael Powell, the well-connected rising star who had sparked open talk among Republicans about a future Virginia governorship, was elevated to chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, in the wake of Michael's Jan. 21 announcement that he, like his father, was stepping down from public life, both men end disappointing tenures with their reputations dented from their time serving the Bush White House. Rather than overseeing administration triumphs, the Powells became associated with obvious policy and public relations failures that left some people wondering what, if anything, the men stood for.

As the point person for the administration's push for further -- and drastic -- media consolidation, allowing companies such as Viacom/CBS, Disney/ABC, NBC, AOL Time Warner and News Corp./Fox scoop up more and more properties, Michael Powell took a tricky but not impossible political issue and turned it into a rare bipartisan setback for the administration. It was an issue both the National Rifle Association and, William Safire and Bill Clinton found common ground in opposing: the FCC's proposed rule changes for media ownership. Three million Americans contacted the FCC to voice their opposition, an unprecedented outpouring of public concern for commission procedure. (Conservatives fret about indecent programming, and how consolidation could further erode standards, while liberals fear deregulation could drive political diversity from the airwaves.) And that's when Powell wasn't overseeing a mini-cultural war -- conveniently unveiled during a presidential election year -- over indecency on the public airwaves.

As the White House's senior diplomat, Colin Powell's primary job was to assemble a viable coalition of allies to fight a preemptive war against Iraq. After six months of pressing flesh at the United Nations and using the full force of U.S. negotiating might, Powell was handed the humiliating defeat of not only failing to land the support of longtime U.S. allies such as France and Germany but also being unable to persuade even loyal American supporters like Mexico and Canada to sign off on the invasion.

Strikingly similar issues, such as glaring contradictions that often undercut their initiatives, dogged both men's rocky tenures. For instance, when Michael first joined the FCC as a commissioner in 1997, he agreed that the runaway media consolidation unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was "scary," adding, "The reason the pace is scary is because it's hard to keep up with and to know when to put the brakes on." Upon being tapped as FCC chairman in 2001, though, Powell became a strident proponent for further unleashing media conglomerates.

Before Janet Jackson's boob flopped out during last year's Super Bowl halftime show, prompting Powell and the FCC to unleash unprecedented indecency fines and call for further investigations -- a move some critics blasted as an assault on the First Amendment -- Powell was on the record dismissing concerns about raunchy programming, famously telling reporters, "I don't think my government is my nanny. I still have never understood why something as simple as turning it off is not part of the answer." Later he told the Washington Post, "It's better to tolerate the abuses on the margins than to invite the government to interfere with the cherished First Amendment." Since the announcement on Jan. 21 about his pending departure from the FCC, Powell has drifted back toward his original set of core beliefs, telling the Washington Times over the weekend that regulating radio and television programming clashed with his firm beliefs in the First Amendment and made him "uncomfortable." But he wasn't too uncomfortable to sign off on $7.7 million worth of indecency fines last year. That represented a $7.69 million increase in fines the FCC levied during Powell's first year on the commission.

Colin Powell's flip-flopping was even more dramatic as he watched the military operation in Iraq run completely counter to the so-called Powell doctrine. Written in hopes of avoiding the disastrous policy mistakes of Vietnam, where Powell served as a young soldier, the Powell doctrine insisted American troops should be sent into battle only if there was a clear strategy, including an exit strategy; that the American public had to have a clear understanding of a war's goals; and that wars should be fought only in the national interest, not for humanitarian goals or "nation building." In the case of Iraq, Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored all three key guidelines, yet Powell remained silent.

Additionally, over the years Colin Powell saw himself as a "reluctant warrior." He described the first Gulf War as "a limited-objective war," adding, "If it had not been, we would be ruling Baghdad today -- at unpardonable expense in terms of money, lives lost and ruined regional relationships." Just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America, Powell told the New York Times, "Iraq isn't going anywhere. It's in a fairly weakened state. It's doing some things we don't like. We'll continue to contain it. But there really was no need at this point, unless there was really quite a smoking gun, to put Iraq at the top of the list."

Yet by February 2003, Powell was serving as the administration's point person in trying to rally support for a war targeting a fairly weakened state and one designed to install, in part, U.S. rule of Baghdad.

Along with the similarities, conspicuous differences in how the Powells operated also emerged. Throughout his career, Colin Powell had always been adept at using the press, perhaps never more so than when, during Bush's tenure, Powell and his aides let reporters -- most famously, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post -- know about the internal battles he was waging over the losing Iraq policy. Just last month, word leaked that Powell had warned both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that more troops were needed in Iraq. Given the backdrop of escalating violence in Iraq, Powell may have been the last military expert of note to make the observation. Nonetheless, the Post played the story on its front page, ensuring that Powell would be seen as fighting the good fight, right up until his last days in the administration.

Michael Powell, however, proved himself to be inept at playing the media game, which is ironic given his FCC position of overseeing radio and television broadcasting in America. (Colin Powell has his own paradoxical tic: He was a secretary of state who didn't want to travel.) Determined to handle the question of ownership rule changes as strictly a legal one, Powell ordered the FCC to prepare a brief arguing in favor of the changes, which Republican commissioners then OK'd. Assuming his work was done, Powell made no effort to create any sort of public or political support for the initiative, and seemed to have a nonexistent relationship with the Washington press corps.

In fact, the younger Powell seemed to go out of his way to snub public discussion. That perception was reinforced by his decision to schedule just one public hearing on the historic rule changes. He also refused to testify before Congress about the issue, refused to make public the details of the rule changes that the FCC voted on in June 2003, and broke with FCC tradition by ignoring a courtesy request from fellow commissioners to postpone a policy vote by 30 days. Determined to generate an actual debate, the two Democratic commissioners organized 10 unofficial forums across the country to hear from the people; Powell ridiculed and then boycotted them. (Powell was much more willing to appear before industry trade groups, however.)

When Michael did at least try to use the media to press his case for further consolidation, it often backfired in spectacular fashion. On the eve of the ownership rules vote in 2003, Powell told the Financial Times that by not allowing for further media consolidation, "there is a real worry about the long-term survivability of free, over-the-air television," adding, "I think there is a very easy way for it to collapse." The notion that ABC, CNN, Fox and NBC would be forced into bankruptcy if they weren't allowed to buy up more television affiliates or newspaper chains simply had no basis in fact. Indeed, TV networks' billings for prime-time shows in 2004 were up 13 percent over 2003, to a whopping $9 billion. CNN pro-business host Lou Dobbs remarked on the air that it was "just mind-boggling that Michael Powell would say that they're [in danger of] a collapse."

That both Colin and Michael Powell decided not to stay on and serve through Bush's second term is not surprising. That both accomplished so little during the past four years is.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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