Respond to this Article September 2003

Headhunting for Michael Powell

Finding great jobs for political losers.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

This summer has not exactly been Michael K. Powell's shining season. The 39-year-old chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and son of the secretary of state) had spent much of the last two years pushing a rule change to loosen restrictions on the number of television stations that media conglomerates can own. Powell jammed the change through the commission on a party-line vote with the same cocky assurance that characterizes so many pro-industry Bush initiatives. But he failed to foresee the firestorm of public outrage that ensued. Hundreds of thousands of citizens complained to the FCC. Interest groups from the National Organization for Women to the National Rifle Association demanded a congressional override. Spooked lawmakers complied; the House voted to cancel the change this June by the nearly Soviet margin of 400-21.

All of this inspired a good deal of snark among the Washington media. In the tightly controlled Washington of George W. Bush, where a burnt piece of melba toast would stand a good chance of getting a federal judgeship if Karl Rove willed it, managing to win only 21 Republican votes for a measure with the White House visibly behind it seemed a pretty cut-and-dry case of political malpractice. It had reporters and columnists speculating about whether this would cost Powell his job or, worse, his career.

If history is any guide, it probably won't. Washington is a city for second acts. Michael Deaver, Reagan's deputy chief of staff, hospitalized for depression after he was accused of selling access to lobbyists, rebounded to a vastly successful career as a political strategist. G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon administration heavy who oversaw the Watergate break-in, earned millions as a lobbyist in the early 1980s before finding an audience on talk radio. And Bob Packwood, who resigned from the Senate after the publication of his sexually graphic diaries made him a Capitol laughingstock, turned himself into a well-heeled political consultant.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there's a small industry in D.C. devoted to helping ex-administration officials land lucrative lobbying jobs. To get a sense of Powell's post-government marketability, I paid a visit to a titan of that industry, Nels Olson. Olson is the managing director of Korn/Ferry International, and, as such, probably Washington's leading corporate headhunter for high-level government officials bound for private practice. In late July, for example, he helped the Recording Industry Association of America hire Mitch Bainwol, a former chief of staff to Senate majority leader Bill Frist and chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, as its new executive director. Olson works on the top floor of an eight-story Foggy Bottom office building which looks pretty much like every other building around it: the big windows, the clean brick exterior.

His office itself is establishment with a capital E: It's decorated with two framed drawings of nautical knots and a mounted wooden model of a sailboat's hull. There's a pervasive solicitousness in the office that any anxious ex-official would find deeply comforting: During the five minutes I spent waiting for Olson to get off the phone, happily reading the offered Wall Street Journal, three different staffers asked me if I'd like something to drink.

I asked Olson--a neat, intense man in his late 30s, who wears black loafers with no socks--what advice he would give to Powell. Olson gave a small smile: Powell still has it made.

"This is a town where people have their ups and downs, but it's frequently only a matter of having some time pass,"Olson observed.

He'd coach Powell to stress "his law career, his breadth of government service, the things he did before he took over as FCC chairman."Olson would suggest starting with law firms, which tend to care more about a potential partner's profile than his political popularity. But there could also be a place for Powell at an industry group, he thought. The real lesson, Olson insisted, is that Powell can't go wrong. "In the long run, for someone for his ilk and stature ..."Olson paused, "How should I put this? I'd still view him as a very attractive candidate."

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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