A Quick Note On The Departure of Kevin Martin

I will, hopefully, have time in the near future to write up my farewell to Kevin Martin and assessment of his term as Chairman of the FCC. In the meantime, I think Commissioner Copps gives a good assessment and farewell.

As I say, I hope to have more to say later. For now, I will simply say that I have enormous respect for Kevin Martin and for what he tried to accomplish, even when I disagreed with him.

More below . . .

In particular I would echo this sentiment:

None of this is to paper over our very real differences on many matters of substance and process, with media consolidation, broadband competition policy and Commission transparency coming immediately to mind. But this is not the time or place to revisit things divisive. Sometimes Kevin confounded Commission-watchers by putting forward very original ideas that those who didn’t know him might never have expected. This made some folks happy, some unhappy and others occasionally frantic. But it could also be refreshing. To his credit, his proposals often challenged his fellow Commissioners
to get under the hood and examine their own assumptions. He compelled us to develop our own ideas to address the problem at hand. The Rural Health Care Pilot Program was one such idea and it was, and is, a signal accomplishment of Kevin’s Chairmanship.

Kevin and I had some very candid discussions—with the bark off, as Lyndon Johnson used to say—as we sought common ground on contentious matters. We quickly discovered that we could talk candidly, respect confidences, and, not infrequently, find ways to move the Commission’s business forward. When our discussions did not yield agreement, we disagreed without ever being disagreeable. When we gave our word to one another, that word was honored. We understood that we came to some issues with fundamentally different ideas about what the Commission ought to be doing and how it ought to be doing it, but we recognized that each of us believed in our individual approaches, and we shied away from attributing bad motivation to each other.

I will add that in a city in which people like to blame everything on poisonous partisanship or special interest influence for bad decisions or as an excuse not to act, Kevin Martin stood out as succumbing to neither. Whatever course of action he took, he did it because he thought that was the right thing to do. If he had to reach across the aisle to get the votes he needed, even if it meant a 3-2 vote against both his fellow Republicans, he did it. Time and again, he took flack from members of his own party in Congress — often when taking on cable, but also when taking on Verizon and the wireless industry over the C Block conditions in the 700 MHz auction. And where anyone else would have dropped the cable agenda after the political fall out over the 70/70 proceeding, Martin continued to push for regulation he believed in. Not because it was politically expedient, but because he believed it was the right thing to do.

Needless to say, this approach had its drawbacks. The man who will do what he thinks is right no matter the cost ends up running a heck of a tab. One cannot blame FCC staff for resenting Martin’s willingness to invoke his power as Chair in his drive to control every outcome and get what he felt was the right result. Nor is it surprising that his fellow Commissioners all too often felt they were subject to a campaign to push, drive, cajole, herd and stampede them to a particular result — and over time came to resent it and distrust Martin’s intentions. Martin’s political enemies — particularly those in industry intent on thwarting his agenda — made ready use of the bruised feelings and lack of trust Martin’s intensity of purpose and no-holds barred tactics often generated.

The result of all this is that Martin’s very real positive accomplishments have become overshadowed by the controversy over his management style and personality. This culminated in the infamous House Commerce Committee Report, a rather classic case of character assassination by telling an incomplete story. I don’t doubt its drafters reflected accurately the bulk of the testimony they heard. But some of us could have provided some additional perspective that might have included a few saving virtues while still accurately reflecting the impact of Martin’s centralized authority on staff and the decision-making process.

I will add that I have now seen three Chairman come and go. In every case, they have discovered that the job of Chairman is not nearly as straightforward or as powerful as it seems. And in every case, there have been no lack of critics ready to explain why the departing Chairman was a disaster and leaves behind a dysfunctional agency that has become far too politicized.

For myself, I will say that Kevin Martin in the 8 years that I have overlapped with Kevin Martin’s tenure at the Commission — first as a Commissioner than as Chair — I have never had any cause to doubt that he has always had the best interests of the American people at heart, and viewed his role at the Commission as an act of public service rather than an act of private enrichment or an opportunity to exercise petty power. That did not keep me from working like Hell to stop him when I thought his policy choices were wrong. But it did mean I could work with him and trust him when we agreed.

At times, I despaired that Kevin Martin was an atavism in his ability to set aside both rigid ideology and partisan politics to work for what he thought was best for the country. Hopefully, he was merely the first of a new breed of Republicans that will return to what had been an old tradition in Washington, when people like Tip O’Niel and Ronald Reagan could break bread together and try to find common ground despite strong philosophical differences.

Mind you, as a Democrat, that would have me very worried for 2010. But as an advocate and as a citizen, nothing could please me better.

Stay tuned . . . .

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