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Ray Gifford, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Progress & Freedom Foundation, doesn't keep his political sympathies a secret. The stepson of Congressman Tom Tancredo and a onetime appointee of Governor Bill Owens, for whom he served as head of the Colorado Utilities Commission, Gifford is a pro-business Republican through and through. As such, his introduction of Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell at PFF's ninth annual Aspen Summit on August 18 was filled with superlatives that he lessened only slightly as the two sat down for a public discussion of FCC policy. "I'll try not to be too fond an admirer for the next 45 minutes," Gifford said.
"Keep it up," Powell replied with a smile. "We need all we can get."
No kidding. Considering the battering he's recently taken from folks on both sides of the political divide, Powell was sorely in need of a receptive audience, and the summit's hundred-plus attendees (not counting a sizable press contingent) seemed likely to provide one. After all, sponsors such as AOL Time Warner, Microsoft, Intel and IBM believe, as Powell does, that entrepreneurs should have freer rein to pursue profits, especially given the currently sleepy state of the U.S. economy in general and the telecommunications industry in particular. Yet what emerged from Powell's talk, as well as subsequent panels featuring a series of industry leaders, showed that even this crowd often views the FCC with suspicion. Whereas much of the public fears that Powell and company have gone too far, the tycoon platoon is convinced that they haven't gone nearly far enough.
Founded in 1993 to study (and promote) the digital revolution, PFF is generally referred to in the press as a "conservative think tank," although the Seattle Times added "libertarian-leaning" to the mix in a 1998 piece that noted the organization's "strong links" to Newt Gingrich. The foundation's mission statement suggests that, as shorthand, these terms are more than serviceable. According to the document, the group "has been a consistent voice for a market-oriented approach to capturing the opportunities presented by technological progress" and espouses a philosophy that "combines an appreciation for the positive impacts of technology with a classically conservative view of the proper role of government." No need to read between those lines.
The relative specificity of PFF's focus differentiates it from the venerable Aspen Institute, a collective whose Web site, www.aspeninstitute.org, describes its devotion to the comparatively vague goals of "informed dialogue and inquiry on issues of global concern." The institute is currently headed by Walter Isaacson, onetime editorial director of Time magazine, which recently devoted a cover to Isaacson's best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin -- a coincidence, undoubtedly. Isaacson's reputation as an opinion-shaper is more than matched by the status of the high-rent guests attracted annually to the institute's various festivities. Brainstorm, a gathering co-sponsored by Fortune magazine that concluded August 2, drew ex-presidential party dude Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
PFF came up with a Supreme Court justice of its own for this year's Aspen Summit, staged at the town's fabulously palatial St. Regis Hotel. Moreover, the man who accepted the foundation's invite wasn't some namby-pamby moderate like Breyer, but Antonin Scalia, a strict constitutionalist who wrote that the court had "largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda" of same-sex marriages and Lord knows what other depravity when it tossed out a Texas sodomy law earlier this year. (Breyer voted with the majority on this issue.) Not that Scalia's views on the potential banning of assorted intercourse techniques had anything to do with his invitation to the summit; even his background in telecommunications, via a bureaucratic gig he held back in the Richard Nixon administration, was largely beside the point. He was present to add name value and to give industrialists the thrill of shaking a very powerful hand. In this respect, Scalia did his part, showing up early at the August 17 mixer where he was to speak and, well, mixing. Powell did the same. Clearly, über-capitalists are their kinda people.
Scalia's brief remarks were initially said to be off the record, although he subsequently gave a reporter from the Rocky Mountain News permission to print excerpts in the paper's August 25 edition. Since he didn't do the same with me, I'll keep the specifics to myself. I feel comfortable stating that he didn't call for all gay people to undergo brainwashing sessions intended to make them feel aroused in the presence of the opposite sex, nor did he reveal that he's secretly a member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. But that's as far as I'll go. Wish I could go further. But I can't.
Although Scalia was the heaviest hitter to accept the PFF's largesse, he was hardly the only one. After an August 19 dinner, for instance, Viacom president and chief operating officer Mel Karmazin was slated to sit for a live interview with PBS/60 Minutes II conversationalist Charlie Rose -- an indication of Karmazin's muscle, if nothing else. A communications roundtable titled "Doing Business in an Era of Regulatory Turmoil" was also stocked with business titans, chiefly Dennis Strigl, president and CEO of Verizon Wireless; William Daley, president of SBC Communications (and the brother of Chicago mayor Richard Daley); and Qwest chairman and CEO Richard Notebaert. Another chat fest, "The FCC's Tumultuous Year: Freeing Competitive Markets or Entrenching Managed Competition?," was highlighted by the participation of BellSouth's Margaret Greene, Comcast's Joseph Waz and FCC commissioner Kathleen Abernathy. Like Powell and Kevin Martin, an FCC commissioner who was supposed to be present at the summit but had to pull out at the last minute for personal reasons, Abernathy is a Republican. The commission's other members, Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, weren't on the summit's guest list - omissions apparently in keeping with the turd-in-the-punchbowl approach to party-giving.