Purity of the Powells

Published: February 5, 2004

WASHINGTON - Washington is in the virtue business this week.

Center stage is a riveting father-son drama. (No, not that one.)

At the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell is trying to save America's virtue, while over at the State Department, his father, Colin, is trying to save his own virtue.

They are both obsessing about something that should have been there, but suddenly wasn't.

The son demanded an explanation for Janet Jackson's missing material, while the father wrestled with an explanation for Saddam Hussein's missing matériel.

The son opened an inquiry into something everyone had already seen, as the father defended his speech making the case for war based on something nobody has seen.

(Who could have guessed that Saddam's W.M.D. would be less scary than Ms. Jackson's pierced metal sunburst, a Weapon of Mammary Destruction aimed at the CBS chairman, Les Moonves? Or, as Jon Stewart points out, that a government so reluctant to investigate intelligence lapses is so eager to investigate a breast lapse?)

Asked in a Washington Post interview on Monday whether he would have recommended an invasion if he'd known that Iraq had no weapons, the secretary of state replied, "I don't know," adding that the "absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get."

But the words had barely left his mouth before furious White House aides forced Mr. Powell to eat them. Just as Janet Jackson had to repent for revealing too much, so did the top diplomat. Secretary Powell had to go out and clarify his remarks to reporters, telling them the war was justified even if weapons are never found.

Rummy stuck to his Orwellian guns, telling Congress yesterday that just because we don't find the weapons doesn't mean they're not there. Or, as postmodern professors say, absence is presence. (At least Ms. Jackson, like David Kay, had the grace to say, "Unfortunately, the whole thing went wrong in the end.")

Once more, Colin Powell was left trying to square being a good soldier with preserving what's left of his reputation. His twin concerns — wanting everyone to think he is a man of purity and not wanting to fight a battle he might lose — have come into fatal conflict because of Iraq.

The younger Powell failed to appreciate the consequences of not curbing big media companies gobbling up rivals. Colin Powell failed to appreciate the consequences of not curbing Dick Cheney, Rummy and Wolfie as they gobbled up foreign policy.

The son vowed in 2001 that he would be patient with cultural excesses: "I don't want the government as my nanny. I still have never understood why something as simple as turning it off is not part of the answer."

But here he is, the biggest nanny in government since William Bennett, starting a little culture war to improve his ratings. The F.C.C. asked CBS for a Super Bowl halftime tape to determine whether standards were violated. What, the F.C.C. can't pop for a TiVo? Next, the F.C.C. will ask the C.I.A. to provide satellite photography of the rogue bustier.

The Janet and Justin show was unbelievably tawdry, but also unbelievably banal — another rehearsed pseudoshock that the media, and now the government, gladly play along with. Isn't the power of social opprobrium in a free society enough?

It's already out of control. Ms. Jackson lost her spot as a presenter at the Grammys. And NBC's affiliates forced the network to take out a scene from tonight's episode of "E.R." because a breast was exposed for a second and a half. It was the breast of an 80-year-old woman dying of a heart attack. Sizzle, sizzle.

Besides, should all the indignation be about a "wardrobe malfunction" when there were all those icky ads — financing our annual festival of testosterone — about erectile dysfunction? (One father I know tried telling his curious 10-year-old son the ads were about "electile dysfunction.")

Michael Powell should stop interfering where he doesn't belong. Colin Powell should start interfering where he does belong. The secretary should get off the sidelines where the vice president and Pentagon banished him and stop waiting for them to fail so he can be vindicated. He should get more involved in rescuing Iraq from chaos.

The hawks' war to make Iraq free and secure is slowly descending into anarchy and ethnic conflict. That's indecent.