Last week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin resigned from the commission to take a position with the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank. There was some speculation that he would stay on as one of the two Republican commissioners when the FCC is reconstituted, but Martin apparently has had enough of the public spotlight for now. Considering the avalanche of criticism under which he’s been buried over the past year or two, who could blame him?

Last month, an Energy and Commerce Committee majority (Democratic) staff report was highly critical of Martin’s performance as chairman. It alleged that he manipulated, withheld and suppressed information, that the FCC under his command often was less-than-transparent and that Martin exhibited a heavy-handed management style that created turmoil and inefficiency within the commission.

That’s on top of the criticism heaped upon Martin for the FCC’s alleged mismanagement of the 800 MHz band reconfiguration—which is way behind schedule—and its lack of timely decisive action concerning the 700 MHz D Block spectrum and the proposed nationwide broadband network for first responders that would operate on the airwaves.

I have been watching Martin for a long time. I first met him at an event eight years ago in D.C., when I was the policy and law writer for Telephony, our sister publication. We were introduced by Tom Tauke, the former congressman who at the time was the senior vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for Verizon. Being a member of the lowly Fourth Estate, I fully expected to receive nothing more than a polite “nice to meet you,” and then the brush-off. But Martin surprised me by not only chatting for a while but also handing me his business card, and then telling me I could call him any time, bypassing the FCC’s PR jackals.

I thought to myself, “yeah, right.” But what did I have to lose? So, a few days later, I called Martin, spoke with his assistant and immediately was patched through. It worked just that way for the next three years. In fact, knowing I was based in Chicago, Martin would make sure I was on his speaker phone any time he held informal sessions with reporters in his office, something he did regularly. Any time I spoke with him, he was candid and never tried to sidestep my questions. Our paths have crossed a time or two in the last couple of years, and the experience was the same.

I also found Martin to be a very capable commissioner who acted from conviction, not expediency. I still remember well the battle he waged with then-Chairman Michael Powell over rules that required incumbent local telephone companies to make their facilities available to competitive carriers. Martin broke ranks with fellow Republicans Powell and Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy on the matter, and then convinced Democratic Commissioners Michael Powell and Jonathan Adelstein to side with him. The subsequent FCC order reflected Martin’s vision.

It must be noted that a federal appeals court later vacated the order, which vindicated Powell. But that’s not really the point. No one ever bats 1.000. The point is that Martin demonstrated considerable conviction and fortitude in bucking Powell. The spat created considerable friction within the FCC, and Martin truly stuck his neck out politically. It certainly would have been a lot easier to go along. That he didn’t says something about the man.

So, how did Martin go from being a capable commissioner to an allegedly bumbling chairman? Perhaps the Peter Principle came into play. Not everyone is well-suited for the role of general. But I think the biggest factor is that Martin had the misfortune of being chairman during arguably the most tumultuous period in the FCC’s long history. Consider that over the past three years the FCC has been forced to deal with three enormous initiatives for which there was no precedent or playbook: the digital television transition, the related 700 MHz auction and rebanding. Any one of those would have posed a tremendous test of leadership and performance. The Martin FCC has had to deal with all three at once.

One thing is certain: Martin has become a lightning rod for criticism, which is as it should be. Government officials need to stand up to the glare of the spotlight and take their lumps when they’re deserved—as long as the criticism is fair. All should keep in mind that every task, every job, looks a lot easier from the cheap seats than it really is.

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