A Hero, a Son and Ethics

In a society where nothing is sacred and citizens are more cynical than ever about their government officials

In a society where nothing is sacred and citizens are more cynical than ever about their government officials, Colin Powell and Michael Powell appear to be exceptions to the rule.

Telecommunications industry executives with matters pending before either the State Department or the Federal Communications Commission—that is, almost everyone in the industry—were naturally reluctant to comment about any nexus between the father and son at the head of the foreign policy and telecom arenas, respectively. Likewise for fellow public officials, whose "no comments" were more than once accompanied by flushed complexions. And of more than a dozen policy experts and ethicists—people paid to ponder these things—only two were willing to discuss it in detail.

"Its because Colin Powell is such a hero, and no one wants to get to issues that could arise in such a context," one ethics professor said when asked about general reluctance to address the question.

The International Institute for Public Ethics had nothing to say, according to one of the institutes founding directors.

Of those willing to address the matter, most said they saw nothing problematic on the face of it. As for why the situation is so rare, sources offered a variety of theories in place of concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

"It may just turn out that there are not sons and daughters who are qualified," one professor of social ethics said. Others suggested that financial disincentives dissuade more than one family member at a time from accepting an appointment in public service. "Jobs are so lucrative in the private sector," one professor of public administration said. "Too lucrative to have a father-son team leave the private sector."

Why these factors do not dissuade children from following their parents into elected positions in government service is less clear—kind of like the question of ethics itself. "Everything in Washington is hazy," said a public policy professor. "Theres nothing black and white. Its the grayest place in the world."