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The Highwayman

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REED HUNDT. THOSE TERSE MONO-syllables resonate loudly through Washington’s corridors of power. It’s not a marquee name, like Clinton or Dole or Gingrich. But Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the chief regulator of the telecommunications industry, is formidable, especially when judged by his adversaries. Last April, Gerald M. Levin, chairman and CEO of Time Warner, which publishes PEOPLE, skewered Hundt’s regulatory style as “borrowed from the old Soviet Union.” And in a July interview with Wired magazine, John Malone, head of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), one of the nation’s largest cable operators, offered a unique proposal for solving many of his company’s problems: “Shoot Hundt.”

The media moguls were especially rankled a year ago, when Hundt, 46, ordered a 7 percent rollback in cable TV rates. That made a total rate reduction of 17 percent since 1993, forcing the industry to eat $3 billion. The next day, Bell Atlantic and Malone’s TCI, skittish over lost income, scrapped a $30 billion merger—one of the largest corporate liaisons in U.S. history. At the time, Hundt, a mild-mannered former antitrust lawyer, didn’t seem to mind the ensuing flap. “I’m having fun,” he said.

But that was when Hundt—who was appointed by President Clinton and is a good friend of Al Gore’s—had congenial Democrats in his corner. Now, with Capitol Hill ruled by small-government Republicans, he faces some more imposing antagonists. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.Dak.), head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (which oversees the FCC) is drafting legislation to deregulate the communications industry. “The FCC is a huge bureaucracy that needs to be downsized,” Pressler says. “I look to a day when it will wither away.”

Even more ominously for Hundt, aides to House Speaker Newt Gingrich are reportedly counseling their boss to work up a bill that would abolish the FCC entirely. Hundt’s response to the GOP onslaught is measured. “It has kicked off an extremely important and fascinating debate,” he says. “Americans should know it concerns some of the most important bills they pay each month.”

To be sure, the FCC wields enormous influence. The agency has broad licensing and rate-setting powers over television, radio, telephone, cable, satellite TV—and even pagers, beepers and car phones. As such, Hundt has become the top cop of the emerging information superhighway. In that role he has further antagonized the telecommunications industry by offering for sale what used to be made available, by lottery, for free: He has presided over the largest auction of U.S. government property ever, raising $6.4 billion so far by selling off radio frequencies for cell-phones, pagers and hand-held wireless computers. On another front, Hundt has also raised hackles by using his bully pulpit against violence on TV His position is heartfelt; Hundt lost two close friends to street violence, although he bristles when asked for details. “I think people know there are more interesting solutions to social problems than shoot-’em-up shows,” he says simply.

Given his knack for attracting turmoil, one might expect to find Hundt at least moderately flamboyant. Instead the lean, 6’1″ bureaucrat is a distinctly understated presence, though by all accounts, Hundt is witty—”a stitch,” says his Yale ex-classmate Fred Goldberg, who served as IRS commissioner under President Bush. Hundt grew up in the Washington suburbs, where his parents—Neal, a corporate lawyer, and Viola, a teacher—had moved from Ann Arbor, Mich. While at the exclusive St. Albans prep school, he bonded with Al Gore, who in 1993 would—not coincidentally—swear him in for a five-year term as FCC chairman. In 1964 the two pals attended the first Beatles concert in the U.S., at Washington Coliseum, and, with countless other teenagers, pelted the Fab Four with jelly beans. “If you watch tapes of that concert,” says Hundt, “you’ll hear the ‘ping-ping-pings’ against Ringo’s drum set.”

As a Yale undergraduate, Hundt edited the school newspaper and gave a young cartoonist—Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau—his first forum. Later, at Yale Law School, he took classes with Bill Clinton and Clarence Thomas. After graduation, he joined the law firm of Latham & Watkins, where he worked before assuming his $126,000-a-year FCC post.

In 1979, Hundt married Betsy Katz, now 47, a Vassar-educated clinical psychologist he had met while at Yale. They share an airy Spanish-style home in Bethesda, Md., with their children, Adam, 12, Nathaniel, 8, and Sara, 5. When he can, Hundt attends his sons’ soccer and lacrosse games, plants tulips and daffodils and sculls on the Potomac. But leisure time is scarce—he routinely puts in 12-to 15-hour days at the office. That work ethic—and perhaps a bit of Hundt’s outlook on life—may derive from a 1971 summer job as a beekeeper. “You can learn a lot from the honeybee,” he says. “You work very, very hard. You make honey for lots of other people.” Hundt pauses, flashing what has been called his Alfred E. Neuman grin. “And you die.”