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Henry Geller, a communications lawyer and government official who played pivotal roles in the elimination of cigarette advertising from radio and television and the televising of political campaign debates between major presidential candidates, died April 7 at his home in Washington. He was 96.
The cause was bladder cancer, said his wife, Judy Geller.
Mr. Geller was general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission from 1964 to 1970 and was assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information from 1978 to 1980. In the second role, under President Jimmy Carter, he was the first administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, where his work included developing a legal basis for the regulation of cable TV.
At the FCC in the 1960s, Mr. Geller persuaded the commission to rule that TV stations had to broadcast public service announcements warning of the health hazards of smoking to offset cigarette advertisements.
The messages said smoking was “the main cause of lung cancer and emphysema and a huge contributor to heart disease,” Mr. Geller recalled in a self-published memoir. The FCC ruling was subsequently upheld in court appeals.
“The industry desperately wanted to stop these counter ads and did so by eliminating its own ads, thus saving $250 million,” he added. “From April 1, 1970, forward, all cigarette advertising was eliminated from radio and television.”
After leaving the FCC in 1973 as special assistant to the chairman, Mr. Geller became a communications fellow at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts seminars and policy programs. In 1975, he petitioned his former agency to allow the resumption of televised debates between presidential candidates.
The first such debate was in 1960 between Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican. To authorize that event, Congress had passed a one-time-only suspension of a requirement in the communications act that all candidates for a public office receive equal opportunity for airtime. In 1960, that would have applied to more than a dozen minor presidential candidates. There were no candidates’ television debates in the presidential elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972.
In his petition, Mr. Geller argued that debates between major presidential candidates qualified as on-the-spot coverage of legitimate news events and thus were exempt from the equal-time rule. The petition was upheld on appeal and since 1976 there have been televised debates in every presidential election.
Henry Geller was born in Springfield, Mass., on Feb. 14, 1924, to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He grew up in Detroit, where his father was a home builder.
He began school early, his mother having lied about his age, saying he was 5 when, in fact, he was 4. He got good grades, but he was also a disciplinary problem. A teacher once told his mother that “without a drastic change, I was doomed to be hanged,” Mr. Geller recalled in his memoir.
He graduated in 1943 from the University of Michigan, at age 19, on an accelerated wartime schedule, then served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II.
In the winter of 1946, he was posted with occupation forces in the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido where, he later recalled, he accumulated $1,500 playing poker. He won, he later said, because he was “the only sober player.”
In 1949, he graduated second in his class from Northwestern University law school. “I thought Henry was the smartest guy in law school,” law school contemporary and future FCC chairman Newton Minow told Broadcast magazine in 1979. “He was a movie nut. He’d go to three movies a day and never hit the books until a week before exams.”
As a practicing lawyer, Mr. Geller was similarly unorthodox, even irreverent. His dress was often called “rumpled.” He was asked on more than one occasion if he owned a hair comb. He usually wore sneakers. Leather shoes were for court appearances.
He was a physical fitness enthusiast. He skied. He snorkeled. He played golf at dawn in Rock Creek Park, which was uncrowded at that hour. He played tennis, often with Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice known for his conservative ideology. The two men were sports companions but not ideological soul mates.
Maximizing his exercise opportunities during his years as an assistant secretary of commerce, Mr. Geller conducted meetings with his legal staff while simultaneously leading them on brisk walking tours of the hallways of the Commerce Department.
In the 1950s, Mr. Geller worked for the FCC and the National Labor Relations Board in Washington and was a clerk to a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court. He returned to the FCC as a deputy general counsel in 1961.
After leaving government service, he spent a quarter century doing communications research and practicing public interest law with foundations. He was director of a public interest law firm, the Washington Center for Public Policy Research.
In 1990, he was instrumental in the drafting and enactment of the Children’s Television Act, which limits the amount of time each hour that can be allotted to advertising on children’s television programs.
Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Judy Foelak Geller of Washington; two children, Peter Geller and Kathryn Edwards, both of York, Pa.; and a grandson.
To occupy his mind in his retirement years, Mr. Geller taught himself quantum physics.
He remained a connoisseur of eclectic foods, with a particular fondness for chocolate and garlic. When a colleague asked him for recommendations of sites to visit on a trip to Paris, his suggestions included a 250-year-old chocolate shop. He would deliberately schedule airplane layovers in cities where the airports were near good pizza parlors.
He had one cautionary gustatory warning, literally and metaphorically: “Don’t eat pastry that looks better than it tastes.”