Microsoft Co-founder's Philanthropic Legacy
is threatened by New Revelations
about his Behavior...
Sure, he had accumulated absurd riches from cofounding Microsoft Corp. and lived in a $130 million mansion with an indoor trampoline room.
But he was also known to drive his kids to school, binge Modern Family, dress like Ned Flanders and wait in line for his favorite cheeseburgers.
There was power in Gates's air of down-to-earth dad-dorkdom. Lots of one-percenters donate big to vital causes; few achieve Reddit AMA relatability.
Over the past two decades, Gates trampolined off his and his wife Melinda's vast charitable efforts to another stratosphere of societal influence.
He became arguably the leading business voice on fixing the world's woes, as comfy pontificating about eradicating disease and improving education systems on the Ellen DeGeneres Show as he was advocating for climate change and Covid-19 solutions on Fox News.
That populist persona popped on May 3, when Bill and Melinda French Gates announced they were splitting up after 27 years of marriage.
Unflattering particulars quickly emerged, including reports that Bill had an extramarital affair and pursued other office romances with employees at Microsoft and the humanitarian foundation that carries their names. In a divorce filing, Melinda said their relationship was "irretrievably broken."
The question now is whether Bill's reputation is, too.
It's easy to forget that Bill Gates wasn't always so publicly revered.
During the heyday of the PC revolution, he was the ruthless nerd-turned-tycoon who brutally and profanely berated underlings and allegedly tried to slash Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen's equity in the company while he was undergoing cancer treatment in the early 1980s. (Gates has said his recollection of events differed from Allen's.)
Windows software, his flagship creation, was a buggy mess that frustrated millions of consumers, and Steve Jobs groused that Gates and his team showed "no shame" and "no taste" in ripping off Apple's products.
Even the judge who oversaw Microsoft's crippling turn-of-the-century monopoly trial said Gates had "a Napoleonic concept of himself and his company, an arrogance that derives from power and unalloyed success."
By the 2000s, though, the world's richest man seemed to have realized he had to change this Redmond-robber-baron narrative - and that his wealth could help.
He stepped down as Microsoft's CEO and shifted his attention to what would become the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which eventually gave away more than $50 billion to fight malaria and AIDS and boost childhood vaccination rates, earning the couple widespread praise, not to mention Time's 2005 "Persons of the Year" cover with U2's Bono.
Less than a decade after Microsoft's antitrust trial, Gates was making the rounds on Capitol Hill advising lawmakers on U.S. technology competitiveness and health initiatives.
Surely, these massive philanthropic claim checks have immensely aided vulnerable populations.
They've also proved astonishingly effective in rehabbing his image from tyrannical technocrat to saintly savior. Good deeds bought good will. His and Melinda's annual foundation letters grew more popular than Microsoft product launches (albeit a low bar).
Media scrutiny mostly vanished, replaced by perpetual guest-editor spots at major publications lusting after Bill's world-changing ideas.
His 2015 TED Talk racked up tens of millions of views, his occasional book recommendations were greeted like Oprah endorsements, and it wasn't too long before Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
This was more than superficial fame.
Gates's civic clout could sway the discourse on critical and controversial issues (only recently he lobbied to keep Covid-19 vaccine patent protections in place), an influence that's threatened as more lurid details surface from his current divorce proceedings.
That's not to suggest NGOs and nonprofits will stop taking his money. But, as skeptics have noted, if he's sought inappropriate relationships with female employees, the foundation that bears his name is probably no longer the ideal advocate for women's empowerment.
If he became too close years ago with Jeffrey Epstein, even after Epstein had pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution from a minor, Gates is clearly not the right leader to campaign against sex trafficking.
It's not so much that he's at risk of being "cancelled" altogether as he is from being Ctrl-Alt-Deleted from his perch atop the moral high ground.
A spokesperson for Gates said that the,
The representative added,
This was also supposed to be a year of focus on climate change for Bill, with the billionaire raising a call to arms via the February launch of his book, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster," and rallying global leaders and regular consumers to,
Instead, he got a few months of book touring before the world's eyes darted to his divorce.
Another consequence may be that Bill's personal brand, his billionaire-of-the-people shtick, will invite a tough reappraisal. Essential to his bespectacled, do-gooder charm was that it felt authentic and accessible.
A 2019 Netflix docu-series even sought to take viewers Inside Bill's Brain.
Released just a month before Melinda purportedly began consulting with divorce lawyers, the glowing three-part ode to Bill's folksy genius presents him as a devout partner who guzzles Diet Cokes and is incessantly scratching his messy hair over how to save the world.
Now, however, the show only serves as a jarring reminder of how much engineering went into the overhaul of Bill's persona, especially as contradictory evidence - such as his apparent habit of being dismissive of his wife in meetings - comes to light.
Asked in one episode of the series whether Melinda ever called him out on "his shit," Bill gave an answer that's lost its endearing awkwardness in retrospect.
In 2017, in his foreword to Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella's autobiography "Hit Refresh," Bill Gates wrote of the importance of legacy.
His point was that as much as Microsoft had reinvented itself in the many years since Gates ran the software giant, its source code still retained parts of his DNA.
The same could be said for the broader technology landscape.
Gates had reinvented himself as a philanthropist, yet he also remained a legend among startup cofounders and unicorn CEOs, a statesman in Silicon Valley at a time when many of its once-mythologized leaders are deceased, disappeared, or disgraced.
Gates, who stayed on Microsoft's board until last year, was both an inspiration for top execs - "I knew that part of rediscovering the company's soul was to bring Bill back, to engage him more deeply in the technical vision for our products and services," Nadella has written - and a rare voice of reason in a tech industry.
But since the Wall Street Journal reported that some of Microsoft's directors wanted him to step down in 2020 due to an investigation into a decades-old office fling (a spokesperson for Gates said the relationship ended amicably and that his resignation had nothing to do with the affair),
after decades of bolstering his philanthropic image.
via Getty Images
built over the past two decades
And for the last year, the once pugnacious Microsoft founder has reinvented himself as one of America's clearest, most humane voices on the Covid-19 pandemic.
It would only take two weeks for Gates to reinvent himself yet again - and not in the way that his past reinventions have gone.
For the first time since the turn of the century, Bill Gates is mired in deep scandal. And what has become clear over the past 48 hours is that Gates will never be the same.
The divorce of Gates and his wife, Melinda, was announced earlier this month but has devolved into a tabloid melodrama featuring secret boardroom investigations, hushed affairs, and the likes of Jeffrey Epstein.
Gates was pummeled in a trio of stories over the weekend that detailed his alleged indiscretions, each of which began to shatter the aura that he has cultivated in the 20 years since he took his foot off the clutch at Microsoft.
That image rehabilitation largely worked.
Ever since stepping back from Microsoft, Gates has grown to epitomize what might be considered the "Good Billionaire": a civic-minded, awkward geek who showed how capitalism's winnings can be marshaled to make the world a better place through philanthropy.
No donor was more important in the world than Bill Gates, who, along with his wife, had grown to symbolize something in short supply in corporate America: role models.
And the polling reflected that: 55 percent of Americans told Recode in a survey this year that they had a positive opinion of him; only 35 percent felt the opposite.
But Gates's world has now come crashing down with incredible speed.
But Gates is now accused of having vastly underplayed his ties to the ignominious criminal, according to one report.
A second report shows a pattern of Gates acting unprofessionally around women he worked with - and handling a sexual harassment allegation against his money manager in a way that upset Melinda.
And in the perhaps most damaging revelation, Gates now admits that he had an affair with an employee at Microsoft back in 2000, which triggered an investigation by the tech giant's board of directors in 2019, a third report says.
Gates's team denies many of these allegations.
But they are sure to capture some mindshare with the American public, piercing the reputation that Gates has worked so long to cultivate. And there's little reason to think that the last shoe has dropped in a record-setting divorce proceeding that is trending toward ugly.
Will people look at Bill Gates with the same fondness ever again?
What two weeks ago was merely a marriage that had sadly petered out has spiraled into something nastier. Gates will be shrouded in questions for the foreseeable future about his romantic life - to say nothing about the uncomfortable pecuniary and legal questions about the future of his fortune.
People do recover from scandal, especially in this news and political environment. (Philanthropists like Michael Milken were no angels.)
Gates will surely have his own side of the story to tell, and the Gates Foundation will still exist, giving him wide influence over the next few decades.
But more than other philanthropists, much of Gates's soft power came from his seemingly unimpeachable public profile, which will now be more than a little tarred by the worst kind of attention.
Even if this is relegated to a rough news cycle or two in the long sweep of history, the short-term consequences are profound given where we are in that history.
Gates should be at the forefront of the humanitarian crisis in India, for instance, speaking out about the massive death tolls. (He's instead drawn controversy for his support of vaccine patent protections.)
Now he is on the defensive, and any next interviewer will understandably want to ask at least in part about his private life, depleting the power of his commentary on public health.
This should be a validating moment for Bill Gates, as much as the last year has been. Instead, he will likely be silent, legalistic, and, more broadly, on the back foot.
It couldn't have come at a worse time...
His Own Smug Immorality
May 18, 2021
Bill Gates speaks during the White House
Climate Leaders Summit,
Friday, April 23, 2021.
It was an image that floated high on the massive financial contributions he gave, through his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to the World Health Organization (WHO).
And when President Trump withdrew U.S. funding from the China-fawning WHO in response to its defense of the communist country over the Wuhan virus - "How WHO Became China's Coronavirus Accomplice," Foreign Policy wrote in April 2020 - that left the Gates Foundation as the top contributor.
Another way to look at that?
And everywhere in between - online, in television media, at speeches before bureaucratic and business organizations that serve the world - was Gates.
Everywhere was Gates and his recommendations - in "air quotes" - that soon enough filtered their way into governments as mandates.
Now, he's losing luster.
He already showed his darker side decades ago when his company, Microsoft, was being sued for antitrust practices, and he tipped his arrogant, domineering and smug self for all the world to see.
It was after this public relations disaster that his business allies determined he needed a whitewashing, and voila, philanthropy proved the path.
But money isn't an elixir.
Hmm. So he's a jerk.
In America, individual rights come from God, not government.
Rights are natural; they're inherent; they're not for government to dole or distribute at whim.
But the notion of God-given rights isn't just a blessing. It's a responsibility. It means that Americans, in order to keep the limited government structure in place, need to keep God at the helm. In other words, as a nation's morals go, so goes its politics.
Now look at the fear generated by the pandemic, and the many, many political opportunists who've used, and who continue to use, that fear to achieve personal ambitions.
To government and to bureaucrats and to intellectuals and to experts and to scientists and to those who've been elevated in the minds of the secularists as the trusted sources of information and guidance.
And far too often in this growing secularized country called America, citizens see those with money, those in positions of influence and power, as the sources that naturally ought to be trusted.
Well, look at Bill Gates now.
Just goes to show:
Humans will always disappoint.
And in a country like America, where rights are ingrained at birth, this is a crucial message to get. America must choose God over government, over bureaucrats, over even billionaires.
It's the only failsafe path to security and liberty.