Public goodwill that Gates long enjoyed has mostly evaporated after dealings with Epstein and other sordid facts about his past recently surfaced.
For millions of Americans, the outpouring of negative stories about Bill Gates – allegations of an improper adulterous relationship with a Microsoft employee, his stubborn insistence on standing by Jeffrey Epstein, Melinda Gates’ years-long plotting to divorce him – may have taken them by surprise. Thanks to an extensive propaganda operation overseen by Gates via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, most media coverage of Gates has been overwhelmingly positive – until now.
This belies the reality that criticism of Gates has been growing since before the start of the pandemic – although his emergence as the de facto global vaccine czar sparked conspiracy theories, Gates’ media manipulation machine successfully shifted the narrative to paint all his critics as unhinged conspiracy theorists, drowning out criticisms of Gates’ success in undermining the “open vaccine” movement, something that has been revitalized by President Biden’s decision to back a proposal at the WTO to waive IP protections for COVID vaccines.
In the span of about two weeks, the public goodwill that Gates long enjoyed has mostly evaporated. But as Bloomberg reminds us in a lengthy feature about Gates’ sudden loss of public support, Gates wasn’t always so revered. In the early days, before he the propaganda machine, Gates was seen as a “ruthless nerd-turned-tycoon”.
In fact, as Bloomberg tells it, Gates’ initial interest in philanthropy was part of an attempt to white wash his image after some pretty aggressive behavior in the 1980s, including stabbing his co-founder in the back while he was undergoing cancer treatment.
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.
“I was lucky enough in my Microsoft work to accumulate an ownership that was worth a lot of money,” he told Charlie Rose in 2008, shortly after switching to full-time focus on his giving pledges. “Warren [Buffett] likes to call that ‘claim checks’ on society, where you get to say, you know, have a thousand people go build a pyramid for you or do whatever you want.”
Pretty soon, Gates image morphed from “technocrat” to “savior”. Before long, the media was gobbling up his seasonal reading lists, and President Barack Obama was awarding him the presidential medal of freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
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.
But nothing can protect a billionaire’s reputation from association with Jeffrey Epstein, the pedophile financier, along with #MeToo-inspired reports about “mistreatment” of female Microsoft employees with who he may have been romantically involved. The controversy is spoiling Gates’ plans to follow up his COVID-era achievements by doubling-down on his focus on climate change. He has just published a new book, and has been working with other ‘global leaders’ to invest in green tech.
Although Gates has long since pivoted away from the business world in favor of philanthropy, Bloomberg points out that Microsoft still bears much of Gates “DNA”, as does the broader tech landscape. And while Gates was once one of the few billionaires who could get away with criticizing other tech titans – he slammed Silicon Valley for its sanctimonious self-importance “before it was cool” – imagine what might happen now if he tried to pick a fight with, say, arch-memelord Elon Musk?
For years, he was respected enough to smack around techies usually indifferent to outside criticism. Before it was cool, Gates chided the Valley for neglecting thorny societal problems in favor of building apps and gizmos. (“When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” he once cracked, referring to Google’s internet-beaming Project Loon.) He’s tried to temper the arrogance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who inherited the mantle of most-loathed geek, and, last summer, chastised Elon Musk for speaking out of school about the pandemic.
With an asterisk on Gates’s appeal now, it’s likely his ubiquity of tech activism will be less meaningful. Musk, for one, already writes off Gates’s taunts. “Billy G is not my lover,” Musk tweeted in July. Imagine what Tesla’s Memelord will resort to if Gates picks another fight with him amid his tabloid-worthy scandals. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s redemption story is strong enough under Nadella that Gates’s soul isn’t required anymore. If anything, it seems more likely that near-term corporate events will feature cameos not from Gates but Steve Ballmer, his once-maligned CEO successor who has since turned into the loveable-goofball owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
For a man who has repeatedly insisted that he doesn’t care about his “legacy”, his divorce from Melinda will likely permanently tarnish his public image. One thing is clear: it’s going to be a long time before he appears on another magazine cover with Bono.
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