Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

John Q. Public III

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, Hats Off, Gentlemen (Tuesday February 20, 2007 at 6:36 pm)

It’s not every day that private citizens (oxymoronic, true) are asked to comment on their political impact. On any given evening, Ministers and Parliamentarians collectively attend scores of public events, hoping to glean a few added grains of support from their association with the cause.

What is far more interesting about this incident isn’t the celebrity of the private citizen involved. It’s that the citizen is in the same position as the politician.

William Henry Gates III (called “Bill” most of the time) was, by 1998, the “world’s richest man“, but had a bit of an image problem. Resentment of wealth played a factor, certainly, but to suggest that that was the cause would ignore much. As the frontman for Microsoft, the company’s business tactics of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, or, in clearer terms, misdirection, were soon being attached to him personally in popular culture (caution: may contain other languages).

A problem faced by many celebrities, to be sure. But then, people like O.J. Simpson and Britney Spears sell themselves, not products, so there’s a far more compelling reason for them to be concerned about their images. Hatred of Microsoft, while widespread, hasn’t affected their bottom line, so it’s hard to justify a makeover for Chairman Gates by the need to preserve the company’s reputation.

Mr. Gates’s makeover began in earnest with the 2000 founding of his eponymous charity. Why name a charity after yourself? Why not? Consider the Rockefeller foundations, both named for their wealthy benefactors (though neither carries their full names and those of their wives). But both of those groups have far lower profiles, and their websites aren’t strewn with images of their namesakes.

No, the primay objective of Mr. Gates’ close collaboration with his charity is to improve his reputation with the public by associating himself with better causes than those which built that reputation. Which is the irony in the media’s questioning:

Mr. Gates was asked Tuesday if he was worried that the timing of today’s press conference, arriving as it did in the middle of a flurry of election speculation, left him playing both political and charitable roles.

And the double-edged truth behind his response:

I am glad to hear that putting research money into AIDS makes people politically more popular.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, the two men on the podium become hard to tell apart.

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