Only days after a federal judge hammered Microsoft for violating antitrust laws and for holding an "oppressive thumb" on competition, company founder Bill Gates was pumping hands on Capitol Hill and whispering with U.S. President Bill Clinton during a White House conference on the "New Economy."
En route from the Capitol to the White House, Gates' car might well have passed the federal courthouse where his company's fate was being debated in chambers with the trial judge. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson today set an aggressive four-part, seven-week schedule for possible remedies to address the company's conduct.
But the legal matter didn't seem to faze Citizen Gates.
He joked with congressional pages -- noting he once was one of them -- and eluded reporters while in between back-to-back meetings with Republicans and Democrats. In meetings with senators, Gates touted some of the new technologies his company is developing, noting that in the future, congressional representatives might be walking the hallowed halls with wireless computer tablets to keep appointments, stay abreast of bills and read e-mail from constituents.
Pressed about whether it was unusual for lawmakers to meet with Gates so soon after Jackson ruled that his company broke the law, Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat, North Dakota, said, "No, not at all. This is the head of one of the biggest corporations in the world. Our colleague Senator (Patty) Murray (Democrat, Washington) invited (Senate Democrats) here to talk to him."
Of the ruling, Conrad would say only this: "It's a very serious matter. That was not the focus of this conversation. Clearly these are very serious matters that are being dealt with in the court system, which is the appropriate place for them to be dealt with."
Less than a mile down Pennsylvania Avenue from the court, Gates appeared on a panel on "The Global Divide in Health, Education and Technology" at a White House conference on the New Economy. While listening to a speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the President leaned over to Gates, who was seated on his right. As the two men spoke, a chorus of clicking camera shutters filled the room.
Before the panel, Clinton and Gates spoke privately for a few moments, but aides said the two men spoke about vaccination programs funded by Gates' private philanthropic foundation. Gates had been invited to the White House technology conference four weeks ago but didn't accept until the weekend, a Microsoft official said. His meetings with members of Congress were arranged Monday and Tuesday, aides said.
In introducing Gates, Clinton said: "I have noticed in my many trips to Silicon Valley and other repositories of the new economy that while there are a lot of people who have amassed amazing amounts of wealth, I see more and more younger Americans more concerned about what they can do with their wealth to benefit the society and solve the larger problems of the world than how they can spend it. And the Gates Foundation has made some phenomenal commitments to the education of minorities in America and to dealing with a lot of our most profound global problems. And I want to thank you for that, Bill, and offer you the floor."
Gates avoided the topic of his company's legal woes like the plague.
"As Chairman Greenspan said, we're just beginning to understand how central the PC and software innovation have been to the creation of the remarkable prosperity that so many people are enjoying today," Gates said. "It's this pace of change and the contribution of these changes to our future prosperity that are changing our lives, not only here in this country, but around the globe."
After touting new technological innovations, Gates turned to the subject of the one technological divide he believes is more important than computers and the Internet: health care.
The irony of the timing of Gates visit wasn't lost on Senator Robert Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia. Byrd walked by the Senate meeting room and asked a security officer what was up. When he heard who was visiting, Byrd joked, "Send him to see me -- with his checkbook."