Three years ago, Bill and Melinda Gates answered a range of personal questions in their annual letter — a rare peek into what kept one of the world’s most powerful couples together.
“I love Bill because he has a kind heart, listens to other people and lets himself be moved by what they say,” said Melinda. She mentioned a sculpture of two birds staring into the horizon, a wedding gift from his parents. “And it’s still in front of our house.”
For his part, Bill said, “We are partners in both senses that people use the word these days: at home and at work.”
Reading that now, weeks after the couple announced that they were ending their marriage of 27 years, is both saddening and maddening. Even allowing for the careful curating of their image, the fact that the billionaire pair opened a small window into their private lives makes the crash of that union all the more consequential.
For those of us who admired the moral power of a single married couple using their disproportionate wealth to save untold numbers of lives around the world, the details of the marital fallout make me wonder if we’ve been played. Or perhaps we just put too much faith in people who are as human as anyone else.
Every marriage is a mystery, of course, which no outsider can ever truly understand. But it’s the rare union that guides the Gates Foundation, one of the largest charitable foundations — which projects an image of a global do-gooder and promoter of women’s empowerment.
Reports about the questionable behavior of Mr. Gates, particularly his association with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, are troubling, to say the least. Equally upsetting are reports that Mr. Gates was reluctant to take decisive action in response to complaints of a pattern of workplace misconduct by his financial manager, Michael Larson. (Mr. Larson and Chris Giglio, his spokesman, denied some but not all accusations of misconduct by Mr. Larson.)
The power of the Gates union was greater than the sum of the two parts. Bill and Melinda must have understood this when they invited us to care about them, through the books, the annual letter, the TED talks, the commencement speeches and the Oprah Winfrey interviews. There’s even a Netflix docu-series in which mundane details of their private lives are revealed. All that quasi-public effort worked: In 2019, Mr. Gates was the world’s most admired man in one YouGov survey.
And yet the rapidly emerging fourth act of Bill Gates’s life could certainly overshadow the three that came before it, and cloud the disposition not only of the man but also of the world’s most influential charity.
In my hometown, Seattle, Mr. Gates has long been both hero and scourge. He was a son of privilege, defiantly dorky and a prodigy through a prolonged adolescence.
In his first public act, he was a brilliant Harvard dropout and also a narcissistic nerd smirking in his mug shot after getting arrested for traffic violations. Building the colossus of Microsoft and becoming the world’s richest man, he was a nightmare of a boss. He memorized license plates of co-workers in order to monitor the parking lot to see who was working at night and on weekends.
In his second act — the petulant monopolist — he was more likely to be paired with Darth Vader in Google searches. The federal judge overseeing the antitrust case against Microsoft said Mr. Gates had “a Napoleonic concept of himself and his company, an arrogance that derives from power and unalloyed success.” I’m not sure Mr. Gates disliked the comparison.
His Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, detailed his partner’s quirks; he said Mr. Gates ate his chicken with a spoon (you read that correctly) and “came on like a force of nature.” Later, Mr. Gates appeared to betray his business partner, as Mr. Allen wrote in his book.
It was Melinda, née French, who humanized him from the outset. You sensed that she was the one who told him he’d be so much more presentable if he just ran a comb through his hair or tried to make eye contact.
She may have been the guiding force in shaping Act III — Bill Gates, world saver. In this iteration, the Gates unit put its billions to work crushing disease, building sanitary water supplies, lifting up women.
“These two have donated more money to charitable causes than anyone, ever,” said Barack Obama in presenting the couple with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. Even if they wielded too much power, it’s better that they spent their billions trying to improve life, rather than simply amusing themselves.
In the late stage of his third act, Mr. Gates was the peripatetic polymath — book critic, toilet visionary and Nostradamus. He warned us about the current pandemic. In print, one year ago, I called him “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Now we enter Act IV, the unraveling. Details about the conduct of Mr. Gates in work-related settings and the visits to Mr. Epstein even after he pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution with a minor, leave an unsettled feeling in the stomach. Mr. Gates said he didn’t have any business relationship or friendship with Mr. Epstein. But he found Mr. Epstein’s lifestyle “kind of intriguing,” he emailed colleagues in 2011. Which part, he did not say.
People at the Gates Foundation say privately that they are very worried about the future. If the foundation were just a robo entity, doling out billions based on nothing more than outcome metrics, it might not matter what happens to the Bill and Melinda on the letterhead. But the shared lives made the personal inseparable from the philanthropic. The unraveling will be messy.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was giddy at the thought of meeting Pope Francis during President Trump’s first trip abroad, telling acquaintances that for him, a devout Catholic, the moment would fulfill a bucket-list dream.
But when the White House finalized the lucky list of staff and family members who would accompany Trump into his private audience with the pontiff at the Vatican last week, Spicer’s name was nowhere to be found.
Enduring public humiliation has become a defining characteristic of Spicer’s tenure
.. In Trump’s White House, aides serve a president who demands absolute loyalty — but who doesn’t always offer it in return. Trump prefers a management style in which even compliments can come laced with a bite, and where enduring snubs and belittling jokes, even in public, is part of the job.
.. But others consider Trump’s comments pointed reminders to those who work for him that he is in charge — barbs from the boss that keep aides on guard and off kilter, and can corrode staff morale.
.. And during the transition, Trump would make a point of noting that Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s crowds paled compared to his, teasing that even his daughter Ivanka and son Eric attracted more attention, said two people familiar with the comments, which they considered demeaning. (Pence offered a similar quip on the campaign trail.)
.. Critics say the president often demeans those in his orbit, a tendency they say reflects a broader fragility beneath his bluster.
.. “Trump is so deeply insecure that not even becoming president of the United States quenched his need to make others feel small to build himself up,” said Tim Miller, a former spokesman for an anti-Trump super PAC. “Choosing to work for him necessitates a willingness to be demeaned in order to assuage his desire to feel like a big, important person.”
.. When he decided to fire his FBI director, James B. Comey, the president did so in an especially humiliating way. Like a scene out of “The Godfather,” Trump first sent Keith Schiller, his former head of security, to deliver the message to Comey at FBI headquarters.
.. As Comey was delivering a speech to FBI field employees, he initially laughed as news flashed across the TV screens that he had been fired. “How’d you guys do that?” he asked, according to someone briefed on the moment.
.. Mark Burnett, the creator of “The Apprentice,” introduced Trump, who went on to make a few tone-deaf jokes about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had replaced him as the show’s host.
“The ratings went down the tubes,” the president said. “It’s been a total disaster and Mark will never, ever bet against Trump again. And I want to just pray for Arnold if we can, for those ratings, okay?”
.. At a private dinner shortly before he was inaugurated, Trump took aim at his incoming vice president and his incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
.. “Where’s our Rex?” Trump asked. “Wow. What a job. Thank you very much, thanks, Rex. I think it’s tougher than he thought. He’s led this charmed life. He goes into a country, takes the oil, goes into another country. It’s tough dealing with these politicians, right?”
.. Trump also sometimes reminds even his senior advisers, in ways big and small, that he has the power to demote them at any time.
.. But the president soon ordered up a change, said someone who witnessed the moment, telling Bannon to give up his seat for the junior staff member and relegating his top strategist to the couch.
.. “How do you all like Nikki? ” he asked, as she looked on. “Otherwise, she can easily be replaced.”
.. The president was livid about the leak — but had no problem being viewed as a bully, believing he was simply standing up for his nation’s best interests.
.. shoved aside a Balkan prime minister to get in front for a group photo and needled his allies about the cost of a new building for the alliance.
.. During his first in-person meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump’s typically aggressive greeting became a duel of one-upmanship as the two men clenched their jaws and tightened their faces during an intense, white-knuckled handshake.
Macron, France’s newly elected 39-year-old leader, later said he wanted to show Trump that he would not be pushed around or demeaned.
“I don’t believe in diplomacy by public abuse,” he said.
It is simply impossible to overstate the symbolic importance both the wall and the idea that Mexico would pay for it had in 2016. Everything about Trump was embodied within it: the xenophobia, the vision of a world of threats and danger, the belief that complex problems have easy solutions, and most of all, the desire to stand tall and humiliate others, which was so critical to voters who felt beaten down and humiliated themselves. That’s why the preposterous notion that Mexico would pay for the wall was so critical: not because we need Mexico’s money, but because forcing it to pay would be an act of dominance, making it kneel before us, open up its wallets, and pay us for its own abasement.
.. Trump would tell his crowds, “The wall just got 10 feet higher!” And oh, would they cheer, thrilled beyond measure at the idea of punishing Mexico for its insolence and showing them who the boss is. Yes, the wall was about fear and hatred of immigrants, but more than anything it was a vision of empowerment... He may also have realized that the wall is extremely unpopular, with polls consistently showing around 60 percent of Americans opposed to it, even if it remains popular with Trump’s base... the wall is more popular the farther you get from the border itself, which suggests that the people most unsettled by immigration aren’t those whose communities have the most immigrants, but those whose communities are incorporating significant numbers of immigrants for the first time... not a single member of the House or Senate who actually represents a border district or state .. supports building a wall... Every time they revisit the issue, the administration and Congress are going to confront the reality that a wall along the entire 2,000 miles of the border is utterly impractical, even if we were willing to pony up the money it would cost.. would require the use of eminent domain — which Republicans say they despise... The Department of Homeland Security already has a plan to build 100 miles worth of walls in some critical areas. That may well happen, along with other beefed-up border security efforts... Trump would regularly decree that the lobby of a building constituted floors 1-9 or 1-14, so he could claim that the building had more stories than it actually did. It didn’t fool anyone, but he kept doing it all the same.