Newt Gingrich rattled off software code names and acronyms like a pro (well, almost) last Tuesday during his visit to Microsoft. "Will Apollo have GPS?" he asked company vice president Craig Mundie at a briefing on Microsoft's main Redmond campus. The House speaker apparently wanted to know if Microsoft's "Apollo" project, a.k.a. AutoPC, a dashboard-mounted computer unveiled by the company last week, would include global positioning systems. But Gingrich was also trying to impress upon Microsoft (not to mention the gaggle of reporters in the room) that he was hip to high tech during this back-scratching party that included meetings with Bill Gates and company soothsayer Nathan Myhrvold.
The great financial success of Microsoft and the technology sector has drawn fawning attention to Seattle from pols seeking money, influence, and new stump material to prove their own relevancy. Last month, Vice President Al Gore even paid a secret visit (organized by the Technology Network, a lobbying group to which Microsoft belongs) to the downtown offices of Amazon.com to campaign for free speech on the Internet—despite his support for the Communications Decency Act of 1996—and the VP didn't even bother soliciting his audience of a dozen well-healed local high-tech executives for campaign checks.
Meanwhile, as the Justice Department sets antitrust sights on Microsoft, DC is becoming increasingly important to Redmond. Pundits in both Washingtons are debating Microsoft's influence (or lack thereof) in the nation's capital. The basic spin has been that Microsoft essentially ignored DC politics, eschewed lobbyists, and avoided the federal bureaucracy while it humbly built a private-sector success story without one dime in federal subsidy.
As Microsoft expanded, though, and Gates became more influential personally (a recent photograph in the London Examiner of President Clinton steering a golf cart with Gates in the passenger's seat drew the caption: "The most powerful man in the world—and his driver"), it looked as if Microsoft was ignoring Washington out of hubris. But in fact, Microsoft hasn't been ignoring Washington at all. The company has lobbied Congress on Internet censorship, telecommunications deregulation, tax code, digital television standards, and trade with China—along the way building an impressive network between Redmond and the DC establishment.
Gates' best DC connections begin with his father. As is reported in the current issue of Mother Jones, the senior Gates' law firm—Preston, Gates & Ellis—employs at least a dozen ex-congressional aides, former executive office counsels, and veteran campaign organizers with longstanding connections to DC lawmakers. Preston Gates' Dennis Stephens served as legislative aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Mississippi Congressman Roger Wicker, former Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, and former Presidents Reagan and Bush. Shawn Vassel was a staff member for Senate judiciary subcommittee chair Spencer Abraham and Florida Republican Rep. Porter Goss. Other Preston Gates lobbyists have worked for Sens. Daniel Moynihan, John Rockefeller, and Jesse Helms, former Sens. Alan Simpson and Bob Packwood, former House Speaker Tom Foley and his successor, Gingrich. (Preston Gates would not comment.) According to Mother Jones, Microsoft spent $1.1 million in 1996 and $660,000 in the first half of '97 lobbying Congress. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, Gingrich pal, and all-around GOP booster, pulled down a $120,000 salary from Microsoft to represent the company's interests at capital tea parties, cocktail receptions, and other policymaking functions.
Of course, politics is a two-way relationship. Both Gore and Gingrich are expected to raise money for their respective parties in addition to personal campaign funds. Although Gingrich's visit was organized by his campaign office, the Georgia-based Friends of Newt Gingrich, his Microsoft confab was strictly informational. He spoke with Gates about jobs, Myhrvold about the future, and Mundie about converging PC and television technologies. After his three-hour visit to Redmond, Gingrich will now be able to speak to Congress, constituents, and future contributors with apparent authority on high-tech issues: "When I visited Microsoft," he'll no doubt intone, "Bill Gates told me... " And then, of course, there's the AP photo of Gates and Gingrich together—a picture worth at least a thousand campaign dollars—and a figure that coincidentally matches an individual's maximum legal contribution to any congressional campaign.