Wonks and Nerds

What Bill Gates and Warren Buffett can teach Maria Cantwell and Christine Gregoire.

Wonks and nerds are a hard sell in this country, particularly in politics, where actually knowing something is often a liability. But they're having a mini- renaissance. Al Gore has made PowerPoint sexy, with the help of a cherry picker, in An Inconvenient Truth, reminding us that there's nothing quite as desirable as a politician who knows his facts but isn't running for president.

The grandest example of nerd triumph is the merger this week of America's two richest men: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Gates, who recently announced his gradual retirement from Microsoft, is moving on to run his $60 billion charitable "colossus," as The Wall Street Journal put it. Buffett, Gates' mentor in many ways, is giving $31 billion of his own money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which already has around $30 billion in assets. The goal: Save the world.

This is a marriage made in nerd heaven: Buffett and Gates play bridge together, eat bad junk food, and love to solve math puzzles. Buffett runs his business empire out of unfashionable Omaha, and Gates is a software engineer who initiates intellectual play by pronouncing your ideas "stupid." Both are guys who can play and win at many games simultaneously.

With this latest move, Gates becomes more than the guy who owns Boardwalk, Park Place, and everything but Baltic Avenue. He becomes a nerd who transcends nerdiness by focusing his intense energy and high intelligence on the world outside himself, and without trying to make money. A selfless nerd. Who would have thought it?

In local politics, we have a couple of policy wonks who have had success, but they've yet to make the moves that will make people admire them for their minds.

Christine Gregoire is, by almost all accounts, an excellent hands-on inside player in Olympia—a real cut above her recent predecessors, Gary Locke and Mike Lowry. She knows how to play and win the Olympia game with lawyerly skill, and by that I don't mean she's sneaky. She's a great advocate for the constituencies she goes to bat for.

She almost lost the election in 2004 to a man who was popular for knowing little and having done less. He was a fresh face who said he would go to the Capitol and make things work. Gregoire actually has gone to Olympia and made things work—solid appointments, legislative agenda passed—yet she gets little credit for it. The polls suggest the people still yearn for Dino Rossi.

Last week, I criticized Gregoire for her clueless, cloned speech at the Evergreen State College commencement. I subsequently was told that she gave nearly the identical speech at six different graduations. The Evergreen speech was poorly matched to the crowd. If she had touted her work on biofuels, the grads would have licked veganaise out of her hand.

A reader posted another example of the governor's cluelessness in response to my Mossblog item about her speech: "This reminds me of when Gregoire spoke at the Seattle Men's Chorus charity auction last year. The chorus is primarily gay men, and the audience was probably 70 percent gay. She got up on stage to thunderous applause and launched into her speech about 'our children.' Huh? I looked around. Who's she kidding. Does she know how few gay men have children? It was obvious that it was her 'speech of the week.' Totally the wrong message for her audience."

One can argue that there's little harm done now; her campaign for re-election is two years away. But she's way too low in the polls. Her tin ear almost cost her the election last time, and she's done little to prove she's taken it to a metallurgist for fine tuning.

To prove the point that some of the dumbest people you've ever met are smart people, take Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell. She can't afford mistakes in the middle of a campaign where communication counts. She's been taking a bit of a beating from Republican Mike McGavick in the polls—he looks within striking distance. Yes, it's way early; yes, it's still Cantwell's to lose; yes, Mike McGavick is using the Rossi playbook to mask his conservatism and position himself as the reasonable, congenial outsider, which to some extent he is. But remember: The Rossi strategy worked but for a few King County votes. And it's not like Maria won a landslide in 2000.

Another reason for concern—beyond a lack of enthusiasm for Cantwell among the Democratic grass roots who are pissed about her stance on Iraq—is that she's flubbed the ball before in similar circumstances. She won her first congressional campaign in a swing district, then disappeared for two years into the Beltway. When she ran for re-election, she seemed oddly disconnected from the voters— so deep into the wonkish details of legislation that, when asked what the most important thing she did during her first term was, she cited Penny-Kasich, a failed bill that would have limited government spending. Not unimportant in theory, but hardly anyone in her district had heard of Penny-Kasich. So the one-term incumbent was beaten in part because she wasn't connecting with her constituents. She lost to a reasonable, congenial conservative Republican named Rick White, the Dino Rossi of 1994.

Gregoire and Cantwell can learn something from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. You can succeed in America and be smart at the same time. But you have to be good at playing more than one game at a time.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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