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.
Timothy Egan (@nytegan) is a contributing Opinion writer who covers the environment, the American West and politics. He is a winner of the National Book Award and the author, most recently, of “A Pilgrimage to Eternity.”
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