For decades, Bill Gates has traveled the globe as near-royalty, knighted by Queen Elizabeth and draped in medals by President Barack Obama. And for the last year, the once pugnacious Microsoft founder has reinvented himself as one of America’s clearest, most humane voices on the Covid-19 pandemic.
It would only take two weeks for Gates to reinvent himself yet again — and not in the way that his past reinventions have gone.
For the first time since the turn of the century, Bill Gates is mired in deep scandal. And what has become clear over the past 48 hours is that Gates will never be the same.
The divorce of Gates and his wife, Melinda, was announced earlier this month but has devolved into a tabloid melodrama featuring secret boardroom investigations, hushed affairs, and the likes of Jeffrey Epstein. Gates was pummeled in a trio of stories over the weekend that detailed his alleged indiscretions, each of which began to shatter the aura that he has cultivated in the 20 years since he took his foot off the clutch at Microsoft.
That image rehabilitation largely worked. Ever since stepping back from Microsoft, Gates has grown to epitomize what might be considered the “Good Billionaire”: a civic-minded, awkward geek who showed how capitalism’s winnings can be marshaled to make the world a better place through philanthropy. No donor was more important in the world than Bill Gates, who, along with his wife, had grown to symbolize something in short supply in corporate America: role models.
And the polling reflected that: 55 percent of Americans told Recode in a survey this year that they had a positive opinion of him; only 35 percent felt the opposite.
But Gates’s world has now come crashing down with incredible speed.
To recap: Gates has apologized and been dogged for over a year by his connections to Epstein, the convicted sex offender who eventually killed himself in federal custody. But Gates is now accused of having vastly underplayed his ties to the ignominious criminal, according to one report. A second report shows a pattern of Gates acting unprofessionally around women he worked with — and handling a sexual harassment allegation against his money manager in a way that upset Melinda. And in the perhaps most damaging revelation, Gates now admits that he had an affair with an employee at Microsoft back in 2000, which triggered an investigation by the tech giant’s board of directors in 2019, a third report says.
Gates’s team denies many of these allegations. But they are sure to capture some mindshare with the American public, piercing the reputation that Gates has worked so long to cultivate. And there’s little reason to think that the last shoe has dropped in a record-setting divorce proceeding that is trending toward ugly.
Will people look at Bill Gates with the same fondness ever again?
What two weeks ago was merely a marriage that had sadly petered out has spiraled into something nastier. Gates will be shrouded in questions for the foreseeable future about his romantic life — to say nothing about the uncomfortable pecuniary and legal questions about the future of his fortune.
People do recover from scandal, especially in this news and political environment. (Philanthropists like Michael Milken were no angels.) Gates will surely have his own side of the story to tell, and the Gates Foundation will still exist, giving him wide influence over the next few decades. But more than other philanthropists, much of Gates’s soft power came from his seemingly unimpeachable public profile, which will now be more than a little tarred by the worst kind of attention.
Even if this is relegated to a rough news cycle or two in the long sweep of history, the short-term consequences are profound given where we are in that history. Gates should be at the forefront of the humanitarian crisis in India, for instance, speaking out about the massive death tolls. (He’s instead drawn controversy for his support of vaccine patent protections.) Now he is on the defensive, and any next interviewer will understandably want to ask at least in part about his private life, depleting the power of his commentary on public health.
This should be a validating moment for Bill Gates, as much as the last year has been. Instead, he will likely be silent, legalistic, and, more broadly, on the back foot. It couldn’t have come at a worse time.