Bill Gates was a one-of-a-kind piece of work. Just ask the man who was paid to copy him. You stand before 3,500 booing Silicon Valley techies...
Bill Gates was a one-of-a-kind piece of work. Just ask the man who was paid to copy him.
You stand before 3,500 booing Silicon Valley techies. They’re hissing because of who you are — the richest man in the universe. And what you represent — an idea-copying, domineering Death Star.
Experiencing that gives you a tiny peek into what it might be like to be Bill Gates. Hated. Feared. Envied. An icon.
At least that’s the way it was. Mill Creek’s Steve Sires, for 10 years the top Gates celebrity look-alike, says imitating the Microsoft founder ain’t what it used to be.
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“People don’t see him as evil anymore,” Sires said the other day, on the eve of Gates’ retirement after 33 years. “For some time now, there hasn’t been much demand. I guess I’m following Bill into retirement.”
Since 1998, Sires, a civil engineer, has rented himself out as Gates’ doppelgänger, mostly to corporate clients for conventions and employee meetings.
Almost always he was hired by the “Bill-haters.”
“They’d fly me down to Sun [Microsystems, in California] or Red Hat [in North Carolina], and put me up on stage as an evil foil,” Sires says. “It always struck me as odd how people seemed to love to hate him so.”
I saw this phenomenon firsthand. I was in the congressional hearing room in 1998 when Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun, called Gates, sitting right next to him, “the most dangerous and powerful industrialist of our age.”
James Barksdale, then the CEO of Netscape and an otherwise pleasant, folksy man, practically called on Gates to take it outside because of how he felt Microsoft had sabotaged his company.
I remember thinking: Wow, these guys hate Gates. And they sure do seem to enjoy it.
Some of this was business-to-business combat. But it also said something about America. About how we all want money and power. Except you must have done something wrong if you actually got it.
Once, I interviewed a psychologist who claimed that we, via our national government, went after Gates in the 1990s because we were all getting rich then (metaphorically speaking). We felt guilty about getting so rich. Somebody had to atone for those nagging feelings of greed and materialism and selfishness. We sacrificed Gates.
He made this easier by deserving it. The Gates of old would tell people an idea was “the stupidest I’ve ever heard.” He and his minions acted as if they ruled the world, plotting, in e-mails, how to use the company’s market power to squash rivals — infamously, how to “cut off their air supply” or “knife the baby” or other such moblike threats.
“If you’re going to kill someone there isn’t much reason to get all worked up about it and angry — you just pull the trigger,” wrote one of Gates’ consiglieres about Microsoft’s plans for a rival software company, Novell, back in 1993.
Those were the days. The antitrust case in 1998 humbled the bully. People think Microsoft got off easy, but I don’t think so. It remains a wildly successful company, but you don’t see it eating rivals for lunch anymore. Today, Microsoft can’t even persuade Yahoo to let Microsoft buy it. No way the old Gates would have put up with that.
And then there’s the rise of Google, which, not coincidentally, adopted as its motto the phrase “Don’t Be Evil.”
It all seems quaint now, this notion of Gates as evil. His legacy may be more about money than ideas, but what’s so sinister about that? Plus, now he’s giving away all that money, in the largest act of charity in world history.
Unless he launches a ruthless philanthropy war to, say, cut off the United Nations’ air supply, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll be doing anything but loving Bill from here on out.
Which isn’t as interesting, is it?
It sure isn’t ringing the phone for the celebrity look-alike.
Sires, who once starred in a film in which Gates was assassinated, says the arc of this story reveals more about us than the mogul we once loved to hate.
“He’s going to do more now to help more people than probably anyone on the planet,” Sires said. “I guess in our society, that’s not what makes you a real celebrity.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.