Dear Microsoft

Politics and policy.
Jan. 2 1998 3:30 AM

Dear Microsoft

Dear Microsoft

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D on't get me wrong--I think that what these people do for a living is slimy. They're not all equally bad, but I have trouble deciding who is worse. Is it the right-wing commissar Norquist, who defied subpoenas from the Thompson Committee about his role laundering campaign contributions for the Republican National Committee (he is contemptuous of the law)? Or is it Downey, a former reformer from the post-Watergate Class of '74 who wants everyone to think of him as a Boy Scout even as he sells his connections to anyone who can pay his fee?

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Another quandary: Is it worse for lobbyists to exploit their personal relationships with government officials, or to sell the illusion that they are doing so? After years of covering lobbying, my impression is that the business is about 80 percent con. You never know for sure what you're getting, which, unfortunately, is an argument for ponying up. The company has billion-dollar issues at stake. At $120,000 a year for Norquist and $160,000 a year for Downey, it's a cheap lottery ticket. And odd as it sounds, hiring influence peddlers generates good will on Capitol Hill. In Congress, where people think of themselves as underpaid, there's hostility toward Bill Gates based on the fact that he's got a lot of dough and doesn't share it with people like them. Republican staffers, in particular, see Microsoft as a Democratic-inclined company that is never going to hire them when they're ready to go through the revolving door. This is a pretty venal outlook, but it's built into the Washington operating system the way, say, Internet Explorer is said to be integrated into Windows. Many people think Microsoft can easily separate Windows and IE if it wants to, but nobody would claim that Microsoft can single-handedly re-create the culture of Washington.

There are, however, advantages to not being heavy hitters inside the Beltway. Refusing to pay an unjustified toll may be contemptuous of Washington, but it's respectful of democracy. In a way, I think it has already helped Microsoft's image. You've been slammed for not throwing your weight around in D.C., but would certainly be criticized much more if you did throw it around. Microsoft has been defensive about its low-key Washington role when it could legitimately be boasting about it.

Of course it's hard to brag about your reluctance to hire Washington sleazeballs when you have Michael Deaver on your payroll. Deaver isn't just an ordinary convicted felon. He was on the cover of Time--making a phone call from his limousine--as the symbol of the influence-peddling excesses of the 1980s. I'm sure he experienced a great deal of personal growth during his community service, but he's not the guy to organize a PR blitz around the theme of restraint in playing the Washington game.