Two Bills on the hot seat

Apparently, William H. Gates III and Microsoft have learned very little from the escapades of William Jefferson Clinton and his White House spinmeisters. So far at least, the world's wealthiest person appears to be defending himself and his company in pretty much the same manner as the world's most powerful leader.

And the way things are going, the results for Microsoft won't be a whole lot better.

Indeed, at times the two Bills seem to be operating out of the same legal playbook. Like the White House, Microsoft has pursued a strategy of self-righteous denials, frivolous legal claims, frequent procedural delays, convenient memory lapses, secretive testimony and, most distressingly, sharp attacks on its perceived enemies. In another time, each of those tactics might have seemed normal -- even appropriate. But in today's environment, they just tap in to our deep disgust with the entire Clinton debacle.

"Clintonesque" is certainly the easiest way to sum up Microsoft's recent attempts to do the following:

-- Obtain a summary judgment to dismiss or limit the entire US Department of Justice antitrust suit.

-- Prevent Gates' testimony from entering the public domain.

-- Deny that the company has a monopoly on PC operating systems.

-- Apparently quibble about whether there really is a market for browsers or PC operating systems. (Of course, this is the same company that insisted that Windows 95 and Internet Explorer really were integrated products.)All those parallels might just seem to be unfortunate coincidences for Microsoft if it weren't so obvious that the main motive for both Gates and Clinton is to avoid confronting the truth.

That's the truly worrisome parallel. Just as the president's lies regarding the Monica Lewinsky matter grew from his all-out effort to end the Paula Jones case, so is Microsoft's current legal chicanery aimed at covering up its no-holds-barred assault on Netscape. As I've been writing since 1996, when Microsoft deliberately chose that course, at that juncture the company forever branded itself as a predator-at-large. It's too late to start denying it now.

Don't be surprised if the parallels between the two Washingtons continue. Clinton's reputation is in tatters, his presidency at risk -- even the Jones case might be reopened. Similarly, Microsoft's public image has changed in some quarters from that of a great American success story to that of a brutal and insatiable competitor. Its words and actions have only emboldened Justice Department lawyers.

All that's required to complete the symmetry now is for Netscape shareholders to sue Microsoft for billions in compensatory damages. Like Clinton with Jones, Microsoft will then wish it had settled out of court. A few months from now, the Justice Department's original demand that Microsoft distribute Netscape's Navigator along with Windows will look like a very small price to have paid indeed.

Underlying all the legal similarities is, of course, a common human dimension. Just as Clinton has refused to accept the personal responsibilities that come with his great office, so has Gates failed to acknowledge and accept the special standards that come with his immense market power. It's that failure to adhere to established societal norms that has landed both men in such trouble. Clearly, Clinton's offenses are infinitely more blatant and disgraceful. But in the end, both men will be shown to have abused their power -- and both will be punished for it.

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David Moschella

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