My first day of work at Microsoft, 15 years ago, I wore a DOJ baseball cap that a friend had given me when she heard I was going to work in Redmond. DOJ stood for Department of Justice, which is where my friend worked. I wore the cap into the office on my first day, intending this to be a little joke. The Clinton Justice Department had recently filed an antitrust suit against Microsoft, threatening huge fines and even a breakup of the company. But I learned a lesson: Nobody thought the hat was very funny.
Outside of Washington, they take politics and their consequences seriously, more seriously than in the nation’s capital, where it’s all “just business,” as they say in “The Godfather.” My new colleagues were appalled and hurt by the lawsuit. They felt that they were helping their country (as well as themselves) by developing great software. They didn’t think their company was the monster being portrayed by Justice Department lawyers.
When George W. Bush became president, the suit was settled on terms generally considered favorable to Microsoft. But the suit and the settlement did the company significant damage, distracting it for several crucial years and forcing it to learn and practice caution, while rivals could continue to behave in the headlong tradition of this new industry.
For many years before the lawsuit, Microsoft had virtually no Washington “presence.” It had a large office in the suburbs, mainly concerned with selling software to the government. Bill Gates resisted the notion that a software company needed to hire a lot of lobbyists and lawyers. He didn’t want anything special from the government, except the freedom to build and sell software. If the government would leave him alone, he would leave the government alone.
At first this was regarded (at least in Washington) as naive. Grown-up companies hire lobbyists. What’s this guy’s problem? Then it was regarded as foolish. This was not a game. There were big issues at stake. Next it came to be seen as arrogant: Who the hell does Microsoft think it is? Does it think it’s too good to do what every other company of its size in the world is doing?
Ultimately, there even was a feeling that, in refusing to play the Washington game, Microsoft was being downright unpatriotic. Look, buddy, there is an American way of doing things, and that American way includes hiring lobbyists, paying lawyers vast sums by the hour, throwing lavish parties for politicians, aides, journalists, and so on. So get with the program.
So that’s what Microsoft did. It moved its government affairs office out of distant Chevy Chase, Md., and into the downtown K Street corridor. It bulked up on lawyers and hired the best-connected lobbyists. Soon Microsoft was coming under criticism for being heavy-handed in its attempts to buy influence. But the sad thing is that it seems to have worked. Microsoft is no longer Public Enemy No. 1. No one blamed it for the recent Japanese tsunami, for example, or demanded hearings on its role in the housing industry collapse.
Best of all, the finger of blame has moved on — to Google, which now gets the blame for everything. It is an evil monopoly that uses its power to extend that monopoly into new areas. It must be stopped before all its competitors are wiped out. And so on. This is all very familiar to anyone who worked at Microsoft in the late 1990s, and (it must be admitted) very enjoyable. Microsoft last week piled on, bringing charges against Google at the European Union, accusing it of a variety of nefarious practices, including some the EU had formerly accused Microsoft of.
Warren Buffett famously says that it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes than your own. Google learned from Microsoft. It did not diss Washington. It has had a Washington lobbying operation almost from the very beginning of the company, way back in 2003. In 2008, Google opened a glamorous new D.C. office, described by Google’s senior manager of global communications and public affairs as “a showcase of the company and what it means.” The very fact that Google has a senior manager of global communications and public affairs suggests that Google might not be quite the non-corporate corporation it sees itself as.
And if Google can just hold on a bit longer, the pointing finger already is moving again, this time to Facebook. But Facebook will be prepared. Even before its stock goes public, it is making noises about hiring President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and has hired the former chief of staff of the National Economic Council, Marne Levine.
As the Microsoft example suggests, the Washington culture of influence peddling is not entirely or even primarily the fault of the corporations that hire the lobbyists and pay the bills. It’s a vast protection racket, practiced by politicians and political operatives of both parties. Nice little software company you’ve got here. Too bad if we have to regulate it, or if big government programs force us to raise its taxes. Your archrival just wrote a big check to the Washington Bureaucrats Benevolent Society. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to do the same?
Here’s a story I’ve told before, but without the name. Lanny Davis was special counsel to the president in the Clinton administration and a personal friend of the Clintons. He called me shortly after I got to Microsoft to say how sorry he was that we hadn’t connected when I lived in Washington but that he hoped to stay in touch. Oh yes, and he felt terrible about all the bad publicity and unfair government harassment my boss, Bill Gates, was getting. He would love to give him some help and advice. Could I put the two of them together? The answer, of course, was that I couldn’t. But the odd thing was that, at that point, I had never even met Lanny Davis.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, writes a column for Politico. A version of this column also appears on that website.