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High-Tech Hubris

Beware the high-tech hubris of a venture capitalist who doesn’t understand the political game.

September 1, 1998

How ambitious can a guy get?

Not content with picking winners and losers in the volatile world of high-tech, John Doerr thinks he can re-engineer society too. His agenda is simple. First he’ll fix the schools, then upgrade the skills of American workers and-who knows? -maybe finish off by bringing racial harmony to the land. And he won’t even break a sweat because his ideas compute. Or so he beeps.

Only those out of radio contact with the digital world need an introduction to Doerr, a partner in the top-drawer venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins, based in Menlo Park, Calif. Doerr is arguably the shrewdest, quickest and most celebrated venture capitalist alive. He’s the Bill Gates of high-tech finance, or so say a stream of cheerleaders, from The New Yorker to Wired to The San Jose Mercury News, his local rag. Doerr doesn’t just write checks, his fans insist; he actually concocts strategies and tactics, gazes into the future of technology, even hand-picks the executive team for his new ventures. While he has had his share of misses, his hits are tremendous. They include Sun Microsystems and Netscape.

To be sure, Doerr’s high-tech achievements are impressive. But since when has that qualified someone as the public’s savior? Maybe a general on the heels of a victorious war (Eisenhower, Colin Powell) deserves such status. Or even a family of aristocrats (the Roosevelts). But an electrical engineer with an MBA? That is new.

Doerr’s ascension speaks volumes about the merger of celebrity and innovation in fin de sicle America. High-tech is hot; innovation is the new god. In the unbridled celebration, it is difficult indeed for a tech titan to banish thoughts of Napoleonic grandeur from the digital processor he calls his brain. The fawning attitude of the media, and of the political class, quickens this slide into megalomania. After decades of treating techies like members of the Belushi family, politicians have finally realized that these overgrown children are steering the engine of the American economy. Cozying up to a computer tycoon is now the equivalent of kissing a baby on Main Street.

The federal government has for decades zealously funded technological research and trumpeted to the nation the importance of innovation. But that’s not the same as the president taking late-night phone calls from the CEO of Apple, or sneaking away on Air Force One for a clandestine briefing on the future of Windows. With TIME magazine declaring Bill Gates to be more influential than Bill Clinton, it is no wonder that lesser-known billionaires such as Oracle’s Larry Ellison never go lonely at lunch.

The political odyssey of the technology industry’s best and brightest began quietly back in 1992, when a group of high-profile computer executives publicly backed Bill Clinton for president. Four years later, many of these same folks supported Clinton again. Their endorsements proved crucial in both elections.

In the process of trucking with Democrats, the normally libertarian cyber set discovered the nation’s capital-and old-fashioned politics. These days, Washington, D.C., is practically a second home to Bill Gates. Gates isn’t alone in making the pilgrimage East. With less fanfare, Doerr and his pals are climbing all over the city too. And part of their agenda is to rail against Microsoft and the huge power Gates wields over the new economic sector that has developed as a result of the connections among four big industries: computers, software, television and publishing.

Doerr likes to think he has Gates on the run. And now that Vice President Al Gore is diligently wooing the digital rat pack, this may be true. Gore, inheritor of Clinton’s high-tech connections, is creating a kitchen cabinet of advisers from computer and software industries. This year, Doerr emerged as the group’s leader.
Re-engineering the nation’s schools might seem a doable task if you think you can tame America’s richest man. Yet while Doerr is sincere in wanting to make the classroom a breeding ground for high-output knowledge, he’s a rookie when it comes to politics. And his inexperience shows. This spring Doerr took on a seemingly light political chore: He ran a vigorous drive to raise school taxes in the wealthy northern California hamlet where he lives. Despite putting his personal prestige on the line, his neighbors voted down the measure.

It was a stinging defeat and carried a lesson for any high-tech titan considering a role in politics. Doerr’s own neighbors were unwilling, it seems, to put his ideas about education into practice, even in a wealthy district where Doerr’s enthusiasm for self-reliance, limited government and the power of innovation is the common creed.

No doubt Colin Powell would have pushed through a ballot measure in his home town, even if it called for something far more controversial than improving public education. It just goes to show that the public is giving high-tech innovators more respect-but there’s still nothing like winning one war to prove you deserve the power to start another one.

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