In Search of the Real Bill Gates

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In that regard he is the opposite of, say, Bill Clinton, who brackets the other end of the baby boom: Gates analytically rigorous and emotionally reserved, the President equally smart but intellectually undisciplined and readily intimate. They played golf on Martha's Vineyard once, and the President, as usual, worked hard at bonding emotionally and being personally charming and intimate. He expressed sorrow about the death of Gates' mother, shared the pain of the recent death of his own mother and gave golfing tips to Melinda. But Gates noticed that Clinton never bore in or showed rigorous curiosity about technological issues. Though he vaguely considers himself a Democrat, Gates stayed neutral in the presidential election.

Warren Buffett, the Omaha, Nebraska, investor whom Gates demoted to being merely the second richest American, seems an unlikely person to be among his closest pals. A jovial, outgoing 66-year-old grandfather, Buffett only recently learned to use a computer. But as multibillionaires go, both are unpretentious, and they enjoy taking vacations together. Buffett's secretary apologetically explains that Buffett isn't giving interviews these days and at the moment is traveling, but she promises to pass along the request. Less than three hours later, Buffett calls to say he happens to be in the Time & Life Building with some free time between meetings in Manhattan, and he would be happy to come by to be interviewed. He likes to talk about Gates.

His favorite story is about the 1995 excursion to China that Bill and Melinda organized for seven couples. "For part of the trip we stayed on a ship in the Yangtze with five decks that normally accommodates hundreds of people," he says with the glee of a kid describing Walt Disney World. "Each evening Melinda arranged different activities." There was karaoke singing in the ship's ballroom, performances of quickie versions of Shakespeare plays, "and a trivia quiz on such things as how many meals we'd eaten, with prizes that Melinda and Bill handed out." When relaxed, Buffett says, Gates has a fun sense of humor. In the Forbidden City they were given a show of huge ancient scrolls that were silently rolled and unrolled by women trained for the task. "There's a $2 fine," Gates whispered, "if you return a scroll not rewound."

When Gates decided to propose to Melinda in 1993, he secretly diverted the chartered plane they were taking home from Palm Springs one Sunday night to land in Omaha. There Buffett met them, arranged to open a jewelry store that he owned and helped them pick a ring. That year Gates made a movie for Buffett's birthday. It featured Gates pretending to wander the country in search of tales about Buffett and calling Melinda with them from pay phones. After each call, Gates is shown checking the coin slot for loose change. When she mentions that Buffett is only the country's second richest man, he informs her that on the new Forbes list Buffett had (at least that one year) regained the top spot. The phone suddenly goes dead. "Melinda, Melinda," Gates sputters, "you still there? Hello?"

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