Bill Gates is “unraveling,” if you believe a recent New York Times essay by Timothy Egan. The surprise divorce from his wife Melinda, announced in early May, and other revelations apparently indicate the Microsoft co-founder isn’t the superhero he made himself out to be.
But did Bill Gates make himself out to be the last great hope for humanity? Or did the media, abetted by a willing audience eager to find good guys to combat the villains who are strangling democracy, killing the planet and devouring the middle class? It might be some of both, but the myth-making that surrounds public figures is almost always a partnership between the celebrities and their publicists, on one hand, and the media storytellers who need characters and narratives that make a connection with their audience. The mainstream media is complicit in nearly every hagiography.
As one of the 29 million divorced people in America, I cringe when I see oh-ho-ho analyses explaining what must have happened when some famous couple gets divorced. In most cases, divorce is a complicated mess involving many factors that are hard to untangle. A single storyline rarely applies and there’s often plenty of blame to go around. There’s no algorithm that explains exactly what happened, and it’s arrogant for anybody, especially an outsider, to pretend they know.
Bill and Melinda Gates were married for 27 years, which is impressive to those of us who couldn’t sustain a marriage for half that time. Relationships that long don’t normally fail suddenly. They fail slowly, with agonizing ambiguity that can challenge the sharpest mind to know when it’s truly over. The idea that Bill Gates is “unraveling” at the point his divorce becomes public seems wildly mistimed. The unraveling probably began years ago, for both spouses, as some reporting suggests. The divorce itself may actually be a relief, for both of them, allowing the unraveling to end and healing to begin. One or both of them might be even further along than that.
Bill and Melinda Gates are no ordinary couple, of course, given that they jointly control the Gates Foundation, the huge charity that combats poverty, disease and inequality in some of the world’s neediest places. Now that they’re divorced, maybe they’ll screw it up, by allowing personal disagreements to spill into foundation business. But that hasn’t happened yet, even though known personal differences date back years. And the Gates Foundation is a professionally run operation with a solid ranking by third-party groups. Maybe it’ll be fine.
Bill Gates is a brilliant, autocratic innovator with the good and bad qualities of many people who change the world. He’s been known as demanding, arrogant and ruthless, but he has clearly softened since the time he co-founded Microsoft in 1975, built it into the world’s most dominant software producer and waged a landmark antitrust battle with the U.S. government that began in 1998. Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, but he was chairman, effectively running the company, until 2014. He remained on the board but left for good in 2020, amid reports Microsoft was investigating a possible affair Gates had with an employee all the way back in 2000 (which was probably marital stress-point No. X).
Gates met several times with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, starting in 2011. At the time, Epstein had been convicted of soliciting prostitution from a minor, though he was not yet known as the sicko who preyed on vulnerable teenage girls, as he is today. There have also been reports of abusive workplace conduct by the man who manages Gates’ massive personal fortune, suggesting Bill Gates himself may have known about it and tolerated it.
Okay, skeevy. The Gates divorce could reveal other unsettling details of Bill Gates’s private life. If he’s complicit in criminal activity, prosecute him. If he behaved boorishly, pillory and shame him. But how about also dropping the expectation that people we dub heroes must be flawless role models. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was probably more obnoxious than Gates, yet revered in the end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk may be a Trumpian narcissist, yet he enjoys a massive cult following. If we expect people like Bill Gates never to let us down, we are the ones deceiving ourselves.
Since winding down his role at Microsoft, Gates has championed better toilets in third-world countries, a global vaccine drive for preventable disease and college scholarships for promising minority students in the United States. His fortune has funded at least $30 billion in charitable spending, second only to Warren Buffett. Gates is now a climate activist who opines on many things because everybody wants to know what he thinks on almost everything. Media organizations constantly ask for interviews, and he often obliges. He’ll probably keep doing this, whether he is unraveling or thriving. Maybe it’s time to let the Gates divorce run its course and save the analysis for bigger problems.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.