When the Valley Discovered Politics


The Democrats and Silicon Valley

By Sara Miles

Farrar, Straus & Giroux 246pp $24

There's a Republican President, the dot-coms are in retreat, and venture capitalists who once bragged of having Vice-President Al Gore's ear are returning to political agnosticism. So you're not exactly itching to read a book about the Democrats and Silicon Valley, right?

Don't be too hasty in passing this one by. For all the writers who have swarmed to chronicle Silicon Valley's every hiccup, few have Sara Miles's talent for understanding the gestalt of the place and translating it for outsiders, while maintaining the proper degree of skepticism. Her new book, How To Hack a Party Line, is a feisty, fearless, insightful look at the political awakening that occurred there in the late 1990s. It was driven largely by some Democratic-leaning figures, only to fizzle when the complexities and slow grind of national politics proved too frustrating for those short-attention-span hard-chargers. The period of political involvement in many ways mirrored the financial exuberance that had the Valley feeling unstoppable. It's no coincidence that they both crashed.

Hack doesn't offer particularly savvy takes on national politics, other than to illuminate the back-stabbing and pettiness we all know exists. Miles does provide intriguing glimpses of Washington hands such as New Democrat Network President Simon Rosenberg and lobbying pros such as Tony Podesta. Much stronger are her descriptions of the personalities and ethos of Silicon Valley's movers and shakers--whom some journalists treat with kid gloves: men such as John Doerr, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capitalist who, for a time, became consumed with politics. "This was a man who had no interest in being flattered, but no tolerance for being crossed. He didn't chat. He didn't scream. He didn't have a sense of humor. He led most meetings with the narcissistic impatience of an overly bright child."

Much of the book is an account of Miles's travels with Wade Randlett, a centrist New Democrat fund-raiser and campaign consultant who would become an early force in the Valley lobbying group TechNet. He opens doors for Miles that enable her to do vivid fly-on-the-wall reporting, such as a chat between Randlett and Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos over some Web-based marketing ideas for the Gore campaign. (Although these ideas were never implemented, they illuminate the clever, creative bolts for which Bezos is famous.) Like so many other Valley types, Randlett was ambitious and arrogant, the author says, "personally generous, professionally cutthroat, and had a wholehearted contagious enthusiasm for his work."

From about 1996 to 1999, thanks in part to Randlett's ambition, the Valley came to life politically. With Doerr and other leaders concerned about such issues as shareholder-lawsuit protections and Y2K legislation, the Valley began to overcome its "deep pockets and short arms" reputation. What's more, the economy was booming so wildly that many people, especially politicians, were dying to meet techdom's Young Turks. Entrepreneur E. David Ellington of NetNoir Inc. explained to Miles that the trade group TechNet "was like NASA was in the Sixties, when everyone wanted to hang around with astronauts. The Internet guys were like `Hold on, we're going to space."'

A ritual developed that was repeated with almost comic regularity: Money-seeking pols professed to want to learn about technology and its needs, and entrepreneurs and engineers pretended to enjoy teaching them about it. Miles's account of one nonmeeting of the minds--between tech-friendly Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and folks from Valley software company Synopsys--is almost laugh-out-loud funny. An executive asserts: "Fifty years from now, Silicon Valley will be more powerful than Washington, but people in Washington don't see that yet."

Miles also captures the weird cultural forces that took on tornado-like power during the late 1990s, including the militant libertarianism of many tech types, who seem to believe that technology will inevitably replace buggy, bureaucratic government and its annoying regulations. In this, the author sees a "breathtaking ahistoricism" and ignorance of the megabucks spent on defense, ARPANET, public education, and other government efforts that set the stage for the Internet explosion.

The Valley's "astronaut" days went by pretty fast. When Randlett himself left politics to join a startup, hoping to grab initial public offering riches, Miles says she realized it was "the end of an early, experimental era--a moment in which callow startups and radical venture capitalists had tried to take politics by storm." TechNet is now controlled by more traditional political operatives--mainly carrying water on behalf of big outfits such as Intel Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., she says. And she quotes Ellington as saying: "It's not the same deal. You have dinner with the President for $50,000. There's the handshake, the photo--it's a formula, it has no relevance. It's over. The machine won. We're back to being regular businessmen."

Well, not exactly regular. Not necessarily the kind who have, oh, earnings, say, fairly often. But the Valley did learn a few lessons: that Washington is a world away from their climate-controlled cubicles--where much is logical and rational, where hard work and smarts go a long way, and where progress always feels inevitable.

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

Hamilton writes the Digital Lifestyle column.

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