When it comes to the art of the leak, Clinton White House aides aren't the only savvy spinmeisters around.

Bill Gates also knows a thing or two about working the media--and complains when the data his Microsoft colleagues quietly give reporters don't get enough coverage.

On Dec. 1, Microsoft's PR folks leaked to the Associated Press a Gates e-mail message about the company's antitrust trial. This was suspect, to say the least, because the Gates missive had been written that very morning--and read like a carefully crafted press release.

Two days later, in a follow-up e-mail to his deputies, Gates said: "I am really surprised we restricted the distribution of this so much. My comments are the best tool we have to shift the dialog. . . . Just putting in AP doesn't have much impact I don't think. At least we should give it to MAGAZINE people also."

In his original message, Gates suggested that the planned combination of America Online and Netscape might blunt the government's argument that Microsoft had a stranglehold on Internet software. Is it unfair to call this e-mail a press release? Hardly.

In a response to his boss, Microsoft spokesman Greg Shaw boasted that giving the document to the AP "served as a press release to everyone else and it is THE story that major metro papers run around the country and the world for that matter." He noted that The Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal had all chased the story that evening.

Asked about the sequence of events, Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray says: "I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to get our point of view out there. The government has not been shy in the least in trying to fight this case on a PR level. . . . The government has been trying to leak information to reporters to try to influence coverage of the trial. That's clear as day." Replies Justice spokeswoman Gina Talamona: "That's simply not true."

Either way, Microsoft is clearly playing the game. The 11-paragraph Gates follow-up message--which contains none of the spelling or grammatical errors of his earlier e-mail--was written soon after AOL announced that it was buying Netscape. "The DOJ must be VERY dismayed at this merger," Gates told his "executive staff," insisting that it undercut the Justice Department's argument that Microsoft was attempting to monopolize the market for Internet browsers (since Netscape, which makes a competing browser, fetched a fat $4 billion).

During a lunch break at the trial, a Microsoft flack slipped the e-mail to AP reporter Ted Bridis, who wrote that it had been "obtained by the Associated Press." "It was a legitimate news item from this celebrity billionaire," says Bridis, who did not feel used. "I've been the beneficiary of leaks, and I've been the victim of leaks in terms of having to play catch-up the next day."

Murray says Bridis was chosen because he had discussed the subject in a phone interview with Gates two weeks earlier. "This is certainly an issue that we think is significant in the case," Murray says.

Giving an exclusive document to the widely distributed AP certainly has its advantages. As Microsoft's Shaw told the man whose computer name is "Billg":

"It's a dilemma. If we give it to everyone it looks cooked and no one will cover it. If it appears as a breaking news story everyone feels they have to cover it. You should know that as soon as AP broke we got calls from most of the major news outlets to whom we provided a copy and they wrote it."

Quindlen's Choice

Newsweek pulled off a coup by hiring Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer-winning former New York Times columnist, to write a back page commentary every other week.

Earlier this month, though, Quindlen endorsed Bill Bradley for president, praising the Democrat for his "moral authority" at a political breakfast.

A problem for Newsweek? "Obviously that was something she did when she was a civilian," says Newsweek President Richard Smith. "She has always played straight with her readers. I'm sure that even if she writes about anything tangentially related to presidential politics, she'll deal with it in print. Disclosure and sunshine are the best disinfectants."

Lost in the Shadow

Bob Woodward's new book, "Shadow," has sparked the usual controversy about unnamed sources. But the book stretches the truth on one point: the cover photo of five former presidents.

The shot, taken at Richard Nixon's 1994 funeral, magically removes Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter, all of whom were sitting next to their husbands. "The cover's kind of a symbol," says Woodward, the Washington Post veteran, adding that Simon and Schuster officials (who could not be reached) designed the cover without his input. "It's a way of getting the five presidents who were there together."

Says author Carl Sferazza Anthony, an expert on first ladies: "It's funny. Woodward does all this scrupulous work, and there's a doctored picture cutting the girls out and keeping the boys."

Tell-All Etiquette

In his Washington Monthly review of George Stephanopoulos's memoir, James Fallows mostly winds up talking about himself.

"An interesting book that should not have been written," says the deposed editor of U.S. News & World Report--who hastens to explain that what he did when he left the Carter administration was, well, very different.

Fallows was chief White House speechwriter when he quit in 1979 and wrote an Atlantic cover story, "The Passionless Presidency," that skewered his former boss. But Fallows says Stephanopoulos's betrayal of President Clinton is far worse.

One, Stephanopoulos got paid more--about $3 million more--for "All Too Human." Fallows just got his "quite modest" Atlantic salary--and turned down "lucrative" book offers.

Two, Stephanopoulos divulged more embarrassing stuff about the Clintonites. Yes, Fallows famously revealed that Jimmy Carter approved who got to use the White House tennis court, but "I tried to use personal details about Carter only to the extent they affected his performance as president." (This, Fallows allows, may seem a "meaningless distinction" and "hypocritical.")

Three, Stephanopoulos was a big shot, while "I was a nobody in the Carter administration."

So it's okay to divulge details about your ex-employer if you're a modestly paid nobody who's doing so only for public-policy purposes? "I couldn't write about this without saying I was in a similar situation," Fallows says. "That was the most interesting thing I had to contribute to the discussion."

Guru Going

Investing may soon get harder. James Glassman is giving up his financial column in The Post after six years, partly to promote the new book he's co-authored, "Dow 36,000." But there's another reason the American Enterprise Institute scholar is dropping the column this month: "It's a huge amount of work." Said Glassman, who preaches the gospel of buying and holding stocks: "I have the feeling I'm frequently writing the same column, and that was getting to me."

Carney's Take

In a dispatch from the George W. Bush campaign last week, Time reporter Jay Carney was quoted as saying the campaign would have problems if it couldn't properly choreograph its inaugural trip. He was not referring to the lack of early-morning coffee for reporters, as this under-caffeinated correspondent inadvertently suggested.

CAPTION: Judging a book by its cover? The original Nixon funeral photo from 1994, above; and the cover of Bob Woodward's "Shadow," sans the leaders' wives.