Vice President Gore faced down a crowded auditorium of frustrated Microsoft employees today, saying he believes that antitrust laws aimed at breaking up monopolies such as the software manufacturer "embody a fundamental American value."
Gore said he would not discuss a federal judge's recent ruling that Microsoft is a predatory monopolist that stifles competition, but he did adamantly defend the principles behind the government's lawsuit against the company.
"If dominance in one area is used to prevent competition in another area, that is wrong," Gore said, referring repeatedly to "unhealthy concentrations of power."
While the vice president defended the government's antitrust policy, across the country in New Hampshire a former Clinton Cabinet member snubbed Gore and endorsed Bill Bradley for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Robert Reich declared that Bradley was "strong and getting stronger," and said that even though he had been providing private advice about issues to Bradley, he had agonized over the decision to go public with his preference since he had worked so closely with Gore as labor secretary during President Clinton's first term.
In Redmond--just 10 days after U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's first ruling in the government's antitrust lawsuit against the company--Gore had his hands full explaining to Microsoft employees why he should still have their support.
"The problem is I want to vote for you, but it just seems that I'm deeply conflicted," said one man who told Gore he began working at Microsoft as a 14-year-old intern. "I have these strong social values the Democratic Party also shares, but they also seem to accuse me and the rest of my company of trying to harm the American public. It doesn't add up."
Until today, the vice president has remained silent on the lawsuit. But as several workers peppered him with questions, he spoke at length on the virtues of antitrust laws drafted in 1898 to break up railroad monopolies.
"If competition is valuable, which I think it is, then antitrust laws have a place in embodying the values of our country," Gore said. "You're naturally going to feel put upon if a judge looking at the antitrust laws and how they apply to a fact situation that involves your workplace decides in the findings of fact that the law's been crossed. I'm not going to comment on it but the values that are inherent in the antitrust laws are ones that are sound, in my opinion."
When one worker told Gore he worries every day about competition and believes Microsoft is the "underdog" in the battle against the Justice Department, Gore retorted: "So the competition is to make sure nothing else competes with it?"
That did not sit well with another employee who rose from his chair and said: "So it sounds like you would characterize the software industry as having troubling competitive issues, that capitalism needs an assist from the greater wisdom of the government to sort of push innovation along?"
"No, no, that's not what I said at all," Gore said, reiterating his support for "the basic principle of government protecting competition against unfair actions."
For years, the Palm Pilot-carrying, Web-surfing Gore has cultivated the technology industry. But the Microsoft case plunked him in the middle of a raging dispute between some of his most ardent friends. In Silicon Valley, where Gore routinely visits with venture capitalist John Doerr, Microsoft is viewed with contempt. But here in Washington state, where Bradley poses a serious threat in the Feb. 29 primary, the state's largest employer and its millionaire employees hold great sway.
Throughout the session, Gore attempted to defuse tension by making jokes, mentioning obscure scientific theories and repeatedly announcing his Web site address, algore2000.com. Invoking the term for rebooting a computer, Gore said, the choice in next year's election comes down to "who you would really like to have his fingers on the 'alt control delete' button."
Bradley began his day at the state Capitol in Concord, where he paid a $1,000 fee and filed a one-page form to become the 19th candidate to declare for the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary. Later at a student assembly at Saint Anselm College, Reich, who has become a harsh critic of Clinton, called Bradley "the leader for our time," and said that he had the will to make health insurance available to more people, and to improve the lives of hungry children. Reich said he also thought Bradley would do a better job on education and campaign finance reform.
Reich said he had phoned Gore on Sunday to inform him of his planned announcement, and said he had "a great deal of respect and admiration for the vice president."
"I also have absolutely no doubt that, were he elected, he would make an excellent president," Reich said. "But let me just say this: Given the challenges ahead, Bill Bradley's commitment and his dedication and his vision will make him, to my mind, an even better president."
As the two stood together, Reich, who is 4 foot 10, came about to the elbow of Bradley, who is 6 foot 5. Reich began by joking, "I met Bill Bradley years ago, when we played together on the Knicks."
Bradley told the students that Reich's endorsement made this one of the best days of the campaign. "He believes that you move toward the future with your mind, but also with your heart, and you move toward the future with an underlying set of values," Bradley said. "That's what I believe, and I'm glad we agree."
Stephen Hess, a governmental scholar at Brookings Institution, said Reich's endorsement reflected "a sorting-out of what's left of the left in Democratic politics."
Allen reported from Manchester, N.H.
CAPTION: Calling Bill Bradley "the leader for our time," former labor secretary Robert Reich endorsed the former New Jersey senator's bid for the presidency.