So You Want to Buy a President?

John Sculley

The CEOs of the leading information technology companies in Silicon Valley tend to be a lot like their industry: brash, young, and unconventional. Until recently, few of them have had much use for politicians. Nonetheless, as their industry has matured and they have become rich and influential, the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley have been courted by candidates of both parties. The story of how a Democratic Administration under President Clinton has successfully curried their favor and reaped campaign dollars as a result reveals much about the flow of money in American politics.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won the endorsement and financial backing of several of them. Most notable was John Sculley, then the celebrated CEO of Apple Computer and a Republican. It was Sculley who sat next to Hillary Rodham Clinton during the President's first State of the Union address in January 1993. He embodied one of the incoming Administration's most vivid images, a symbol of a booming industry dominated by America and allied with a young, new President.

Sculley, 55, joined Apple in 1983 from Pepsico Inc, where he had risen from marketing executive to the company's president. He was lured to the Cupertino, California computer maker by Apple's co-founder Steven Jobs who reportedly asked him, "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?" As a world changer, Sculley did well at first. Despite his low-tech background, Apple flourished under his leadership and in 1985 Sculley solidified his image as Silicon Valley's reigning philosopher-king when he ousted Jobs after a power struggle. He was frequently quoted in the press making visionary predictions about the future of the cyber-revolution his company had helped start.

As the company's star began to fade, however, so did his. By 1993 the company was reeling from a series of business disasters. Chief among them was the Newton hand-held computer, Sculley's pet project. In that year, he resigned from Apple.

Sculley turned his attention to politics, in the early 1990s. His first efforts were on behalf of Republican Tom Campbell, who in 1992 was running in California for a US Senate seat. Sculley hosted a fund-raising fete for Campbell at his ranch in Woodside. But by then, Sculley had grown disenchanted with the technology policies of the Bush Administration. He had also become acquainted with Hillary Rodham Clinton, serving with her on a national education council. When Bill Clinton ran for President Sculley threw his support to him.

A key matchmaker in bringing Clinton and high-tech executives like Sculley together was Sanford (Sandy) Robertson, chairman of Robertson, Stephens & Co., a leading investment firm in San Francisco. Since the late sixties, Robertson has specialized in converting fledgling technology companies from private to public ownership. He has also raised a lot of money for Democratic candidates. In October 1992, Robertson held a fund-raising dinner party for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and 135 Silicon Valley and biotech executives, including Sculley, at his house in San Francisco. The dinner raised $400,000.

A top priority in Silicon Valley was the construction of an electronic data network, the so-called "information superhighway." Clinton -- and particularly Gore -- were thinking about that too. Gore envisioned a future driven by bits and bytes traveling across a high-speed network that would connect government, business and schools -- all built with the government leading the charge. Gore likened this to the publicly funded interstate highway system which had been championed by his father, a former Tennessee Senator.

But in Silicon Valley, many leading executives wanted a network built by private companies like their own. At the economic summit convened by President-elect Clinton in December 1992, AT&T chairman Robert Allen and Gore voiced their disagreement on the subject. But by the end of 1993 the Vice-President had changed his view. In a speech on December 21, he declared : "Unlike the interstates, the information superhighway will be built, paid for, and funded principally by the private sector." Remarkably, within two days of Gore's remarks, telecommunications companies with much at stake in the information superhigway contributed $120,000 to the Democratic Party. Federal Election Commission records show receipts of $70,000 from MCI, $25,000 from NYNEX, $15,000 from Sprint, and $10,000 from US West.

As for John Sculley, the years since he was mentioned as a possible member of Clinton's cabinet have been difficult. He lasted only four months as chairman of Spectrum Information Technologies, a New York company. And he left unhappily. He sued Spectrum alleging he had been deceived about accounting problems.

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