When John Doerr led a delegation of high-tech executives to endorse President Clinton's call for national education standards one day last spring, Al Gore introduced the venture capitalist with the sort of lavish praise that vice presidents usually reserve for the man whose big desk they hope to inherit. In just over three minutes, Gore managed to laud Doerr's "insight," his "uncanny talent to see things ahead of others," his ability "to glimpse the future before it arrives," his "keen vision," and his "ability to look over the horizon."
Is it any wonder that some wags in Kleiner Perkins's office, where Doerr maintains his day job, already have a new slogan: "Gore and Doerr in 2004"?
That's still a joke. But it would surprise no one if Doerr — and the other members of the Technology Network — were to assume a central role in Gore's presidential campaign three years from now. "They are our guys, we are their guy, there is a meeting of the minds," says Ron Klain, Gore's chief of staff.
Gore has always been interested in technology and telecommunications, but his political network in Silicon Valley has been relatively thin. "This was a long overdue connection he made. And they hit it off," says Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the New Democrat Network, a group that supports centrist Democrats. The initial connection came early this year, when Doerr led a high-tech group to Washington for the inauguration. Since then, Gore has met almost every month with a steadily widening circle of new economy executives. So far, their conversations have focused on education. But Doerr envisions a floating seminar on the new economy, with road trips to high-tech outposts like Austin and Boston and a curriculum that ranges from reinventing government to reviving the inner cities.
No one will be presenting degrees when the course is over. But both sides are walking away from the table happy. For the Technology Network, the meetings with Gore have been an unrivaled opportunity to inject their ideas into the highest level of the administration — and a great way to recruit members. "What has mobilized a lot of people is Al Gore's involvement," says Halsey Minor, the chairman and CEO of CNET.
For his part, Gore says he's "learning a lot" from the conversations. "It is just an interesting dialogue, and it ranges widely across a lot of areas," Gore told Fast Company in an interview. "The new organizational model has a lot of applications, and the new approach they've used can help in all kinds of areas."
Gore echoes the group's core belief: that the organizational lessons of the new economy offer a model for reinventing government. "You can create a learning organization that is much more adept at responding to changing market circumstances, responding creatively to new opportunities, coming up with solutions to problems, and beating the rest of the world," he says. "The same exact principles can be applied to public organizations. The same new understanding of human potential, the new techniques of management and the use of new information technology, a focus on customers, empowerment of employees — all the same approaches work just as well in the public sector as in these companies." How far can the analogy between the new economy and a new government be extended? "The sky's the limit," says Gore.
For Gore, these high-tech discussions aren't entirely risk-free. Some supporters worry that too much time in the company of young millionaires might look "dangerously elitist" to traditional elements of the Democratic coalition. But that's more than offset by the opportunity to nurture relationships that can yield endorsements, money, and, not incidentally, a set of distinctive ideas when he boots up his own presidential run in 2000. Already Gore's speeches are bulging with hymns to the new economy.
"It really is very difficult to articulate a message about the new economy unless you do it a lot, think about it a lot, hear a lot of different perspectives," says Wade Randlett, who's helping to organize the group. "By the time we're done with 24 months of meetings, Gore will have a message on the subject that will be an order of magnitude better than anyone else's."