I spent last night in the company of a plain old American citizen who also happens to be one of the richest men in the world. Bill Gates regaled the Economic Club of Washington with his down-to-earth tales of his upper-middle-class-college-dropout-to-riches story, even as he drank Diet Coke from a pony bottle just like us regular folks. Gates’ wealth is beyond comprehension for most of us — he’s now worth about $30+ Billion only because he’s given another $50 Billion or so of his private wealth away to charity — the foundation that bears his name.
For such a wealthy citizen, Gates is remarkably well-grounded and sensible about life. He would not let his own kids drop out of college, as he did from Harvard, unless they had good reason (he thinks his reason was pretty good, being a computer geek who developed programs for IBM that led to the creation of the PC, the Windows operating system and founding of Microsoft…) He believes that the current problems his foundation is trying to solve — world health crises and K-12 education — are so serious that the foundation should eventually spend out all of its money. “Other people will come along to create other wealthy foundations,” he replied to a question about why he would not leave a gigantic endowment.
I’ve been thinking about Bill Gates this morning as I sit in a room full of other just plain citizens — the good women and men of Prince Georges County who have responded to the call to jury duty today. We all had to get up pretty early to get to the county courthouse in Upper Marlboro by 7:30 am. This is a remarkably diverse group — “PeeGee” doesn’t get much respect in the race to be the top county in the region, a crown usually claimed by Fairfax or Montgomery. But I’ve lived in this county for more than 35 years and can testify that it’s a far more interesting, genteel, albeit humble and unassuming place, than some of those other more dazzling locales.
Citizens like Bill Gates carry a great deal of influence because of wealth and fame. But my fellow jurors this morning will be making decisions that might change lives forever. Nobody will know their names, they will fade back into their daily lives in Suitland or Hyattsville or Fort Washington, they will return to their lives as GS-somethings or execs at local companies or teachers and parents. But for the plaintiffs and defendants at the courthouse today, we jurors will have far more impact on their lives than even the remarkable work of Bill Gates. We are here to serve justice; nothing can be more important in advancing the welfare of our community.
So, I salute all “just plain citizens,” the fabulously wealthy who do good works on the large public stage like Gates, and those who will take their lunches from machines in the juror’s lounge today. Our nation’s strength depends on each citizen’s ability to bear these responsibilities well and with integrity.