Bill Gates -- PR's worst nightmare

Whatever he gets paid, Microsoft's chief corporate spokesman deserves more -- a lot more.Each day -- following the lunch and late afternoon recesses -- Mark Murray dutifully trudges outside U.

Whatever he gets paid, Microsoft's chief corporate spokesman deserves more -- a lot more.

Each day -- following the lunch and late afternoon recesses -- Mark Murray dutifully trudges outside U.S. District Court to tell the world how good a day Microsoft just had. And like the good soldier he is, Murray was back on the firing line this week, informing the assembled gaggle of scribes how Bill Gates' video testimony had further undermined the Justice Department's case.

But after the drubbing dealt out to his boss this week, Murray outdid himself in Orwellian newspeak. Watching a video of Gates receiving the third degree from government lawyer David Boies, Murray and crew might have a strong desire to throw down a couple of shots of prime rot gut.

For folks who have never had the opportunity to watch Mr. Bill in other than a staged public forum, this was vintage stuff.

Gates' body language spoke volumes as he went out of his way to avoid eye contact. At times combative and pouty, Gates came across as a hair-splitting nebbish who was spectacularly uninformed about critical decisions governing the company's relationship with Apple Computer -- if you believe the act.

But slumped in his chair in an ill-fitting suit, there was Gates playing the part of village idiot, repeatedly evading Boies' probes by saying he didn't know the answer or couldn't remember.

"I have no idea what you're talking about when you say 'Ask,'" Gates said at one point. And then he began to rock back and forth in his chair, periodically scratching his head as if praying for an act of nature to strike his tormentor.

With the outside legal muscle hired by Microsoft -- the company has since added Reagan administration prosecutor Joe DiGenova to its team -- Gates was obviously prepped to be as unresponsive as legally allowable. (Hey, if you can't recall, they can't nail you!) But the tactic backfired like a bad bus going on the fritz.

Just as he did on Day One of the trial, Boies was able to contrast Gates' testimony with e-mail messages the boss sent to his top lieutenants. This was every journalist's dream: put Gates on the hot seat, turn up the heat and watch him yell, 'Mama.'" Unlike general press conferences and private gatherings -- where he enjoys the royal prerogative to dismiss annoying questioners as blockheads -- Mr. Bill was not granted the luxury of weasel room.

In the days and weeks ahead, the company's spin meisters will be in damage control mode as the Feds dribble out more Gates excerpts. Government sources say Gates never went ballistic (Nothing along the lines of: Mr. Boies -- you moron: Try to be the least bit technical!) But in his two televised court appearances, Microsoft's Numero Uno has been a PR professional's worst nightmare.

And that's something that the software maker can't easily explain away.