Friday, January 23, 2009

White House Upgrades: Party Like It's 1993

Bill Clinton was never much of a techie, but his vice president certainly was, as was much of their eager young staff. That may be why I hear echos from the Clintonistas' first days on the job 16 years ago in the digital dismay radiating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this week.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," White House spokesman Bill Burton told the Washington Post, which ran a front-page story Thursday on how President Barack Obama's webby warriors are struggling with the strict new security, software and hardware limitations that are annoyingly familiar to many government workers.

The Post's Anne E. Kornblut described the "technological dark ages" in which Team Obama suddenly finds itself: "No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking."

Clinton's staff was similarly frustrated in their first weeks in office in 1993. A couple of months into the new administration, I wrote a story for the Post that looked at how "many of the young campaign aides who came to Washington with... President Clinton to 'reinvent government' are still trying to adapt to the White House's aging, user-hostile phone and computer systems."

The March 29 article ran with the headline, "Under Clinton, The PC Is PC: Shocked White House Moves to Upgrade Archaic Office Systems." Vice President Al Gore's staff secretary, Michael Gill -- a management consultant who had previously worked on computer networks for private sector clients -- gamely posed for a photo in a closet stacked high with retired IBM Selectric typewriters. He explained his efforts to get his boss access to the same "high level of technology" they'd had during the campaign. Those efforts sometimes put Gill at odds with career staffers in the Office of Administration's Information Systems and Technology Division, some of whom later singled out the Gore aide's network and e-mail retention practices in affidavits filed as part of the endless legal wrangling that consumed so much of the Clinton years.

As it happened, Clinton preferred legal pads to laptops, one adviser said. But the president was nevertheless annoyed by the technology that was available to his staff -- as he made clear publicly during a Feb. 22, 1993, visit with amused high-tech workers in Silicon Valley:

"...When we took office, I walked into the Oval Office -- it's supposed to be the nerve center of the United States -- and we found Jimmy Carter's telephone system.... No speaker phone, no conference calls, but anybody in the office could punch the lighted button and listen to the President talk, so that I could have the conference call I didn't want but not the one I did. Then we went down into the basement where we found Lyndon Johnson's switchboard -- true story -- where there were four operators working from early morning till late at night. Literally, when a phone [call] would come and they'd say, 'I want to talk to the Vice President's office,' they would pick up a little cord and push it into a little hole."

In conversations, Clinton's staff was even more blunt about the technology they inherited from the staff of President George H.W. Bush. "No wonder they lost," one aide told me after being assigned an office equipped with a typewriter and a disassembled seven-year-old computer. "Speak up," another said in a phone call. "You know we only have a tin can and a wire here."

Some of the people who worked for the previous administration bristled at such descriptions. Kristin Hyde, then a 25-year-old former staff assistant in Bush's White House press office, said, "I never had any problems with the phones, other than they rang too much."

To be fair, e-mail was not exactly new to the White House either -- even in 1993. Just ask Ronald Reagan's national security team, who in 1986 tried to delete messages (later recovered from backup tapes) that helped reveal their plans to trade weapons with Iran and to use the profits to fund anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua.

But e-mail was not the widely used electronic tether it is today -- buzzing BlackBerrys on bedside tables across Washington at all hours of the night. In fact it was enough of a novelty 16 years ago that Jeff Eller, Clinton's first White House media director, developed a reputation as a futuristic communicator during the 1992 campaign simply by being one of the first people in politics to use e-mail to distribute position papers and press releases. Ross Perot's campaign staff, many of whom came from the independent candidate's technology ventures, also were early adopters.

Chatting via CompuServe, Eller mused at the time about how e-mail and other technology would eventually "allow us to make information from the White House more readily available to the general public." That vision clearly would resonate with the current White House team. The only difference: Most of the Obama folks probably do not remember what CompuServe was, and few, if any, ever used an IBM Selectric -- a great machine, by the way.

Since I've pulled out the time machine for this posting, let me add a couple of quick "where are they now" notes: Clinton media director Eller is now president and CEO of Public Strategies Inc., and Bush (42) press aide Hyde is the co-founder of Good Food Strategies, a Seattle-based public affairs and communications firm that advises clients involved in sustainable food issues. Both appear to be keeping up with the times: I spotted profiles for both on Facebook and LinkedIn, and Eller is even Twittering.

(Image above: a Selectric typing element from the IBM Archives. The March 29, 1993, Washington Post article from which I recovered many of the quotes above is available -- for a price -- in my former employer's online archive.)

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