In commemoration of this President’s Day, we’ve decided to take a
look back at the last four US presidencies and their policies on
technology, as well as their personal use of it.
Looking back at Campaign ’92
candidates have made a lot of noise this year adopting new technology
to announce and promote their campaigns. Democratic candidates have
stepped out first with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama announcing their presidential runs via online video, and Republican candidates won’t be far behind. Some believe whomever can adapt to new communication methods (ala Kennedy over Nixon in 1960) will seize the presidency. But new communication was also coming to light as early as 1992.
The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
set up the “Campaign92 Server” that would serve up candidate
information to anybody who subscribed. Candidates were asked to submit
political literature including policy papers, speeches, press releases
and so on. Whether or not it contributed much to their success, Clinton
and Gore surely adopted the technology and continued to do so after
winning the election.
Clinton-Gore: The Tech Terms (1992-2000)
(Issues: New Communication Methods, Outdated White House)
Despite many frustrations (from scandals to health care) throughout
President Clinton’s term, it can’t be denied that this president got his
house in order when it came to IT. Having Al Gore as a veep certainly
helped. The New York Times actually pronounced the White House “A Computer Nerdsville” in a 1993 article.
Dr. Randy H Katz (Berkeley Prof, co-inventor of RAID and ARPA-alum) gives a riveting account of assessing the challenges of “Wiring the White House”
shortly after the Clinton’s took office. He was part of a task force
that worked over President’s Day weekend to assess what they had to work
with, and eventually became Deputy Director of IT for the Office of The
In the White House they discovered the previous administration had
hardly used computers at all, instead finding many typewriters and few
printers. There was a centralized email network running on a VAX server
and also some 386 PCs that were basically used as glass terminals. The
equipment was at least two generations old, and there was so little of
it, that it’s rumored the Clintons wondered if the Bush administration
had either taken or hidden their PCs. Other agencies outside of the
President’s office were in much better shape, but they operated as
islands and weren’t networked to one another in any way.
There was heavy resistance to connecting to the internet,
understandably, due to the threat of an intrusion or a computer virus.
Surprisingly, there was no policy regarding floppy disks – which was a
very real threat, considering that many staffers had to bring work home.
Their home PCs were that much faster than the ones in the the EOP
(Executive Office of the President).
Dr. Katz and his team would overcome these challenges, connecting the
White House to the internet and getting it online via whitehouse.gov.
By mid-1995, the website would receive 500,000 emails from individuals
(a huge number considering that the internet was only in limited
adoption). Other advances occurred. The President’s health care reform
bill was released to the press via floppy disk, and the budget
distributed via CD (saving hundreds of pages of paper in each case).
Katz also notes the technical competency of the main players, having
probably been the most overqualified tech support guy in the nation. Al
Gore was said to regularly email with staff and had a personal computer
at his desk as well as a Macintosh at home. Hillary Clinton used a
computer and email as well. Bill Clinton on the other hand, primarily
used a legal note pad and pen. The Guardian reports that Clinton only sent two emails during his term, one as a test message and the second to an orbiting space shuttle.
Regardless, the boom of the high tech sectors and the fact that the
White House adopted these technologies alongside of the nation, will
remain a legacy of these two terms.
George W. Bush doesn’t do email either (2000-2007)
(Issues: Privacy, Global Warming, Net Neutrality and The Google, too)
Like Clinton, George W. Bush
has stated that he doesn’t email and admits it’s due to concerns over
the paper trail it creates. “I tend not to e-mail or–not only tend not
to e-mail, I don’t e-mail, because of the different record requests that
can happen to a president…”
Bush, not exactly known for his eloquence, has had his gaffs when
using and discussing technology. He once mentioned that he likes to use
“The Google” to look in on his ranch in Texas (via Google Maps), and once said he sometimes finds interesting things on ” the internets.” He gave the Segway a try, but got scuffed up
after taking a tumble, which was bad PR for all parties involved. The
President is reported to use an iPod, but has an assistant program it
All kidding aside, President Bush has taken on very serious technology issues including:
* Thwarting identity theft
* Further E-Government with private partnership (TurboTax Rocks!)
* Protecting children online
* Using technology to better the government’s response time
* Protecting online privacy
Privacy and technology have indeed been hot topics during The President’s term. The FBI’s online monitoring program, Carnivore,
became publicly known in 2000. Compounded with the passing of the
Patriot Act, it raised a flag with many privacy groups. Another
well-named intelligence tool was leaked; it was Magic Lantern, a key-stroke recording technology that was installed remotely via a trojan horse
installation. By 2005, the FBI admitted that it was no longer using
Carnivore, but only because commercially available products had become
better at tracking email, IMs, VOIP and other online communications.
While the FBI had its methods questioned, the CIA released a report
that the US was falling behind in technology and would be chasing
countries like Japan, China and India over the next 15 years. According
to a 2005 CIO article, many CIOs are calling for Bush to find a
competent Technology “Czar” to get the nation back on track.
Another issue currently in flux is the environment. Bush sides with
the minority on the issue of what has caused the problem, yet he does
believe it must be addressed. At his 2006 State of The Union address, The President proposed increased funding and tax breaks supporting alternative energy technologies.
A Net Neutrality bill may also find its way
to The President’s desk in 2007. Many think he will veto. Depending
on the outcome and the lengths to which telecoms may take this issue to,
the vote could truly become a secondary legacy to the war in Iraq.
Bush Senior, War and Al Gore (1988-1992)
(Issues: Desert Storm Technology and Inventing the Internet)
George Herbert Walker Bush never claimed to have invented the
internet and it is doubtful he ever used it while in office, but he did
sign into law a bill that greatly enhanced its reach. The High
Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 granted $600 million
to support computing research and led to the formation of the NII
(National Information Infrastructure) which became more commonly
referred to as “The Information Superhighway.”
This bill became known as the “Gore Bill”
paying homage to its author. Gore later made a gaff while discussing
the bill, with his infamous statement that he “invented the internet.”
He was well ahead of his time in his support of developing the internet,
Gore’s actual quote:
“During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the internet.”
Internet pioneers Vint Cerf & Robert Kahn responded by making the following statement:
“We don’t think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to
claim he ‘invented’ the internet. Moreover, there is no question in our
minds that while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a
significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving internet. The
fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the
internet long before most people were listening.”
Gore eventually embraced that this joke would never really go away
though. On the David Letterman show in September of 2000, he quipped:
“Remember, America, I gave you the Internet, and I can take it away!”
So back to George Bush Sr. for a moment. The other major technology-related memory of his term has to be
the sophistication of the US war machine on display in the Desert Storm
operation of the first Gulf War and its television coverage. Due to an
embedded CNN crew, Gulf War I was broadcast live around the world,
bringing an up-close view of the bombings in Baghdad. Viewers also got
first-hand looks at missiles hitting targets with pinpoint accuracy due
to targeting systems that looked like they came right out of an advanced
video game system. Stealth bombers flew undetected, Cruise missiles
launched from aircraft carriers and SCUD missiles stopped the enemy’s
missiles from hitting foreign nations.
After years of fear during the cold war, the ease of the US victory
in Iraq comforted many that our superior technology would allow us to
comfortably overtake any enemy with limited casualties. Ronald Reagan
would have been proud of the way his defense technology performed.
Ronald Reagan and Star Wars (1980-1988)
(Issues: Cold War and Satellites with Lasers on their Heads)
he next president will certainly have rogue states and terrorists to
be concerned about, but it is (hopefully) unlikely they will have to
sweat over a tense nuclear showdown with another major superpower the
way that Ronald Reagan and his predecessors did.
On March 23rd, 1983, Ronald Reagan made his famous “Star Wars” speech
outlining his plan for the most ambitious technology initiative since
the moon mission. His solution to the cold war was to go beyond
diplomacy and eliminate the effectiveness of these weapons against our
nation via a high-tech space-based defense network.
As Clinton’s team had found the IT infrastructure of the White House
lacking in 1993, Reagan found a more serious lapse in the nation’s
defense abilities when he took office:
“When I took office in January 1981, I was appalled by what I found:
American planes that couldn’t fly and American ships that couldn’t
“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge… that we
could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they
reached our own soil?”
Yet Reagan acknowledged the enormity of this endeavor:
“I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave
us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of
mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear
weapons impotent and obsolete.”
While the Star Wars plan didn’t ever reach the scale of his
ambitions, Reagan certainly did succeed in his goal of strengthening the
US military and its technology.
The Next US President’s Tech Challenges:
* Get back on pace with the world in IT
* Use technology to manage faster response to disasters
* Develop alternate energy technologies
* Net Neutrality?
For information on where the presidential candidate’s technology policies would fall, check out the summarized views in this article at ITconsulting.com and choose wisely.