US Presidents and Technology: 1980-2007

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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

Presidential 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(Issues: New Communication Methods, Outdated White House)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 President.

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 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 for him.

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, though.

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 sail…”

Reagan Asked:

“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 and choose wisely.

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