A cautionary tale for politicians: Al Gore and the ‘invention’ of the Internet


(Reuters)

“Maybe they’ll bring in Al Gore, you know, the guy who says he invented the Internet, maybe they’ll fix the Web site [HealthCare.gov].”

– Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), on “Fox News Sunday,” Oct. 27, 2013

Jindal’s dig at the troubled Affordable Care Act  manages also to ding former vice president Al Gore for a statement he made nearly 15 years ago. We’re not trying to pick on Jindal, but Gore did not actually say this, though people may differ about whether he came close to saying this.

As a lawmaker, Gore did play an important role in fostering public use of the Internet. Nevertheless, here it is, years later, and Gore is still paying penance for an offhand remark, poorly phrased. So how is it that this flub continues to resonate — and what warnings does Gore’s experience have for other politicians?

The Facts

It all started during a March 8, 1999, interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, as Gore was preparing to make a run for the Democratic nomination for president. The clip of Blitzer asking Gore about his vision is embedded below.

Here is the key exchange:

BLITZER: I want to get to some of those substantive, domestic and international issues in a minute, but let’s just wrap up a little bit of the politics right now. Why should Democrats looking at the Democratic nomination — the process, support you instead of Bill Bradley, a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate? What do you have to bring to this that he doesn’t necessarily bring to this process?

GORE: Well, I will be — I’ll be offering my vision when my campaign begins, and it’ll be comprehensive and sweeping, and I hope that it’ll be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be.

But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I’ve traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth, environmental protection, improvements in our educational system. During a quarter century of public service, including most of it long before I came into my current job, I have worked to try to improve the quality of life in our country and in our world. And what I’ve seen during that experience is an emerging future that’s very exciting about which I’m very optimistic and toward which I want to lead.

As you can see, the critical sentence just fell amid a bunch of boring verbiage, like a diamond in the rough: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”

He does not say he “invented” the Internet, but he does say something about “creating” it, in the kind of awkward phrasing Gore was known for. But because the sentence was surrounded by a lot of unrelated political blather, it was largely unnoticed. CNN certainly did not highlight it in its coverage of the interview.

Then a writer for Wired, Declan McCullagh, spotted Gore’s statement and poked fun at it, under headline, “No Credit Where It’s Due.”  He noted that the technical basis for the Internet, specifically the Internet working protocols, existed long before Gore entered Congress.

Preliminary discussions of how the ARPANET [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network] would be designed began in 1967, and a request for proposals went out the following year. In 1969, the Defense Department commissioned the ARPANET.

Gore was 21-years-old at the time. He wasn’t even done with law school at Vanderbilt University. It would be eight more years before Gore would be elected to the US House of Representatives as a freshman Democrat with scant experience in passing legislation, let alone ambitious proposals.

By that time, file copying — via the UUCP protocol — was beginning. Email was flourishing. The culture of the Internet was starting to develop through the Jargon File and the SF-Lovers mailing list.

But to be fair to Gore, his statement referenced what he had done in Congress. The Internet was the commercialization of the work done at DOD, and by most accounts, Gore’s efforts had some impact. He was the prime sponsor of the 1991 High-Performance Computing and Communications Act, generally known as the Gore bill, which allocated $600 million for high-performance computing. Gore, who waged a two-year battle to get the bill passed, popularized the term “the Information Superhighway.”

The Gore legislation helped fund the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where the Mosaic Web browser was first developed by a team of programmers that included Netscape founder Marc Andreessen. While it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the impact of federal funding, Andreessen said Gore’s bill made a difference during a 2000 interview with the Industry Standard: “If it had been left to private industry, it wouldn’t have happened, at least, not until years later.”

(The history of the Internet is beyond the scope of this column, but private industry, such as Xerox’s PARC unit, also played an extremely important role. One cannot point to any single development, but to a series of them involving both government and private-industry research, which of course Gore’s statement failed to note. And, as this reprint of a 1988 Washington Post article demonstrates, the term “Internet” was in use before Gore’s bill was introduced.)

But such details were lost as the Wired article was circulated and staffers working for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey spotted it. His press aides, Michele Davis and Jim Wilkinson, put out a tongue-in-cheek news release headlined, “Armey Applauds Vice President Gore for Ingenuity, Creativity and Imagination.”

The news release noted that Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, was started during the Eisenhower administration. “If the Vice President created the Internet then I created the Interstate highway system,” Armey was quoted as saying in the news release. “Both were begun during the Eisenhower Administration and I think Ike actually deserves a little credit here.”

“Someone on our staff referred to it in passing, and we jumped on it,” said Davis, now global head of corporate affairs at Morgan Stanley. “Today, you’d just have to send a couple of tweets and you’d light up social media and TV commentators over it. But then, it took a press release sent to talk radio to start the buzz.”

The news release did not actually claim that Gore said he invented the Internet. Neither did another tongue-in-cheek statement a day later from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who managed to also poke fun at his fastidious nature: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the paper clip. Paper clips bind us together as a nation.”

But this was the headline on the New York Times article about Lott’s jab at Gore: “Inventors of Paper Clips and Tall Tales.”

By March 15, less than a week after Gore’s interview, USA Today ran an editorial titled “Inventing the Internet.” But, the editorial noted, Gore “can take credit for seeing the emerging power of the Internet when few did, and for making sure that schools and libraries were wired into it.”

More than a year later, in an article titled “The Mother of Gore’s Invention,” McCullagh acknowledged: “My article never used the word ‘invented,’ but it didn’t take long for Gore’s claim to morph into something he never intended. The terrible irony in this exchange is that while Gore certainly didn’t create the Internet, he was one of the first politicians to realize that those bearded, bespectacled researchers were busy crafting something that could, just maybe, become pretty important.”

In 2012, Gore was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for being “a key proponent of sponsoring legislation that funded the expansion of and greater public access to the Internet.” But it is worth noting he was listed as a “Global Connector” — people who have made contributions to the growth, connectivity and use of the Internet — not a “pioneer” or an “innovator.”

Davis said she is not surprised that Gore’s quote is still remembered 15 years later. “A role is one of many, and doesn’t ignore all the smart people who actually did the amazing technological work. In that quote he makes it a very singular accomplishment,” she said. “I’m not surprised a self-serving overstatement gets traction because it fits the perception the public has of politicians.”

The Bottom Line

The Fact Checker did not exist back in 1999, but if it had, Gore’s original statement might have earned him a couple of Pinocchios. His statement never said he “invented” the Internet, but it was so self-centered that it obscured the fact that as a legislator he did help advance funding for research that helped foster the Internet. He also made the statement in the course of a television interview, and we make allowances that people sometimes misspeak on live television. (We hold prepared statements to a higher standard.)

So why is his comment now remembered as a Four-Pinocchio whopper? Certainly the shorthand description, fostered by the media, made a difference. But the key reason is that the statement fit within an emerging narrative that Gore, fairly or not, was a self-absorbed stretcher of the facts.

A gaffe sticks if it somehow validates preconceived notions about a politician. Gore had a real story to tell about being one of the first politicians to grasp the importance of interconnected computers. But with one awkward phrase, spun up by opponents and misreported by the media, he managed to obscure his accomplishments and instead become a recurring punch line.

Politicians should also give credit where due, rather than appear to grab it for themselves.

 

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · November 1, 2013