Texts from Hillary, Emails from Bill, and other times the White House geeked out

Chelsea Clinton delivered the keynote address yesterday at South by Southwest Interactive -- an annual tech-themed conference held in Austin, Texas -- revealing that she "definitely taught my parents how to text and how to charge their phones."

Now, her mom is probably the most famous political texter of all time. How things have changed.

Source: Texts from Hillary
Source: "Texts from Hillary" Tumblr, a meme inspired by a photo of Clinton texting

Here are some more flashbacks from the annals of presidential tech history:

E-mail

A Washington Post article from March 1993 noted that "naturally the Clintonites are big E-mailers. One of the first things the Clinton White House did was open up E-mail lines to the public." More from the article:

E-mail may turn out to be the best and worst thing to happen to this town since the invention of the telephone. Washington's main industry is word-transfer, and now the machinery of Washington has a lubricious new component.

"You can say more quicker in E-mail than you can in a personal visit, and maybe even a phone call. Personal visits in an office structure take on a social nature," says Rep. Charlie Rose, the North Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Administration Committee and admits to being the "techno-nut" of Congress.

But E-mail also fosters chatter. It is a blatherer's dream. Washington doesn't really need another way to gab. There are already enough units of verbiage, enough mechanisms for gaseousness.

However, the president did not embrace the exciting electronic mail in quite the same way as his administration.

"He tends to write everything out on a legal pad. The difference is, he knows what E-mail is, he knows what computers are," says Eller. "I don't feel the least bit slighted because Clinton doesn't sit there typing on a computer, because he gets it philosophically."

He adds, "I'm told the president can type."

Clinton only sent two emails over the course of his presidency. Regardless, one communications professor called him "the king of E-mail, fax and `Larry King Live." His vice president was a bit more savvy -- and well-accessorized -- as an article later in the month revealed.

When Vice President Gore moved into his West Wing office two months ago, the technologically inclined former senator - who has 51 phone numbers programmed into his wrist watch - was surprised to discover that his predecessor never installed a computer.

Source: The New York Times
Source: The New York Times

Although Clinton wasn't the most email-savvy, his young staffers were shocked at how low-tech the White House was when they arrived: "the White House itself seems trapped in the technological dark ages." An article in the Washington Post at the time said,

Some of these aides, for whom electronic mail and laptop computers were standard-issue during the campaign, wonder how their counterparts in previous administrations could function in such a "low-tech" workplace.

"I'm not going to assess blame," said White House media director Jeff Eller, 37, chatting via CompuServe, a commercial computer network. "What we found here worked for them. It doesn't work for us."

Some of Eller's younger associates are less generous:

"No wonder they lost," one twenty-something staffer said after finding an office equipped with a typewriter and the disassembled shell of a computer IBM phased out seven years ago.

President George W. Bush sequestered himself from e-mail during his two terms.

“Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace,” Mr. Bush wrote from his old address, G94B@aol.com. “This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you.”

It was probably a smart policy, given that the world learned of his artistic aspirations after an email hack.

Fast forward to 2008, when the Obama staffers arrived at a "White House Stuck in Dark Ages of Technology."

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

What does that mean in 21st-century terms? 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.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said of his new digs.

Phones

Not only was President Clinton hopeless with texting, he also had trouble with the portable telephone, as his "close friend" Terence McAuliffe recalled in 2001. During one conversation with McAuliffe, now governor of Virginia, he dropped the call three times.

Source: The Washington Post
Source: The Washington Post

President Barack Obama was far more adept with a cell phone, demanding that he get to keep his Blackberry even after settling in the White House. Despite the novelty of his wish at the time, Obama's cell phone usage is now behind the times. For security reasons, the Secret Service won't let him get a new iPhone.

President George H.W. Bush could answer phones alright, but the timing of the calls sometimes made news. On June 12, 1991, the White House received an emergency phone call from Russia. Staffers rushed to the East Wing to wake up the president, who was asleep because it was 1 a.m. It turns out Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to wish him a happy birthday.

Hillary Clinton turned answering the phone at inopportune hours into part of her 2008 campaign.

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Presidents also have to worry about hackers trying to steal their phone data and emails. President H.W. Bush was always worried about people eavesdropping on his Air Force One calls. President Clinton's pager was hacked. These worries are as old as time, or at least the phone, however. In 1877, the New York Times published a piece titled, "The Telephone Unmasked," which said it was "time that the atrocious nature of the telephone should be fully exposed."

Source: The New York Times
Source: The New York Times

The World Wide Web

The Clinton administration debuted the first White House Web site in October 1994. It was slightly better designed than the "You've Got Mail" and "Space Jam" Web sites from later in the decade. On it, visitors could access the president's remarks and speeches, as well as other important information. They could "also view photographs of the President striking any number of patriotic poses." Clinton even held "virtual town halls" online. He said during the first one, "Like FDR's fireside chats and President Kennedy's live press conferences, the first presidential town hall meeting on the Internet taps the most modern technology for old-fashioned communication between the American people and their president." Obama called his Google chats "Fireside Hangouts."

The Commerce Department also stored all of the president's remarks and documents on a floppy disk, if that's more your style.

Despite being rather hideous, the original White House Web site also had other typical 90s problems, such as pranksters and porn websites linking to similarly spelled Web addresses. The First Lady also thought "using Internet" would be useful for helping her image. Either that or going on "Home Improvement."

Source: The Dispatch
Source: The Dispatch

Presidential campaigns were starting to use the World Wide Web, too. As a New York Times article excitedly announced in October 1995, "Both major political parties and all the presidential candidates have established elaborate 'home pages' on the World Wide Web, which typically spew out photos, position papers, news releases, and even video snippets from speeches." These political Web pioneers faced the same parody problems the White House did, however. A copycat Pat Buchanan Web site had a swastika on the homepage, and a fake Bob Dole Web site called him a "tax and spend weenie."

In 2000, Al Gore's team was plugging his "fresh and dynamic" Web site. Meanwhile, media outlets were fretting that the infernal Internet everyone was talking about was going to be the end of them. In other words, nothing has changed since presidents started using the Internet and taking calls on their cell.

 

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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