How old school did the White House used to be? Ancient.

(Courtesy “The Typewriter Film.”)
(Courtesy “The Typewriter Film.”)

Just how old school did the White House used to be?

Here are a few examples of how antiquated the center of political power in the United States’ operating style has been up until very recently:

  1. The personnel process. Katja Bullock, who started as staff assistant in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel under Ronald Reagan and rose to become special assistant to the president under George W. Bush, recalled that when she began, “We had one computer that was the size of my refrigerator.” They processed résumés by hand, and did an initial background check by talking to relevant local Republican officials about their applicants. Clinton officials came up with the idea of scanning résumés to produce a searchable database, Bullock said, “But that turned out to be a disaster, too, because it took you three hours to scan a damn résumé, and when you have thousands of résumés, that doesn’t work.” Under George W. Bush’s tenure, Bullock, said they had gotten to the point where they were looking online to scrutinize potential hires: “There were quite a number of people that lost further consideration after we saw what they posted on MySpace,” she explained.
  2. Fax machines. They didn’t arrive at the White House until 1993, and they were still being used regularly at the start of the Obama administration. Anita McBride, who served as director of White House personnel under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and then served as assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, noted the White House had a telegraph office operating  as late as 1993. Moreover, the most critical interoffice communications were still done by paper in the early 1990s. McBride, now an executive-in-residence at American University's School of Public Affairs, remembered the “Holy Joe” envelopes that would be hand-delivered throughout the West Wing. “If you had one with a few red tags on it, you knew you had to open them up right away.”
  3. Video conferencing. Nowadays, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough uses video conferences to hold meetings at times when it's difficult to gather everyone in person. But in an earlier era, White House staffers rebelled against such a move. Brookings Institution senior fellow emeritus Stephen Hess, who was a speechwriter under Dwight D. Eisenhower and then deputy assistant to the president for urban affairs under Richard M. Nixon, recalled in an interview, "There was a thing where for about 24 hours we experimented with phones where you could see the person you were talking to." Referring to Nixon's intense chief of staff, Hess added, "Of course, nobody wanted them. Nobody wanted H.R. Haldeman bawling them out. That lasted a day or two."
  4. E-mail. President Bill Clinton made history by sending a couple e-mail messages during his time in office; his successor, George W. Bush, sent none. While the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum holds roughly 80 terabytes of electronic records and over 200 million e-mail messages sent or received using the White House e-mail system, Bush remarked during at interview at Facebook in 2010, “I didn’t want any of those to be mine.” President Obama, by contrasts, e-mails with a select group of friends, family members and staffers. These e-mails will present both an opportunity and challenge to future historians: There were no electronic records during the Carter administration, less than a terabyte of electronic records from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and about 4 terabytes from the Clinton presidency. Obama’s electronic legacy will surely dwarf those of his predecessors.
  5. Speech writing. Before White House staffers could simply delete a given line in the State of the Union, lobbying for a reference in the annual speech was brutal. Hess said that any time he wrote a speech for the president, he had “a whole secretarial pool, and it works all night.” While writing a State of the Union address, he added, “We had Cabinet officers backed up into our office until two in the morning,” since that was the only way they could ensure their point made it into the final document. If they decided to make a change, Hess added, “You had to retype the whole message. You couldn’t send the president something with an insert."
  6. Media strategy. Just two administrations ago, when Bill Clinton was in office, his top aides would discuss their press strategy for the day, confident that little would disrupt it until the evening newscasts aired. While staffers got an occasional update from the wires, they were usually confident they could help drive the media coverage through the events they staged. "It made it more possible to actually tell a story," said White House counselor John D. Podesta, who served as chief of staff during Clinton's second term. "Now it’s so atomized that it’s very, very hard to keep a consistent story going, so you really have to work overtime to be able to penetrate in that atomized and crowded news cycle." With the current proliferation of media outlets and the constant stream of news, Podesta added, "There really is no news cycle now. When a tweet can take you off your course, that’s not a news cycle. It changes the structure of the day and not only what, but how the president’s communicating."
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