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Gore's Best Friend Is His Computer

Gore at Computer/Post
Vice President Gore shows off his computer. (By James M. Thresher—The Washington Post)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran Washington Post
Staff Writer
Saturday, Nov. 29, 1997;
Page A01

When President Clinton travels, a black suitcase containing the codes to launch nuclear weapons is always with him.

Al Gore's sidekick is a black IBM laptop computer.

Unlike Clinton's suitcase, Gore's ThinkPad 560, which can't launch missiles, is always in use. On Air Force Two. In the limo. In the backstage "holding room" before he gives a speech. Almost any time and place he's got a free minute and "secure" telephone connection, he's checking his electronic mail.

Gore is an e-mail addict, people on his staff say. Every day, he reads through more than a hundred messages and sends out almost as many, sometimes doing it from his residence late into the night. During staff meetings in his office, White House aides say, he often has one eye on his computer screen, scanning through new arrivals in his mailbox.

He's just as psyched about the rest of the Internet. In a recent interview, with Tracy Chapman tunes thumping from the speakers attached to the screen of his office computer, the vice president demonstrated his technological prowess, taking a reporter on a tour of his favorite World Wide Web sites.

Starting off with his White House homepage on the screen, (http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/EOP/OVP/html/GORE_Home.html), he jumped to a site called MapQuest, which he uses whenever his children need directions. Then there were the weather pages, which, he said, "I usually always look at before I travel." Next came the politics sites, including one run by CNN and Time magazine called AllPolitics. "I never use those," he quipped.

After dropping in on an investment-related site and one devoted to technology news, Gore showed off several software applications he had downloaded from the global network and configured to work on his machine. One included a horizontal map of the world that sits in the corner of one's screen and shows where it's daytime and where it's dark. "It's like the clocks they have at the CIA," Gore said proudly. "Except they use a thousand-dollar version that hangs on the wall. I got this one for something like 25 bucks."

Gore has long had a reputation of being steeped in the stellar issues of technology policy. It was he who popularized the term "information superhighway." He has crusaded to connect the nation's schools to the Internet and develop a super-fast version of the computer network. He hobnobs with Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and a coterie of West Coast technology gurus.

But over the last few years Gore has made technology a central part of not just his stump speeches but his own office. For the vice president's staff, clustered in the White House's West Wing and the adjoining Old Executive Office Building, e-mailing has become the primary method of communication -- especially with the boss.

People at all levels, from young speech writers to Gore, troll the Internet to read out-of-town newspapers and conduct research. In meetings, Gore often draws on a large, erasable "white board" that sends a copy of his scribblings to a computer file.

The result has been one of political Washington's most atypical workplaces. Junior staffers frequently message Gore directly with questions, cutting through layers of bureaucracy. "He's the vice president," said Greg Simon, Gore's former chief domestic policy adviser. "You just can't pop in and ask him a question." But you can with e-mail.

At the same time, Gore says he uses e-mail so he won't bother his subordinates.

"I just find [e-mail] to be a much easier way to communicate because you don't have to worry about calling your staff on the telephone at a time when they're in the middle of doing something else or when the number is busy or when they're out eating lunch or . . . they really ought to be devoting their time to a higher priority matter than the one I want to get an answer to," Gore said in a recent interview. "Yet, if I call them they're going to think, `This is the top priority right now,' and it's really not."

It doesn't always work like that. Simon rigged up his Macintosh computer to sound a special chime whenever new mail from the vice president arrived. "I'd generally respond to it right away," Simon said. "Even if he wasn't on the other end of a phone line, I didn't want to keep him waiting."

While he exploits the courtesy of e-mail, Gore also understands its subversive nature. Meeting with advisers for a substantive face-to-face conversation generally requires blocking off time on his calendar days in advance. "With e-mail, he can communicate with anybody on the staff, even the most junior people" said Daniel Pink, Gore's former chief speech writer. "In many ways, he defies the generational divide in the White House."

Gore is known for having proper "Netiquette." He generally responds to important messages within 24 hours, often sooner, according to aides.

In addition to the 100 to 150 messages a day he receives in his private mailbox -- sent by White House staffers and close friends outside the compound -- he said he gets about 400 a day at a public address (vice.president@whitehouse.gov). Those messages are read by aides, who sometimes forward particularly thought-provoking ones to him.

Recently, the vice president's e-mail has also aroused interest on Capitol Hill. Because a copy of every message that's sent and received is saved on a computer disk, White House lawyers have had to turn over some of those files to congressional investigators probing whether Gore broke campaign finance laws during the 1996 election.

For Gore, office messaging doesn't always dwell on government business. When his daughter Karenna got engaged, he delivered the news to his staff via e-mail -- a tool he uses to stay in touch with her and her two college-aged sisters.

But there are still some people Gore can't reach with e-mail. The most important one is his boss.

President Clinton "doesn't use e-mail very much now, but he plans to start," Gore said. "One of the driving forces that will push him to get on the computer on a regular basis is the fact that Chelsea is going to college in California. I've told him of the joys of communicating with your children off at college by way of e-mail."

Gore doesn't let travel take him away from e-mail. Here's how he describes his routine: "If I'm scheduled real tightly, as is often the case, then my executive assistant will make the connection, update it and download what work I've done," he said. "And then, if I've got a 10-minute ride in the car to the next stop, I'll spend that 10 minutes going through e-mail, updating it, and then in the next holding room my assistant will update it again. I'll do that throughout the day when I'm on the road."

Does he ever goof off on the Internet in the office?

"Oh, it's almost always relevant," Gore said, laughing. "Dilbert would love some of the excuses I put the Web to."

In an e-mail message sent to this reporter, Gore said that in the mid-1980s, while serving as a congressman from Tennessee, he began using his computer to blip notes to friends. Around the same time, he purchased his first home computer: one of the original, clunky IBM PCs.

Shortly after that, he bought the newly introduced Apple Macintosh computer -- and immediately fell in love with it. "I was a big Mac fan," he said. Gore upgraded through several Macintosh models, eventually to a laptop that would "dock" in a desktop unit. But last year, in what Gore calls "a sad story," he reluctantly switched over to PCs that run on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. "I did it because of the problem in getting new software on a timely basis and the fact that some programs are not done for the Mac now," he said. "I still believe it's a superior format and I still prefer it. But for my purposes I've had to switch over, and I hate it."

These days, Gore uses a souped-up Compaq Computer Corp. machine in his office, complete with 17-inch monitor, an integrated tuner that can display television programs in an on-screen window (he generally sets it on CNN) and a video camera (his aides say he's planning to start video conferencing). When he's on the road, he uses his ThinkPad 560, which, with its 166-megahertz Pentium microprocessor, is among the fastest laptops on the market today. At home, he's got another IBM ThinkPad.

Gore says he uses the Web on a regular basis, typically checking out sites run by news organizations. Those he frequently visits, he said, include CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, newspapers in New York and Chicago as well as the New Republic and Slate -- where his daughter used to work. After a big news event, he has been known to stay up late -- or wake up in the middle of the night -- to check early editions of The Washington Post and the New York Times.

He said he uses Web-browsing software made by both Microsoft and Netscape Communications Corp. "I end up using Netscape a little more often, truthfully, but I go back and forth. There are some sites where Microsoft will have an advantage," he said. "I know the people involved with both, so there's a little politics involved."

Gore keeps himself wired into Netscape and the rest of the Silicon Valley crowd through informal monthly meetings with about two dozen technology leaders. The group, nicknamed "Gore-Tech," has met over pizza and beer to discuss issues such as using software to filter objectionable material on the Internet and improving communication between teachers and parents through computer networks.

"We don't have to talk down to him," said Marc Andreessen, the 26-year-old co-founder of Netscape and a regular member of the group. "He has a very good conceptual understanding of technology."

Political analysts say Gore's computer savviness could be a mixed blessing if he runs for president in 2000. On the one hand, it risks perpetuating his stiff image; on the other, it could portray him as young and hip, they say. His understanding of computers also could generate important financial support from the technology industry, they add.

But Gore says he's on the computer because he loves it. "It's fun," he said. "It's really fun."

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company



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