In the latest sign that the cultures of Washington and Silicon Valley are converging, President Clinton plans to conduct an online chat, fielding real-time questions in a format that will allow computer users to watch the responses on live video.
The first live Internet appearance by a president comes as the candidates vying to succeed Clinton are increasingly using their World Wide Web sites to raise money and connect with voters.
The Nov. 8 cybercast will have a decidedly partisan tinge, because it is being orchestrated by the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group Clinton once headed. Clinton will play host at an area college, joined by five state and local Democratic officials around the country. The event is being touted as a discussion of "Third Way" politics, the progressive course between liberal and conservative ideology that has been a Clinton refrain.
The financial and technological muscle is being provided by Excite At Home, a fast-growing provider of Internet access and digital telecommunications created by a $67 billion merger in January.
While no one expects an audience like the millions of Web surfers who overwhelmed the Victoria's Secret Web site for a lingerie show in February, the event should be a drawing card for a president who has gotten less media attention as his term winds down.
"He was instantly enthusiastic," said presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal. ". . . This is not quite the equivalent of the first televised press conference, but for new technology it's a first."
During the 90-minute session, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. EST a week from Monday, 15,000 people who make it into the virtual auditorium (www.townhallmeeting.excite.com) will have the chance to fire e-mail questions at Clinton. (An additional 35,000 can watch but not participate.) Clinton will respond verbally, not at a keyboard, but those whose computers lack video or audio capability will be able to read an up-to-date transcript.
"Politics is going to be very powerful on the Web," said Fred Siegel, senior vice president of Excite At Home. "We think this is just the beginning."
Clinton pioneered the political use of television talk shows in 1992, but unlike Vice President Gore, he has not been personally engaged with the Web. On election night last November, the president watched in amazement as his political director, Craig Smith, scoured the Web for the latest results.
Using the sort of language employed by Amazon.com, Holly Page, a DLC vice president, said her goal is "to make sure the New Democrats and President Clinton retain brand identification with the Third Way." If the Webcast is successful, Page said, the DLC hopes to schedule one with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, another Third Way enthusiast.
Excite At Home also may be looking for a publicity boost. Its stock, which peaked at $99 during the spring, closed yesterday at just over $37. Like many Internet companies, it operates in the red. It lost $236 million in the first half of 1999.