President Clinton fielded about two dozen questions, most of them gentle, from Internet users last night in what organizers billed as the first presidential online chat involving audio and video technologies.
While many predict that computer and Web site innovations will play increasingly important roles in U.S. politics, last night's virtual "town hall chat" showed that these pathways still contain lots of bumps. The "video streaming" images of Clinton were herky-jerky at best, and technological glitches caused the comments of other participants to be painstakingly delayed at times or difficult to hear.
Still, Clinton seemed delighted with the undertaking, and organizers called it a great step for a democracy that prizes close links between citizens and elected officials. Clinton has taken questions in previous online chats in which his answers were typed, but this was the first that allowed properly equipped computer users to hear his comments and to see sporadically moving pictures of him, as he sat on stage at George Washington University's Marvin Center.
Clinton made little if any news. Virtually all the questions dealt with topics he has discussed often. He said he thinks "the chances of success are better than 50-50" for significant progress in Middle East talks between Israelis and Palestinians. He said he welcomed a vigorous debate on free-trade initiatives at the upcoming Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization. And he said "it would be irresponsible" not to build a national missile defense system if one can be effectively constructed without violating existing treaties.
"I think the real problem is the danger that in the future, rogue states and terrorist groups might themselves get missile technologies that could pierce America's traditional defenses," Clinton said. "So we're working on missile defense and we're also working with the Russians to see if we can agree to make some amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty so that we can put the missile defense up if we can develop it and they can share the benefits of it."
Five other elected officials from throughout the nation participated by telephone hookups. The most assertive was Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), who volunteered her views on Maryland initiatives on matters including crime, education and Internet access.
Clinton praised Townsend for heading the effort that made Maryland the only state that requires public high school students to perform community service to graduate. "I'd like to see most states follow Maryland's lead," he said.
The online chat was sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group politically tied to Clinton. A California-based company, Excite@Home, provided the technical support.
DLC President Al From joined Clinton on stage and read from questions that had been screened by Excite staff members and then a top DLC aide. Clinton scrutinized the list of questions scrolling across a video monitor, at one point telling From, "I want to take this one."
The president several times praised the work of Vice President Gore, crediting him with efforts to ease traffic congestion and "give people back time."
He said there is little to fear in the United States from the Y2K computer glitch when the year 2000 arrives. "The United States is fine," the president said, "and I wouldn't hoard food and I wouldn't hide."
When "Mark in England" asked if Clinton wishes he could serve a third four-year term, which the Constitution bars, he replied: "I love this job and I would continue to do it if I could." He told another questioner he believes his legacy will be "a time of transformation, hope, of genuine opportunity," a time when "we deepened the bonds of freedom."
Clinton said he hopes future candidates and government officials will subject themselves to online questioning.
"If we use technology to chip away at cynicism and increase participation," he said, "that will be a great thing indeed."
In an interview, From called the evening a success despite the technological problems. "The idea that citizens anywhere in the world can ask questions of their leaders is wonderful," From said.