In an attempt to replicate FDR's "fireside chats," and JFK's live TV press conferences, President Clinton
participated in a cyber-town hall meeting Monday evening in a small, half-empty theater at George Washington University. With
several of his centrist Democratic Leadership Council brethren participating -- from San Jose to Durham, N.H. -- the
event was billed as the first video/audio online presidential news conference.
Moderated by Al From, president and founder of the DLC, the town hall
meeting also included onetime wunderkind Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape; as well as DLCers like San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales; New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen; Bethlehem, Penn., Mayor Donald Cunningham, Jr; Wisconsin Assemblyman Antonio Riley; and a particularly
chatty Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy
For all of its novelty, the meeting felt like a political love-in, with everyone agreeing that technology is wonderful and that President
Clinton is super-duper and everyone participating in the town hall chat is just awesome.
The whole event seemed scripted from start to finish, save for the computer snafus. ("Mayor Cunningham, can you hear me?" From
asked. "We lose him? This is the new technology.") Though the buffering glitches indicated there are still a few kinks to be worked out in
the technology, sponsored by Excite, the human filtering
system that weeded out all but the lightest-thrown softball questions seemed to be operating at 100 percent.
Clinton started by locking eyes with the teleprompter to give his intro speech, the same one he's been delivering since he was a toddler
in Hope, Arkansas "For too long, I felt that both our parties had put ideology above ideas that actually worked," he said. "For too long,
government seemed to either try to solve all of our problems or to use the failures of government as an excuse to do nothing at all."
For too long, that is, until the Clinton-Gore team came and fixed it all. And one of the ways in which he did this was through the Net.
"When I became president, in January of 1993, the Internet was the province of scientists funded by government research projects,"
Clinton said in his prepared remarks. "Back then there were only 130 sites on the Web, only 1.3 million computers connected to the
Internet. Today, over 56 million computers are connected to the Internet, and there are 3.6 million Web sites. We're adding new pages at the rate of over 100,000 an hour."
Clinton noted that he and Vice President Al Gore had worked closely to "unleash the power of information technology and to bridge the
digital divide," working to connect the nation's classrooms to the Internet, 51 percent which are connected as of last year. He pointed
out the successes of E-commerce, noting
that 20,000 Americans now made a living by swapping various items on eBay. Many of these swapping entrepreneurs "used to be
on welfare," the president claimed.
The other DLCers then delivered their opening remarks, in which they heralded various "centrist" positions. Though From promised that
the panelists were "America's most talented leaders," they seemed to be mid-level types meant to represent an important part of the
Democrat base, each assigned to defend a sector of Third Way turf. San Jose Mayor Gonzales led local accountability in government
initiatives. New Hampshire Gov. Shaheen took on education. Bethlehem Mayor Cunningham spoke up for taking Rust Belt ghost towns into
the information age. Maryland Lt. Gov. Kennedy Townsend took on community policing, youth violence prevention and gun control-based
solutions to crime. Wisconsin Assemblyman Riley did welfare-to-work. Netscape guru Andressen spoke about capitalizing
opportunities in the information age.
From then invited the 30,000 participants to offer their questions. Tens of thousands of questions came in, and a team of Excite and
DLC staffers weeded out anything smacking of controversy. The gleanings were forwarded to a monitor in front of From and Clinton.
Thus, the ones asked were real toughies, like What kind of laws would you like to see Congress pass concerning gun control?
Or Will Medicare ever pay for medications?
And What would you recommend to high school students who want to get involved in the political process?
Whatever you think about Clinton, he's clearly one of the ablest and most gifted politicians of his time, and he could have handled these
questions in his sleep, or while otherwise preoccupied. And for the most part he knocked the cover off every one of the lobbed pitches,
making no news whatsoever. While expressing respect for the two-term limit of presidents, he said he "loved" his job and "would not
willingly give up any day the opportunity to serve as president."
Questions were frequently fielded by the other DLC participants, Kennedy Townsend most assertively weighing in on various issues,
recalling that annoying girl in high school who was always raising her hand.
Surrounded by friends and supporters, Clinton seemed buoyant, finishing off a Diet Coke and enjoying the hushed setting. At one point --
apparently responding to an amusing question posted on the monitor about whether he as "an ordinary citizen would ... save a little food
for Y2K?" -- the pink-faced president doubled over in laughter, revealing the huckleberry within.
Everything went according to plan. The only surprise of the evening seemed to be that many of the questioners were identified only by
their e-handles, like "Ohiowilly," "Fastman1," "Tlove939" and "Sissybill."
Toward the end of the two hour event, From noted that one question seemed to indicate that he and the president must have seemed
"humorless" to the cyberconference participants. "They have a line on here that says, 'Laughing is permitted,'" From noted.
"I don't know what that means, but I've already been laughing, so thank you for your permission," the president said. "I never knew we
had to give people permission to laugh, but I'm glad to have it."