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The First Presidential BlackBerry?

By Brian | November 17, 2008 | Share on Facebook

From today’s Associated Press:

Obama May Have to Bury his Beloved BlackBerry

The president’s e-mail can be subpoenaed by Congress and courts and may be subject to public records laws, so if a president doesn’t want his e-mail public, he shouldn’t e-mail, experts said. And there may be security issues about carrying around trackable cell phones.

Obama transition officials haven’t made a decision on what the new president will or will not carry, but those who have been there say it’s unlikely he’ll carry his BlackBerry and he may be in for some withdrawal pains. President-elect Obama has often been seen avidly checking his e-mail on his handheld equipment. This past summer, news cameras recorded him checking his BlackBerry while watching his daughter’s soccer game, only to have Michelle Obama slap at his hands, prompting him to return the device to its holster.

“This is a decision President-elect Obama will have to face,” said former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, who added that Obama’s legal advisers will probably recommend against an e-mailing president. “While he has pledged an open and transparent government, I doubt the president-elect is interested in subjecting his own personal communications to that standard,” McClellan wrote in an e-mail interview. He added, “He will have to think very hard about whether he wants to make his own words that subject to open records by having his own e-mail and his own BlackBerry.”

On the one hand, I hope he keeps it, because a) it will help him maintain that “everyman” image that he’s got nailed so well right now, and b) because, over time, it will redefine real-time personal communication as a necessity that the law will need to deal with rather than something that would otherwise be useful , but is foregone to avoid legal issues. After all, if a law is discouraging people from legal, productive behavior, then we should change the law, not the behavior, right?

On the other hand, the point of a blackberry is to remain in real-time contact with those who need to reach you the most. The President’s entourage serves that purpose for him, in that people who need to reach him can contact one of the people that travel with him constantly. In that sense, they’re like those people in the Verizon Wireless commercials, and they obfuscate the need for a blackberry entirely.

Separate, but somewhat related note – Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also did not use e-mail:

A few days before Bush took office in 2001, he sent an e-mail to a few dozen close friends saying he would no longer use e-mail: “Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me.”

Bush was unhappy about losing his e-mail and mostly used the phone to talk to friends, McClellan wrote, adding, “I am sure the president looks forward to being able to communicate with them via e-mail again come January 20, 2009.”

Note that back in 2000, Bush wasn’t worried about legal ramifications, but about the tabloid press. Also note that the BlackBerry was invented in 2002.

Topics: Political Rantings, Tech Talk | 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “The First Presidential BlackBerry?”

  1. George Bush On Best Political Blogs » The First Presidential BlackBerry? says at November 17th, 2008 at 8:13 pm :
    [...] The First Presidential BlackBerry? Separate, but somewhat related note – Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also did not use e-mail:. A few days before Bush took office in 2001, he sent an e-mail to a few dozen close friends saying he would no longer use e-mail: … [...]

  2. Jeff Porten says at November 20th, 2008 at 6:28 pm :
    You’re being remarkably charitable to the sitting prez. Considering the astonishingly consistent track record his administration has set in keeping communications private (including shredding or “losing” data on a regular basis), his “concern” that emails might get read by the National Enquirer is extremely flimsy.

    And you’re incorrect that Clinton did not use email — he was the first president with an Internet email address, and while he didn’t answer that one he regularly used internal email. AFAIK, these communications are now part of the presidential record.

    As to the larger point you make: all presidential communications are required by law to be saved for posterity, and to be released to the public shortly after the end of his term of office unless they’re secret for security reasons. This leads many presidents to say and write as little as frickin’ possible, because you want to keep your ongoing aura of plausible deniability intact. (I.e., it’s bad to be caught in the meeting getting briefed on Katrina after you say you didn’t have one.) Presidents who give up writing and using email are doing it to avoid accountability and transparency — so don’t take it at face value when any president (including the next one) tries to blow smoke up your ass about how “regretful” he is about having to stick to smoke signals.

  3. Brian says at November 21st, 2008 at 10:46 am :
    Easy there, my friend, I’m not being charitable to anyone – just quoting the AP Article I cited above. I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why the AP would make up such a trivial and non-partisan story, so I take it at face value. YMMV…

    As for Clinton being the first president to have an Internet e-mail address, I assume you’re referring to president@whitehouse.gov, which is hardly “his” e-mail address, as much as it is a marketing tool used by the whitehouse when they rolled out whitehouse.gov back in December, 1992 to take advantage of the burgeoning World Wide Web and Nestcape Navigator browser.

    As to being regretful about giving up e-mail, again, I take all three presidents at face value here. I know, if it were me, I’d understand why I’d have to give it all up, but I’d still regret it. To be unable to use e-mail (or blogs like this one), which has become such a big part of my life, would feel, well, un-American….

  4. Jeff Porten says at November 22nd, 2008 at 1:45 am :
    Yes, president@whitehouse was the public address, much as the White House has a public phone number. But Clinton also had a private internal address, according to the documentation I read at the time. No idea if that address was linked to the Internet or was just on an intranet.

    Incidentally, one should not be dismissive of the “marketing” done by the Clinton administration — the .gov website was one of the more advanced and informational websites available in the early days of the web. Check out archives at archive.org; what was available looks passe in 2008, but was very advanced in 1996. And one should never look down one’s nose at governmental transparency.

  5. Brian says at November 22nd, 2008 at 11:53 am :
    Not looking down my nose at anyone. In fact, whitehouse.gov was the second website I ever saw (the first being netscape.com, which is probably the first website that anyone of our generation ever saw). My friend Mike, who worked at JPMorgan at the time, insisted I make a special trip down to Wall Street to see this new technology called the “World Wide Web” that they had just setup access for in his office. At the time, I believe there were only three websites in existence – netscape.com, whitehouse.gov, and playboy.com. All three made huge contributions to early web technology.

    Incidentally, I give more credit for whitehouse.gov to Al Gore (and Ira Magaziner, a name most people have forgotten by now) than to Bill Clinton. It was those guys who championed the web as an information tool, insisted on keeping it a tax-free zone, and worked to connect as many people as possible. That’s what he meant by “invented the internet,” of course (now there’s some bad marketing…)

  6. Jeff Porten says at November 22nd, 2008 at 6:18 pm :
    Dude, you never spent any time on the NCSA Mosaic page? Jeez, that’s what I get for hanging around with web neophytes…. ;-)

    My two thoughts when looking at beta versions of that software at Annenberg (late 1992?): “whoa, okay, this is much better than lynx”, and “I wonder if this will ever be as useful as gopher?”

    Props, btw, for your good words about Al Gore — I was going to raise them myself, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But you shouldn’t put “invent” in quotes. http://www.snopes.com/quotes/internet.asp

  7. Brian says at November 22nd, 2008 at 11:23 pm :
    Wow, that’s the worst written Snopes article I’ve ever read.

    First of all, “invent” and “create” do mean basically the same thing. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary uses the word “create” in the first two of four definitions of “invent.” The third is invent as in “to make up or fabricate,” and the fourth is an archaic definition – “to come upon, find.” And the word create is defined using the word “invention” in the second definition (the first is “to cause to come into being,” which is pretty close to invent, at least to me…)

    Not only that, but the Eisenhower analogy is so logically flawed as to suggest they were trying to mislead. The equivalent of Eisenhower suggesting he “created” the Interstate Highway System would not be that he invented highways. It would be that he invented the Interstate Highway System, which would have been a whole lot closer to the truth.

    Gore’s mistake, as I’ve said many times in the past, is not that he claimed to have “taken the initiative in creating the internet.” His mistake was not writing the clear, concise talking point in which he explained what he meant by his statement: that he was instrumental in creating the economic & social network that the internet now supports, and then flooding the media with that message until the entire story went away.

    As it turned out, Gore again showed his inexplicable (to me, anyway) need to turn good into great, and great into superhuman. To put hyperbole above accomplishment. Marketing over engineering, if you will. As such, this story still has “legs” today, in that his name is forever associated with that statement. He was treated unfairly, but the inability to control the story was his fault, and indicative of an entire campaign that should have been an easy victory and never was…

    In short, “invent” stays in quotes – at least from me. I agree with what he meant, but not what he said – hence, quotes.

  8. Jeff Porten says at November 23rd, 2008 at 12:39 pm :
    Well, and as *I’ve* said before, I think your opinion of Gore is based more on the false media narrative that you blame Gore for not controlling, than it is on Gore himself. There were any number of media analyses that demonstrated — compellingly IMO — that Gore got rooked badly by an echo chamber which seized upon the meme and ran with it without much substance.

    But, you know, we’ve had that debate before unsatisfyingly, so let’s agree to disagree here. But one point I’ll make: in every speech I’ve seen him give (including one in person, and not televised AFAIK), his shtick was always self-deprecating. He does the same thing these days. So on the one hand I’ve got a 16-year track record of (admittedly humorous) modesty, and on the other your claim that he’s self-aggrandizing.

    Now, it could be that he completely changed his rhetorical style in 2000 — and in fact, I’d actually agree with small portions of that statement. But I don’t buy that he was an egomaniac when it was so much to the advantage of his “aw shucksy, guy I want a beer with” opponent to paint him as such. (And, you know, call me slightly amused that we’re having this debate after eight years of leadership from Mr. Certainty Derived From God.)

  9. Brian says at November 24th, 2008 at 12:19 am :
    Agreed on not rehashing all of that stuff. I am interested, though, in your accusation that I think Gore is self-aggrandizing, whereas you see him as self-deprecrating.

    This is grist for a whole other blog post, but here’s the quick summary: the people that lose presidential elections (at least the last 3 or 4 in a row) tend to behave vastly differently while campaigning than they do when they’re not. I think this accounts for the difference in perception of Al Gore. I knew his record pretty well in 2000 (given how often I’d heard his name in the IT trade press) and couldn’t understand why he was acting that way. John McCain is the same way – that whole “Straight Talk Express” thing was a pretty good moniker for him – he really would talk sense at times where others were caught up in political haymaking. But in the campaign? Ugh. I think he honestly lost my vote when someone asked him about the economy and his answer was, “Obama was wrong about the surge!” Totally different guy…

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