Clinton's Internet 'chat': only a hint of the potential

In the end, it was part publicity stunt and part revolution in presidential communication.

The first online "chat" between a US president and 30,000 keyboard-tapping citizens, which made history Nov. 9, had the same town-hall format that is signature Bill Clinton.

But as viewers watched his Internet dbut on computer screens - complete with an often-unintelligible transcript of his words and slightly jerky picture of his movements - there was a sense that something big was in the offing.

Indeed, the Internet has the potential to profoundly change American politics, analysts say. Such direct communication could give the president, for one, his own "virtual" broadcast system by which he can forgo the news filter of network or cable television.

An energized Mr. Clinton, emphasizing the novelty of his monitor-to-monitor conversation, even likened it to Franklin Roosevelt's first use of radio for "fireside chats" and John Kennedy's pioneering use of TV for live broadcasts of his press conferences.

Already, the Internet is changing fund-raising and organizing of campaigns. Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley brings in $7,000 a day through his Web site, and Republican counterpart Steve Forbes is building a network of "e-precincts" to organize supporters.

But eventually, campaigns can use the Internet to build "huge grass-roots" organizations and to keep in "intimate" contact with them, says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the Internet at George Washington University, the site of Clinton's e-town hall. "You know who these people are,... you know how much money they've given. And they know you can see on the screen what they last wrote to you."

Clinton and the evening's moderator - Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council - professed loftier views of the technology's import. Internet town halls, they said, would strengthen democracy by making it possible for citizens, no matter where they are, to talk with their elected leaders.

The president suggested that this technology will help future chief executives "to kind of be accountable to the American people," even when they can't be out crisscrossing the nation.

But Clinton may not be the best man for the job of advancing president-to-citizen Internet ties. Like most of his high-profile public appearances, this one was carefully staged. Perhaps most significant, says Mr. Cornfield, is that there was no two-way dialogue with the Internet audience.

"Why have a two-way medium if all you're going to do is talk at people and not with them?" asked a disgusted Cornfield.

Clinton is first to admit he's "technologically challenged." When it comes to surfing the Web, says a senior White House aide, Vice President Al Gore "is actually much more involved in it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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