The real West Wing, coming to a modem near you

Wednesday's web event exemplifies efforts by the Bush team to reach the public - directly, and online.

"How would you describe the White House culture?" Rob from Canada asks Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

Mr. Card fires back: "The WH staff is not like the TV show - running and bumping into each other all day. We do our work, enjoy being around each other, and love serving this president."

The "Ask the White House" web chat is not exactly like "Prime Minister's Question Time," those raucous visits the British leader makes to Parliament each week. In the US presidential system, public exchanges are far more civilized. And in this White House in particular, message control has been elevated to a high art.

The online discussion with administration officials debuted Wednesday night, carving out another venue for the Bush team to reach the public and bypass the news media.

The White House official website,, fielded questions for an hour before the chief of staff chatted "live" for a half hour, answering 17 queries. Rob from Canada posed the only question selected from a foreigner.

"People always talk about the democratization the Web brings about, and this may be another real-life example of that taking place," says Charles Haynes, a senior fellow at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "Of course, it's controlled. It's open to people, but that doesn't mean it's a free and open exchange."

Questions about the war

Before the event, White House Internet media director Jimmy Orr said Card would review the questions, identify the common themes, and address a representative sample. Naturally, many asked about the war. Card even committed news when he speculated about Saddam Hussein's whereabouts. "I think he is dead," Card replied to Casey from Quincy, Mass., forcing the White House to clarify immediately that Card's opinion doesn't reflect any new proof that Mr. Hussein is indeed dead.

Without any follow-up questions, there was no sense of give and take. Card also had a rather chummy exchange with Laura Ingraham of D.C. - the only e-mailer whose last name was revealed, and thus presumably the well-known conservative commentator - who asked: "Do you have plans to invade France next?" Card's reply: "Laura - Good to read your words. Good job at the rally last weekend. Virginia wine is fine with me."

Compared with the Clinton White House, which made only limited use of the Web as a way to reach the public, the Bush team is taking full advantage of the Internet-use explosion. According to Mr. Orr, the White House site averages 14 million hits per day, compared with 1 million two years ago. The highest-traffic day was March 19, when the Iraq war started. Second on the list is Sept. 11, 2001, followed by Dec. 12, 2002, the debut of "Barney Cam" - a video camera following the Bushes' Scottish terrier. And fourth is Nov. 19, 2002, the launch of virtual tours of the White House hosted by the president, vice president, and other top officials.

A one-way conversation

Clinton made history by doing the first online chat between a US president and the e-mailing public. But, like Wednesday's event, it was just a one-way discourse - no back and forth. And Clinton, who admits to being "technologically challenged," never repeated the exericse.

Bush, in contrast, is highly e-mail oriented: One of the downsides to being president, he has said, is that he must curtail his online correspondence. His brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, often uses e-mail for political purposes.

So far, President Bush hasn't scheduled any appearances on "Ask the White House," but Orr doesn't rule it out. Mark Forman, head of the Office of Management and Budget "e-government initiatives" was scheduled to appear Thursday. Christine Todd Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, will appear on Earth Day, next Tuesday.

In general, says Janice Castro, assistant professor of new media at Northwestern University, Republicans have been more adept at getting their message directly to the public, through venues such as talk radio and the Internet.

Political analysts don't see any serious drawbacks to the White House Web events. E-mailers may be disappointed if their questions aren't selected.

"There could be a considerable upside, if they take good questions and provide good answers," says Michael Cornfield, an expert on politics and the Internet at George Washington University.

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