White House Web team hones president's e-message

Saturday, Feb. 21, was to be a quiet day at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and with the president taking the day off, most of the White House staff did, too. Even the ubiquitous White House Web site was taking a break -- or did, until the death of Spot, the female English springer spaniel belonging to George and Laura Bush.

Suddenly, the site was humming. First, it relayed the news of Spot's passing, with expressions of grief from the Bushes and a photograph of Spot with a tennis ball in her mouth. Next, Spot's bio was posted on the site, accompanied by an archival video stream of Spot and her sidekick, Barney, romping in the snow earlier this winter. "It is an affectionate piece," says Christopher J. (Jimmy) Orr, the aide who directs the official White House Web page. "I'm really glad we did it."

Spot -- the president called her "Spotty" -- has always been big news on whitehouse.gov, along with Barney, the diminutive, black Scottish terrier who follows the president around, well, like a dog. Sometime in the distant future, it will fall to social scientists to fathom and then explain how, amid the turmoil of war and political fallout after the dastardly attacks of 9/11, one response from a wartime White House was -- BarneyCam.

In the meantime, let it be noted that when the White House Web site features Barney tearing around with a camera (metaphorically) strapped to his head, the number of hits soars. But we're getting ahead of our story, which begins in the mid-1990s, when Orr went to work for Jim Geringer, then-governor of Wyoming.

Cheyenne isn't the town that immediately springs to mind when one thinks of political innovation, but Geringer had been an engineering whiz in the Air Force, assigned to projects relating to space exploration, including NASA's Mars Viking lander and the Pentagon's Global Positioning Satellite system. So he had an appreciation of the possibilities of cyber-communication earlier than did any politician this side of Al Gore. Geringer may have been the first politician to Webcast his speeches. This was 1996, so it was audio only, but it seemed exciting -- at least to Geringer and his staff. "I was expecting hundreds, or maybe thousands, of hits," recalls Orr, who was then Geringer's press assistant. "We had -- 12."

Nonetheless, when the 2000 election finally ended, Bush media-affairs chief Tucker Eskew was looking for a young, enthusiastic GOP press aide who knew technology. Orr was an obvious choice. Bill Clinton had initiated the first White House Web site, and though the domain name remains the same, the Clinton material is gone from whitehouse.gov, shipped to the National Archives under the provisions of the Presidential Records Act. So the Bushies had to build the new White House site from the ground up. They weren't really starting from scratch, though. Their 2000 campaign Web site had connected with many voters and raised a lot of money at a time when Howard Dean was still a figment of Joe Trippi's imagination. One example of how effectively the Bush-Cheney campaign used the Net: When visitors to the site typed in their income, they could immediately find out how much money the proposed Bush tax cut might save them in taxes.

But even in cyberspace, a president needs a different tone than a candidate does, and the new White House site was primitive for months while Bush aides hashed out basic philosophical issues. "Getting the right design took a long time," recalled one participant in the planning sessions. "We asked questions as basic as, 'What should we use the Internet for? What kind of tool is it?' We ultimately decided that the focus should not be internal; it should be external. There was a lot of talk on this, and the consensus was: It's for the citizens, not us."

Orr says that Bush communications officials studied the most successful sites -- naming Google, Yahoo, and Washingtonpost.com as examples -- and noticed that their designers were continually making them easier to use. The Bush aides have tried to emulate such user-friendliness. They also discerned that the best sites were making heavy use of video, even before broadband was widespread.

Of course, this is the government, so the Bush Web team is trying to follow suit on a shoestring. Two people, Orr and press aide Megan Mollmann, direct the "coverage," while the site is produced and maintained by 10 programmers and designers who work in an administration office at 18th and G streets NW. Another Orr assistant, Maria Tamburri, translates selected Bush pieces and puts them on the page in Spanish -- but this is hit or miss. "You can go to any section of the site and see it needs work," Orr says. "The photo page is archaic; it's not indexed or searchable.... There's always more we can do."

There are occasional glitches, too, such as on Jan. 26, when the military aides from the White House communications office turned on the cameras a few minutes early for Scott McClellan's briefing in the James Brady Briefing Room, thereby treating anyone tuning in to the video stream to the sight of reporters gassing with each other about how much money they lost on the Super Bowl and whether they glimpsed Janet Jackson's breast.

At the other end of the scale is the hit feature "Ask the White House," where top Bush administration officials sit down for online chats, answering questions -- most of them respectful, some hostile -- from ordinary Americans. The approval for this went as high as White House counselor Karen Hughes, who lined up Bush himself to launch it. "Once we got the president's involvement, getting everybody else was pretty easy," Orr says. "It was huge."

The Web site averaged around a million hits a day in Bush's first year in office. Usage of the site jumped exponentially after 9/11, when Americans turned to the president with a new intensity. "Ask the White House," begun in 2002, increased the numbers further. Then BarneyCam made its debut, boosting the site's popularity to where it is now, averaging between 10 million and 20 million hits -- clicks on individual pages on the site -- a day.

It must have been quite a moment when Orr pitched BarneyCam at a meeting of the White House communications office in late 2002. With his computer-nerd enthusiasm, Dave-Barry haircut, and Dennis-the-Menace smile, Orr doesn't fit the mold of your average buttoned-down Bushie. But what he was saying made sense: Because of the threat of terrorism, the traditional Christmas tours of the White House had been canceled. Too bad, considering that the decorative theme that year was "All Creatures Great and Small." Orr got to musing about the president's dog. "We're thinking of strapping a video camera to Barney's head and following him around," he told his colleagues and bosses. "Kids can see the White House Christmas decorations from Barney's perspective."

This suggestion met with a few seconds of dead silence; Orr's colleagues looked at him as though he'd grown a tail. Suddenly, then-press secretary Ari Fleischer, doing his best imitation of Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, blurted out, "That is awesome!"

"He saved me," Orr recalls. "He saved the idea."

BarneyCam was born. But after Orr procured a camera no larger than a lipstick to put on Barney's collar, there was a hitch: Barney doesn't wear a collar. When Orr put one on him, the dog lay down on the ground and started moaning, crying, and making all kinds of racket. It was at this point that Dale Haney, the White House horticulturist who has doubled as a pet wrangler since the Nixon administration, came walking by.

"Jimmy, that's the president's dog," Haney drawled. "I'm not sure that if he walked by here right now, he'd like to see you standing there, his dog howling and unhappy."

The solution was to give Barney his own little camera crew, which proceeded to get down close to the floor and follow the first canine around the White House, his nails clip-clopping across the floor in the East Room, and the Red Room, and the State Dining Room. The public loved it. Bush himself describes the little Scottie, tongue-in-cheek, as "the son I never had." Bush can get away with that kind of talk because the first lady is an enduring sort, and the first daughters are away at college, but mostly because, even in these polarized political times, Americans are charmed by first pets and are still receptive to presidents who dabble in new communications technologies.

Sixty years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt went on the radio to discuss his Scottie, Fala, by way of answering a rumor that the president had misplaced his dog on the Aleutian Islands and sent a Navy destroyer to retrieve him. "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons," Roosevelt deadpanned in a September 23, 1944, campaign speech to the Teamsters. "No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks. But Fala does resent them."

Eight years later to the day, while delivering one of history's first major televised political speeches, Richard Nixon used a dog as a prop. Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate, and the speech -- unofficially named after the dog -- saved his spot on the ticket. In rebutting allegations that a group of supporters had created a slush fund for him, Nixon conceded that he had received one gift.

"It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas," Nixon said. "Black-and-white spotted. And our little girl, Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it!"

It was great theater from the half of the presidential ticket that virtually invented the use of TV in a presidential campaign. Eisenhower was working with a famed New York ad man named Rosser Reeves, known for his hard-sell approach to everything from M&Ms ("melt in your mouth, not in your hand") to Anacin (anvil-pounding audio giving headaches a sound). Reeves's operational theory was that the key to a successful ad campaign was identifying the product's "unique selling position." Reeves realized that Eisenhower -- a five-star general who managed to be plain old "Ike" to millions of Americans -- was his own unique selling position.

So Reeves put the general on television, answering planted questions from ordinary Americans, in a campaign called "Eisenhower Answers America." Ike had his doubts about the plan ("To think an old soldier should come to this," he said), but the impact of the new technology was unmistakable. And that was just the beginning, as Eisenhower's 1952 running mate found out eight years later. It turned out that, sans Tricia's puppy, Nixon wasn't so good on TV -- especially when he had to go head-to-head. The 1960 contrast between Nixon and John F. Kennedy illustrated Marshall McLuhan's dictum about the risks "hot" personalities face on television when confronting "cool" personalities. And, under the klieg lights, JFK was definitely cool.

"Kennedy was just perfect in that setting," says David Bushman, television curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. As president, JFK was the first to televise regularly scheduled press conferences. He was also the first president to aim foreign-policy addresses at two distinct audiences: Kennedy understood that TV coverage meant that when he talked to the American people, foreign leaders were also listening.

"During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy used television, in part, to negotiate with the Soviets," notes Bushman. "Today, this is common practice -- heads of state use CNN to talk to each other."

Thus, technology that seems daring to one generation of political professionals is unremarkable to the next. A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on how voters obtain political news showed that the number of Americans who "regularly learn something" from local television, nightly news, news magazines, and daily newspapers is declining, while the number who get such information from the Internet is exploding. "Young people really use the Internet in ways that speak to the future of political communication," says Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut. "Every year, it goes up."

It's true that some of that Web-based information comes from newspapers' and TV networks' Web sites, but much of it comes directly -- unfiltered, as politicians like to say -- from interactive blogs, advocacy groups, or the candidates themselves. This trend suggests that the Internet has discrete uses.

"I think this medium is being used in very different ways than television," says Alexander Keyssar, a history professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Presidents and presidential candidates speak in general terms themselves but then put very detailed information on their sites. It's an ideal place to rally your own troops and cement your bond with them."

But Keyssar believes the Net is less ideal for spreading a message of general appeal, because not that many Democrats peruse the White House site for fun -- and few Texas Republicans idly call up John Kerry's site with their cornflakes. David Bushman concurs. "There's kind of an understanding that you're communicating with the faithful," he said. "That's why the Bush campaign put out its first attack ad on the Internet."

Yet this is precisely why BarneyCam is so ingenious. Even yellow-dog Democrats, to say nothing of swing voters, can appreciate the president's pets. The script for Barney's "Easter Egg Roll Adventure" is currently in production. BarneyCam harks back to less-polarized times -- or, at least, times that Americans want to remember as less-polarized. Nostalgia should not be underestimated. Nor should the back-to-the-future quality of technological advances in presidential communications. "Ask the White House" is an inadvertent tribute to "Eisenhower Answers America." A deliberate tribute to FDR is the Saturday presidential radio address, which dates to March 12, 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt delivered the first of 30 "fireside chats" over the new medium.

Radio made FDR's voice, style of prose, and methods of motivation intimately familiar to Americans in a way that had not been possible before. The chats made such an impression on one future president, a young man from Dixon, Ill., that when he became president nearly half a century later, he brought back the radio address and made it a weekly Saturday staple. It was natural for Ronald Reagan to reach into the past this way -- he had made his own professional start in radio -- even though television had long eclipsed radio as a way to reach the people. But Reagan's three successors in office have continued his retro tradition. And now, in a fusing of technologies that merges the past and the present, George W. Bush's weekly radio addresses can be heard on the White House Web site. The site's newest feature, installed this week, is White House Radio.