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The Blogging of the President 2004

   Who is going to decode the Internet transformation of American politics?

    Not, alas, the New York Times, the best inadequate old newspaper we have.  The Times “Week in Review” piece on Sunday, “Howard Dean’s Internet Push,” signed by Glen Justice, was a head-in-the-sand classic.  The big news, the story said, is that an Internet consultant’s phone rings once a day now, not once a week or once a month.  No mention that a huge base of small-sum Internet donors has demonstrated how to wipe the corrupting stain of money off democracy–a much more cleansing, practical, citizen-driven reform than the late, lumbering and maybe unenforceable McCain-Feingold legislation.  The Times story was that Howard Dean has brought a new trick to the game, another fax machine, another new device “like direct mail, phone solicitation and events in restaurants” and so captured the Internetizens.  Nary a hint of the more plausible counter-story: that free citizens online drafted Howard Dean and are carrying him like a hood ornament on their campaign.  The closing line, ignoring the disruption of the Senatorial beauty pageant, began: “It’s still the age of TV.”  Not once did the word “blog” appear in the Times piece.  The whole thing reminded me of John Perry Barlow’s generic Times headline: “Internet: Threat? … or Menace?”  It feels ironic, and all the more irksome, now that the Times online has a bigger circulation than the broadsheet. 

   The assignment is to find out, then tell the folks, what’s going on out there.  So this is a first invitation to report a new story, in a new way, as urgently as Theodore H. White did with The Making of the President 1960.  “When that book came out,” as White himself remarked later, “it was like Columbus telling about America at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella.”  Teddy White told it so well that his story line, with 44 years of dust on its eloquence, persists like an old fairy tale.  But Teddy White’s big-city bosses, his titans of industry and company towns, his “coruscatingly brilliant” Kennedy aides, his epic Rockefellers and his whole rather gigantic institutional cast, are gone from the stage–both body and spirit.  Only together, it seems to me, can we reobserve and rewrite the real narrative of American politics in this campaign year.

    In my own humble observation, what’s happening out there is the start of a fundamental reordering of democratic energy and political influences, a drastic subversion of a discredited game, an inversion of the old pyramids of control, or perhaps a shape shift, as Stirling Newberry argues, from pyramid to sphere.  The Internet represents a rewiring of the body politic, but it’s not the technology that’s interesting, it’s the individual engagement and social model implied in it.  One of many salient effects of the Internet in politics (along with the geekification of campaigns, the new language of memes, the networks in place of campaign organizations) is the seeming recapitulation of computer-industry history in the mid-1990s.  The leading practitioner of the new “open source” politics, Joe Trippi of the Dean campaign, got the idea working in California with Linux-based software entrepreneurs against the monster Microsoft.  “I always wondered how you could take that same collaboration that occurs in Linux and open source and apply it [in politics],” Trippi told Larry Lessig.  “What would happen if there were a way to do that and engage everybody in a presidential campaign?”

    What the Internet has created, and only Howard Dean so far has exploited, is a wide open public space in which the closed cronyism of both parties must surely be undone, maybe soon.  Matt Stoller writes in the Clark Sphere: “we are witnessing a nonpartisan war between those reactionaries who reject the widening spacial boundaries of politics and those visionaries who embrace them.”  The Internet appeals not least because it’s a subliminal reminder of a beloved myth, the open American frontier.  “The Internet, like the frontier, is about creation, growth and open spaces,” Stoller observes.  The Internet is the First Amendment’s essential meaning and killer-app for our time.  “In a sense, America was founded on the principle of wide media spectrum… Media consolidation touches a nerve for precisely this reason.  The controlled, closed nature of corporate systems rubs that individualistic streak in the American polity precisely the wrong way.”

    What peaked in the campaign of 2000, in my view, was a media-enabled process that mercilessly pruned away the more expansive and provocative minds in the field–Bill Bradley, John McCain and Ralph Nader; then bored us silly with two diminished standard bearers haggling mechanically at the dead center of the TV screen over what they decided was the demographic sliver and tiny cluster of states still at play in their pathetic excuse for a popular national debate and decision. 

   No one is going to tell us this story of the 2004 campaign.  We’re going to have to tell it ourselves, to each other. 

    So here, finally, is the ask.  Will you please pull up a chair, get yourself online, and join an open exploratory conversation till the first Tuesday of November next year about this choice of an American chief.  Before this week is out I will open a new blog that I want to call simply “notes on the transformation.”

    If you’re looking for a place to start your notes and comments, answer these questions first: 

  •     What is your test of authenticity in the candidates you care about?  And what scores have you been jotting down?
  •     When you feel a sermon coming on about this country in this time, on what soapbox, talk show, op-ed page or website are you inclined to deliver it?
  •     In the public observation and commentary on the 2004 campaign, which big or little media stars are as close to the mark as your own kitchen conversations and rush-hour monologues?  In short, who’s getting it?

   My initial premise is that if there are people who know what’s going they aren’t talking; and the ones that are talking don’t know.  My purpose is to create a busy space for accessible commentary and argument–no bullshit, no pandering–about what the new and old politics and media are doing to us.  I’ve asked Jay Rosen of NYU and PressThink to hold up the other end of an open tent as a co-editor with a light touch.  We bring different CVs and institutional tags: he in New York as teacher and visionary reformer; I in Boston-Cambridge with New York Times campaign work in my checkered multi-media history.  We share a critical and reformist curiosity and a yen for a public voice in professional journalism. 

   I start with long lists in my head of old and young pro’s in politics and journalism I want to hear from.  But the real authorities are the ones we haven’t met yet.  Introduce your favorites.  Introduce yourselves.  I want to profile and question the megaphones that people take seriously, from Sean Hannity to Tim Russert to CommonDreams to Instapundit.  I want to hear from the famous techies, like Dave Winer, who wrote the software of the new media.  Many of them, like Dave, are humanists and political visionaries behind their geek masks.  I want to make an aggressive pursuit of foreign perspectives on this campaign, from Ha’aretz and the Toronto Globe and Mail, from the Guardian, Al Ahram, the African press, the bloggers in Iran and all their readers everywhere–not least because a lot of distant observers seem to know and care about our campaign more than we do.

    The trick in the new “Blogging of the President” blog will be to explain America not to Ferdinand and Isabella but to the ghost of Teddy White. It is not too much to dream that if we unshackle our imaginations and shed our inhibitions, we’d have a conversation that might yet restore the notion that Teddy White embodied, that “there is no excitement anywhere in the world, short of war, to match the excitement of an American presidential campaign.”

{ 40 } Comments

  1. Anonymous | November 4, 2003 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    This is a wonderful idea.

  2. Anonymous | November 4, 2003 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    This is the best observation of What’s Happening with Democracy Now that I’ve seen yet, as well as well as a stirring call to action. Huge thanks to you.

    Now let’s get to work on it, friends.

  3. Anonymous | November 5, 2003 at 9:50 am | Permalink


    Two comments on post-broadcast politics for openers:

    1] It is an N dimensional cloud, not a Cartesian shape. Valdis Kreb’s Social Networking maps are a good approximation of what the End-to-End principal might look likein practise [side to side conversations].

    2] However, as I recently commented on Britt Blaser’s blog:

    Very interesting post. The question I would pose is this: The GOP has built a “Network of Networks”, print, TV, talk radio, cable, and the internet, including blogs. Has anyone else?

    I do not see that the Democratic party has achieved this level of integration. So, for example, how does the largest Democratic smart mob on the web compare to, say, Rush Limbaugh’s 20 million listeners? Or to the major tele-evangelists who, I suspect, have more members and have raised more money than even all of the 9 current candidates combined.

    My guess is that the old broadcast media and the new media are both required but neither is sufficient. Further, Michael Cudahy and others have argued that the integration of the best of the old with the best of the new into something greater than the sum of the parts is required for success.



    Winning the Culture War By Brian C. Anderson City Journal | November 3, 2003

    “… the emergence of conservative talk radio, cable TV, and the Internet. This “right-wing media circuit,” as Publishers Weekly describes it, reaches millions of potential readers …”

    So, I suspect the Democrats will have a hard time winning elections again until their network of networks scales up an can go head to head with what the GOP and neocons have already built.
    Jock Gill • 11/3/03; 12:02:44 PM

  4. Anonymous | November 5, 2003 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Get ready. We’re working on some projects at Clark for President that promise everything talked about here. We’re not just reaching out to embrace the online world. Our strategy allows for the participation of every American — not just those who have wealth and influence. Dean started early and has the buzz but we’re doing it properly. Politics will never be the same.

  5. Anonymous | November 5, 2003 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    It was only a matter of time before someone said it, and said it this well.

  6. Anonymous | November 5, 2003 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Count me as an interested skeptic who wishes Trippi’s idea could be implemented, but thinks the day is far off.
    When we see the new sensibility of two-way communication and control invade the narrow channel that is still the presidential selection process (i.e., the money primary, the big-foot media primary, the canned conventions, the rigged presidential “debates”) then we’ll know a change is actually happening where the rubber hits the road.

    To take one example. Last night’s CNN/Rock the Vote forum gave the appearance of embracing the new networked democracy we’re sniffing around–including such gimmicks as text messaged questions to the candidates. But the thing was still tightly controlled and the candidates — none of them — found a way to not pander to their audience.

    Imagine if one of them had interrupted the host , Anderson Cooper, after he cut the debate over the Confederate Flag short and turned to a questioner who (as he knew in advance) asked an inane question about Macs vs PCs. I would have liked to see the next candidate answering interrupt and say, with all respect to the young woman who asked the question, that we were just getting into one of the most important questions in America, how we’re divided artificially by race and what to do about it, and that we ought to take more time to discuss that and that maybe she and her peers ought to concern themselves with more important things than what computer to buy–especially as no one seriously thinks the presidential candidates are IT experts. THAT would have been a refreshing and authentic break out of the box imposed by these inane spectacles that we still call debates.
    I wrote up my observations on the debate for at in case you’re interested.

  7. Anonymous | November 5, 2003 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Here’s one for you
    Following the Money

  8. Anonymous | November 6, 2003 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    I think it is time to prelude and fugue on this one.

  9. Anonymous | November 6, 2003 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    “Pander” can be the oh-so-slick-feel-your-pain of our overblown Television Anchor Age…or it can be a well-worn, enticing, common comfort channel of a multi-channel conversation, not solely contingent upon broadcast performance for ratings (i.e. syndicated repeats aren’t always “great”, but people still seem to watch them…and end up discussing them around the water cooler the next day)….

    Even if feedback looping is not yet ubiquitous across all elder media, the back channels of blogs, Meetups, local organizing groups, mail-lists, etc. are starting to become 90% of the political iceberg to the 10% showing above the broadcast line…

  10. Anonymous | November 6, 2003 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t thought out all of my comments yet, but I can say that in 2000 I was absolutely disgusted that the choice came down to Bush v. Gore. I supported Bradley in 2000, but I would have gladly voted for McCain. In the end I voted for Nader, even though I think he’s a bit of a kook. (I lived in California; it didn’t affect the outcome.)

    Now I support Dean. I don’t think that Howard Dean’s web presence is just about money, although it has proved to be a formidable fund raising tool. Reading that NY Times article just made me so angry that I wanted to give Dean more money.

    Why should I listen to Tim Russert or Tom Brokaw? I listened to Chris when he was on the air, because he was intelligent, literate and he respected the intelligence and education of his audience.

    Talking down to me is the most sure-fire way to get me to fight back.

  11. Anonymous | November 7, 2003 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    White died in 1986. A terrific book about the ’84 campaign is “The Quest For The Presidency 1984” by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller of Newsweek. It’s out of print, of course.

  12. Anonymous | November 7, 2003 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank for the great invitation. I’ve been have a fairly quiet – and perhaps somewhat abstract – conversation with some well informed people over the last few days at – where I’ve been posting raw thoughts for an upcoming Wired story on the campaign. There might be something in there of interest.

    On another note, I’ve been amazed at how resilient some of the discredited themes of old Internet reporting have proven to be. Again and again, in analysis the Dean campaign, we hear that success among a relatively small number of techies means little in the “real world,” except perhaps as it produces a nice infusion of cash to buy television ads.

    In a conversation with Joe Trippi this morning, he talked about how the Net is at the core of a volunteer effort that will culminate in an attempt to get 1-2million supporters working the streets during the last week of the campaign next fall, if Dean turns out to be the Democratic candidate. That’s a nice, bold claim – a nice “metric,” as they say.

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  39. John | December 4, 2011 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Very intersting article. A critical follow up would be fantastic. Obviously Obama used the internet to his advantage and any serious future candidate is going to have to master this media. At the end of the day will people see it for what is is or what they perceive it to be. Alas, I believe it will just be more Madison Ave. marketing hype. A lot of verbage with little content. Nevertheless a new paradigm?

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