The Unnoticed Presidential Transition: Whither Whitehouse.gov?
First Monday

The Unnoticed Presidential Transition: Whither Whitehouse.gov? by Richard Wiggins

Ever since George W. Bush was declared President-elect, attention has focused on the transition of power: what people and what policies define the new Administration? But in this first Presidential transition of the Web era, another unnoticed transition is under way: the President's presence on the Web, whitehouse.gov. This paper explores what whitehouse.gov is and how this transition should unfold, giving the new President a site reflecting his views and biography while preserving the content of the Clinton whitehouse.gov. We conclude with a proposal that the new whitehouse.gov staff work with the U.S. National Archives to provide perpetual Web-based archives of whitehouse.gov content.

Contents

Introduction
Brief History of Whitehouse.gov
Defining Whtehouse.gov
A Clean Slate?
Whitehouse.gov as Official Archive
The Challenges of Archiving
A Modest Proposal for Archiving Whitehouse.gov

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Introduction

In the days since Vice President Gore conceded the election, the press has given extensive coverage to the truncated transition from the Clinton Administration to the Bush Administration. Copious amounts of ink and electrons are dedicated to the people and the policies of the new administration. But little or no attention has been paid to the fact that this is the first presidential transition of the Web age. Somehow between now and January 20, the pioneering White House presence on the Web, whitehouse.gov, must be handed over to the Bush team.

How this transition takes place could set the precedent for all future transitions, for the rest of the years of the Republic. Will the Bush team start over with a completely blank slate? Will the content of the Clinton whitehouse.gov be archived? Or will some new Webmaster do an "rm -r" once the root password is handed over? This paper examines the challenges of the first switchover of Whitehouse.gov to a new administration. We discuss the thoughts of whitehouse.gov founder David Lytel as revealed in an extended colloquy on 5 January 2001.

When a new administration takes office, it is understood that many dramatic changes take place. The new president selects his or her own Cabinet and White House staff; the president picks new ambassadors to lands near and far; even the décor of large parts of the White House will be revamped - historically under the direction of the First Lady. The Clinton transition proceeded along these lines, albeit with a few bumps - c.f. the brouhaha over how the White House Travel Office staff was replaced, and now-famous arguments over office assignments in the White House.

So it is well understood that the new president brings sweeping changes, and many of those are manifested physically inside the White House: who occupies offices magnificent and humble - and even the furniture many of them will use. Although President Clinton gave considerable attention to updating the White House telephone system in 1993, little attention is paid to the technological aspects of the transition.

The Web revolution coincided almost exactly with the years of the Clinton presidency. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and took office in early 1993. The year 1992 was the brief zenith of the Internet Gopher; by year's end, more and more Internet cognoscenti were thinking about the World Wide Web. Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, has noted that the Web had about 50 pages in January 1993 and has perhaps 1 billion pages as President Bush takes office. Friedman's point: the Web revolution affects foreign affairs as much as it affects domestic concerns.

The press paid a great deal of attention to the symbolism of the moment when the General Services Administration finally gave Dick Cheney the keys to the official transition offices. Let's consider a much more modest moment in history: when the root password to whitehouse.gov is handed to the Bush Webmaster.

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Brief History of Whitehouse.gov

Early in the first Clinton term, Dr. David Lytel, then with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, saw the Web revolution in its infancy, and made plans to be part of it. He began a project to build a Web site. A prototype was built, and eventually rejected. The first public rendition of the site, officially titled "Welcome to the White House," was unveiled to the Web public in October 1994. Lytel says "In retrospect, I'm pleased that we actually were willing to build a prototype and throw it away. The first public version of "Welcome to the White House" was something we could be proud of."

Since October 1994, whitehouse.gov has been extensively overhauled twice, with a new version going online in 1996, and a third and final Clinton version of whitehouse.gov launched in 2000. Throughout these revisions, existing content of a historical nature, such as transcripts of major speeches, has been maintained and indexed for keyword search. In fact, the Publications Office's presence, at www.pub.whitehouse.gov, features the majority of the Web content on the site.

New or returning visitors to the site see information about current activities. As President Clinton continues to seek to stamp his legacy with executive orders, speeches, and travel during the waning days of his final term, those activities are trumpted on the site. Thus the site's front pages appear to the visitor to be essentially a newsletter, while those who seek historical materials can find it by browsing or searching.

From its launch in 1994, whitehouse.gov has caught the attention of the press and the public. Articles in trade journals in 1995 explained what the Web was all about to various readerships, and many cited the example of whitehouse.gov. Sending an e-mail to president@whitehouse.gov was a novel idea in 1995, and thousands of citizens did just that. As elementary and secondary schools began to use the Web as part of the curriculum, links to whitehouse.gov proliferated. As of January 2001, AltaVista counts 169,925 links to the site.

The press began to note the possibilities of the Web for political activity; for instance, Marketing News reported in August 1995 that Richard Lugar and Phill Gramm has set up campaign sites, and noted "Since President Clinton has technically not announced his bid for re-election, it is not clear yet how or whether the White House Web site would be used in a campaign."

Officially, whitehouse.gov has never been overtly used in support of President Clinton's or Democratic campaigns, but the site has always trumpeted Clinton Administration accomplishments with no hint of shyness. The 2000 version of the site featured extensive information on "Record of Progress" and the accomplishments and biography of Vice President Gore and his wife. The Al Gore 2000 campaign was officially run with no White House involvement and with its own independently-managed media and Web efforts.

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Defining Whtehouse.gov

But what is whitehouse.gov? From its history thus far, the site is largely a public relations arm of the incumbent president, putting his policies, words, and speeches in the best light possible. Lytel says there were three main goals for whitehouse.gov from the beginning:

"Whitehouse.gov represents the three ways the White House wants to present itself to the world:
  • The home of the president
  • The seat of government
  • A living museum of American history".

The July 2000 press release announcing the final version of the Clinton years listed more specific features:

  • Information on the offices of the President, Vice President, First Lady, and Mrs. Gore, including how to contact them by phone, mail, or e-mail;
  • The Briefing Room, containing the latest White House press releases and briefings;
  • The Virtual Library, a collection of all documents released by the White House since the start of the Clinton-Gore Administration;
  • Record of Progress, tracking our nation's prosperity and progress since President Clinton and Vice President Gore took office in 1993;
  • Gateway to Government, providing citizens with useful government information in areas such as housing, employment, education and training, and health, as well as links to White House offices, Cabinet, and other federal agencies;
  • The White House for Kids, a first-of-its-kind site for children who want to learn about their federal government;
  • The history of the White House, with interesting facts about U.S. presidents, first ladies, and their families; and,
  • The latest White House tour schedule, event descriptions, and an on-line historical tour of the White House.

While consistent with Lytel's three goals, these features imply additional goals:

  • Specifically providing a comprehensive historical repository of documents of the Clinton-Gore administration.
  • Targeting specific audiences (e.g. children).
  • Providing a current list of White House and presidential activities and events.
  • Offering a sort of one-stop-shopping portal for citizen access to government services.

One mark of the maturity of a Web presence is the point at which it supplants traditional media as the primary, trusted source of information. No doubt those reporters who are assigned to the White House rely on the oral briefings of the Press Secretary, and the paper press releases handed out at those briefings, as their primary sources. But many others in the media, and the general public, clearly rely on whitehouse.gov for factual content. Although not one of the top ten sites on the Web, the site sees some 1.2 million visitors each week.

The government services portal function was embodied in a companion site, www.firstgov.gov, launched by Clinton/Gore initiative. Although this portal is not formally a part of whitehouse.gov, the site proclaims, "FirstGov is a Project of the President's Management Council and is managed by the FirstGov Team."

Operationally, the site's own site map perhaps best reveals the focus of the current rendition of whitehouse.gov. As of January 2001, the top tiers of the site are:

President and First Lady
  • Office of the President
  • Office of the First Lady
Vice President and Mrs. Gore
  • Vice President
  • Tipper Gore
Record of Progress
  • Accomplishments by Issue
  • Accomplishments by State
  • A Nation Transformed
The Briefing Room
  • Virtual Library
  • Latest Press Releases
  • Latest Press Briefings
  • Saturday Radio Addresses
  • What's New at the White House Archives
  • Federal Statistics
Gateway to Government
  • The President's Cabinet
  • EOP Offices & Agencies
  • Federal Agencies & Commissions
  • Branches of the Government
  • Commonly Requested Federal Services
  • Citizens' Handbook
  • White House Fellows
  • The White House Internship Program
  • Publications

Contacting the White House

White House for Kids

  • Where is the White House?
  • White House History for Kids
  • Historic Moments of the Presidency
  • Kids in the White House
  • Pets in the White House
  • Our President
  • Write to the White House
  • Inside the White House - A Newsletter for Kids
White House History
  • First Families
  • Former First Ladies
  • Former Presidents
White House Tours
  • Public Events Calendar
  • Map to the White House
  • Virtual Tour of the White House
  • Art in the White House
  • Twentieth Century American Sculpture
  • Eisenhower Executive Office Building

President Clinton Orders the Cessation of GPS Selective Availability

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A Clean Slate?

Obviously, a new Bush version of whitehouse.gov is not going to emphasize the accomplishments of the Clinton administration. In fact, Lytel argues that this is consistent with his original vision for whitehouse.gov: "George W. Bush is entitled to use whitehouse.gov to present his own policies and views to the nation and the world."

I asked Lytel about the pragmatic issue of some 180,000 links to the site potentially breaking when the new Bush presence is launched. He noted that many of these links are to the home page, not so-called "deep links," and therefore they would not break. He also noted that any extensive redesign of a Web site always breaks external deep links. Finally, Lytel said emphatically, "The ability to start over with a clean slate that is reflective of the reality of George W. Bush far outweighs the cost of some broken links."

A major revamping of the site, then, is expected and inevitable. What is not clear is the extent to which the Bush Administration will retain the historical elements of the site. Also unclear is whether basic structural components supporting the goals and features of the existing site. Time will tell.

When this revamping occurs, the question also arises: what will happen to the existing Clinton-specific content? Lytel says that the content of whitehouse.gov has been understood for years to constitute government documents, subject as such to the need for archiving. Periodically, tape dumps of the entire site have been sent to the National Archives for permanent storage.

Thus, we can have some confidence that the bits of data that make up the Clinton rendition of whitehouse.gov will be preserved for posterity. But what exactly will happen when the Bush rendition supplants the current site? The exact mechanics of the whitehouse.gov transition are not clear. Jason Schechter, a spokesperson in the White House Press Office, told me the basic outline of the transition as he understands the situation. The existing Clinton whitehouse.gov site will be supplanted by a new site on or about the time of the swearing in of President Bush, at noon on 20 January 2001.

As for archiving the existing site, Schechter says that whitehouse.gov as of 20 January will be archived in the Clinton Presidential Materials Archive under construction by the National Archives. Schechter says that on behalf of the Clinton Library, a separate Clinton Foundation site will be constructed.

The implication is that the Bush transition staff is building a new site on a new server, and a switchover will occur by substituting a new site as power transfers to the new president. I was unable to reach a spokesperson for the Bush-Cheney Transition Team for comment. There are interesting mechanical details to such a transition, such has the hours of latency sometimes required for a Domain Name System change to be propagated throughout the Internet. It will be interesting on 20 January to see how smoothly the transition occur - and when it becomes visible to the public.

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Whitehouse.gov as Official Archive

Although Clinton-Gore content will be of little use - and perhaps even is repulsive - to the Bush-Cheney presidency, historians may well find the Clinton-Gore content useful as they analyze the Clinton presidency. A searchable, Web-based index of all Clinton speeches and press releases, including a great deal of content in audio or video form, could be very convenient and useful for scholars.

Nonetheless, Lytel argues that whitehouse.gov is not the best source for such historical materials. As an ongoing site, he feels that even within one Administration "Whitehouse.gov has too much detritus that is no longer government policy. It's already a huge problem managing the site so people can find the current policy."

Moreover, Lytel feels that whitehouse.gov has never been a reliable archive: "Whitehouse.gov isn't even a good historical archive of official press releases of the White House. At the time I left the White House, we got what was released when the president was in town, and usually missed press releases when he was traveling."

This is not to say that Lytel feels that Presidential documents shouldn't be more comprehensively archived online. "I think if you can FOIA [file a request for a document under the Freedom of Information Act] the thing, it ought to go into whitehouse.gov. The cost to the taxpayers would be far lower. It costs tens of dollars to handle a simple FOIA request. It costs tens of cents to put a document on a Web site."

I suggested to Lytel that one solution would be to create clinton.whitehouse.gov, and place all of the existing site on that new domain. Lytel replied "That would be a terrible idea." He feels that the White House staff is motivated to respond to current challenges and political debates; archival material is useful only insofar as it meets those needs. Lytel says "The White House shouldn't worry about history - it should worry about America's current place in the world."

Lytel's main point - that the White House is ill-suited to be the canonical archive of all of its own content - is well-taken. In fact, as I reported in First Monday in 1996, the White House may, through selective archiving or pruning of the archives, excise materials that are germane to the record. In that the 1996 case, the White House eliminated the searchable archive of Clinton speeches, fearing the service it would aid Republican opposition research. That article prompted the restoration of the archive - but only after the fact. With no notice and no consultation, the Clinton Web staff removed part of an archive that appeared to the naïve visitor to be a complete record.

An analogous situation arose in October 2000, when CNN excised remarks from its official transcript of a television interview with Larry Flynt. CNN's own media critic Howard Kurtz took note of the altered transcript:

Before we go, this item from the world of media news. On CNN's "CROSSFIRE" last week, "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt made an unsubstantiated 30-year-old charge about George W. Bush's personal life during a live show.

CNN later decided not to include his remarks in the transcript available on CNN's Web site. Some critics now are accusing CNN of censorship.

The network issued this statement: "As a respectable news organization, it is our responsibility of something is communicated to our audience that is unsubstantiated and potentially harmful to set the record straight. The network did this by questioning the allegations, reminding the viewers that the comments were those of Larry Flynt and not the network, and removing the remarks from archives."

Astonishingly, very little notice of this event - and apparent policy announcement stating that transcripts would be altered without notice when the network feels the remarks are "unsubstantiated and potentially harmful." Such a document can no longer be called a "transcript."

Just as CNN might alter a "transcript" when circumstances suit it, a White House in control of its own transcripts might make similar changes when it finds the president has made an ill-considered remark. There is no reason to believe such tinkering would only happen in the Clinton White House. It is clear that the White House staff - and the White House Web site - have basic goals not necessarily geared towards preserving a complete and accurate historical record.

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The Challenges of Archiving

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that, however flawed, the whitehouse.gov site should be maintained in its entirety online for citizens, journalists, and historians to use over time. While perhaps incomplete, and while certainly presenting only the President's best spin on issues, the site can reveal the thinking, strategy, and motivations of an administration.

Before I received assurance that whitehouse.gov would be archived in its digital entirety, I attempted to use an offline Web browser (Grab-a-Site by Blue Squirrel Software) to capture whitehouse.gov locally. Such tools make it possible to capture on a hard disk a replica of an entire site, which can be browsed locally or made available on a shadow Web server.

Over a period of 10 days I made multiple attempts to capture whitehouse.gov. As I write these words, Grab-a-site has been capturing pages from whitehouse.gov since 1 January. Despite a ten megabit/second cable modem and an 866 megahertz Pentium III computer, the process has not completed. So far, some 17,000 files constituting 450 megabytes of data are in my local archive. The data fetched is modest - less than one CD-R, far less than the 50 gigabyte capacity of an 8 mm tape. But capture via the Web is primitive, slow, and unreliable.

For the last two weeks, I have also sought access to the ambitious archive of all Web content, the Internet Archive. This brainchild of Brewster Kahle is supposed to provide scholars access to Web content as it exists at various points in time. My goal was to track the evolution of whitehouse.gov, and to evaluate how complete a longitudinal record of whitehouse.gov this external archive can provide. The Internet Archive claims to hold 35 terabytes of Web content. Ideally anyone wishing to research Web history would be able to search the Archive; for understandable performance and security reasons, this is not allowed.

Unfortunately, officials at the Internet Archive did not respond to my project proposal. Repeated telephone calls yielded voice mail prompts, and my voice mails were never answered. If other independent researchers find their requests similarly ignored, the Internet Archive is of very limited use.

In any event, such externally-constructed local archives are inherently limited. To the extent a Web site has interactive elements built through CGI scripts, Active Server Pages, Cold Fusion, and the like, those elements cannot be replicated by an external capture process. Even simple and common technologies such as image maps cannot be replicated in many cases.

Without access to such interactive elements, important basic functions, such as keyword searching of the site, are rendered inert. The utility of a static archive of whitehouse.gov is thus seriously constrained.

Even the digital copies of the content on tape in the National Archives would be of very limited use. Surely we do not expect a future historian to begin research by mounting a tape with a compressed tar file and rebuilding a Web site. Over time, such an effort becomes progressively more difficult, as Web server software and hardware platforms evolve. It is an irony of preservation in the digital age that in many ways cartons of paper documents are more usable than gigabytes or terabytes of digital content.

Finally, it would be a shame to relegate the digital content to a small group of scholars who visit the National Archives or a presidential library, as has been the practice before the Web era. Just as whitehouse.gov has been available any time to any person any where on the planet, so should it be archived.

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A Modest Proposal for Archiving Whitehouse.gov

I believe that as the new Bush version of whitehouse.gov is launched, White House staff and other government officials from the National Archives and elsewhere should plan a system of ongoing permanent access to all content placed on the site. Such a system should incorporate these elements:

  • The White House should work with the National Archives to develop a technical framework that allows periodic loading of whitehouse.gov content into a historical Web site on the Archives.
  • Periodic snapshots of the entire whitehouse.gov site should be taken, and transferred to the Archives. A quarterly periodicity would be sufficient. Such snapshots would provide browsable views of the site across time, for review and study. The White House Web staff should ensure that the site is always fully navigable using basic HTML hyperlinks, and that no proprietary technologies such as Macromedia Flash are used as exclusive paths for basic navigation.
  • Historical documents, such as press releases, texts of speeches, White- House- proposed legislation, and audio/video content, should be transferred to the Archives. Transcripts should not be subject to subsequent censorship or editing.
  • The Archives should index these documents using their best current technology. This would ensure searchable access to the documents regardless of changes in technology choices by the White House.
  • The browsable snapshots of whitehouse.gov, as well as the searchable archives of historical documents, should be made available on the Web in perpetuity.

Underlying these proposals are these basic principles:

  • A Web site consists of two basic components: the content, and the navigational and graphical elements that users experience to find that content. Both content and experience must be preserved in order to effectively archive a living Web presence.
  • An archive of a public Web site of historic importance must be a live, navigable Web site, accessible to any user on the global Internet, and maintained in perpetuity.

In short, I propose that the process of archiving the whitehouse.gov Web presence should be an ongoing activity, a joint effort between the White House and the Archives. The goal should not be occasionally delivering an 8mm tape with a few hundred megabytes of data, to be stored in a fire safe vault and accessible to no one. The goal should be to preserve all of the content and all of the Web experience to the fullest extent practicable.

If the new Administration will embrace these principles and practices, they can be followed by subsequent Administrations, and future U.S. citizens and scholars worldwide will have Web-based access to complete historical records.

Of course, whitehouse.gov is merely one player in the panoply of governmental and political Web sites. These sites, too, are part of our history. Yet they are perhaps more ephemeral. For instance, Algore2000.com went dark within hours after the Vice President's concession speech. By the 2000 elections, the Web had become an integral part of political campaigns. Yet these document repositories may be lost to history. Who will step forward to ensure that these digital historical artifacts are captured for posterity? End of article

 

About the Author

Richard Wiggins has written about Internet issues since 1992. He is a senior information technologist at Michigan State University.
E-mail: wiggins@mail.com
Web: http://netfact.com/rww


Editorial history

Paper received 6 January 2001; revision received 7 January 2001; accepted 7 January 2001.


Copyright ©2001, First Monday

The Unnoticed Presidential Transition: Whither Whitehouse.gov? by Richard Wiggins
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 1 - 8 January 2001
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/829/738





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