A New Age administration From fax machines to facilitators, White House embraces the '90s

February 07, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Baby boomers Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have started rewiring, reconfiguring and revamping the presidency with silicon chip sensibilities and big-hug sensitivities.

That means turning the low-tech operation inherited at the White House into the cutting-edge communications machine that was the Clinton campaign. It means no-fat mousse for dessert and no smoking in the mansion. It means retreating, not just meeting. It means new American cuisine and a new occupant, a first spouse, in the West Wing.

It means it's the '90s, stupid.

And everything is faster, shorter, timelier -- and usually requiring software.

Imagine the Clinton crowd's surprise, imagine its utter baby boom angst, when it found a 1920s-style White House telephone system that requires operators to plug cords into a switchboard, wire service stories spewing from Teletype printers, only one fax machine installed in the communications department and, worst all, because the computers had been dismantled, NO ELECTRONIC MAIL.

"There's not even any E-Mail," Mr. Clinton griped last week, referring to the system of sending electronic messages by computer. "[The White House] is a yesterday place, and we need to make it a tomorrow place."

Since he and his staff never stop thinking about tomorrow, they've tackled everything they can. The White House news summary, a daily digest distributed to the president and his top staffers, used to be 15 to 20 pages.

Now it's two to three pages and, as of next week, it will be no pages at all. It will be computerized.

"It's more efficient this way," says Keith Boykin, who compiles the summary. "I don't think people need 20 pages of information. They can look at other data bases."

Ah, data bases. When members of the Clinton crew walked into their new digs, they noticed that there were no computers on desks anywhere.

The computers had been removed -- the hard-drive disks had been subpoenaed, actually -- for the special prosecutor's investigation into whether the Bush White House was involved in the State Department effort to examine Mr. Clinton's passport files last year.

Now the computers are back -- with new disk drives. Jeff Eller, the Clinton technology czar, is trying to upgrade and modernize the system so the president and his staff can send electronic messages to each other and to federal agencies.

"They must have done business in a very different fashion," says Mr. Eller of the previous occupants.

The Clinton campaign operation was so technologically sophisticated, for instance, that press aide Lorraine Voles says she could send a fax to up to 100 locations in a matter of seconds. At the White House, until new equipment arrives, she is faxing materials one by one.

Another aide says his college newspaper office of the mid-1980s was more technologically advanced than the White House.

But most amazing to the staff -- and to the chatty president -- was the antiquated phone system. It could handle only 5,000 to 10,000 calls a day rather than the 55,000 to 60,000 a day they were accustomed to receiving in Little Rock, Ark., during the campaign.

"When I got to the White House, guess what I found?" Mr. Clinton said, speaking to Democratic governors earlier this week. "Same phone system Jimmy Carter had, with technology that was put in during Kennedy's time and changed only to put push buttons instead of dials."

He said he was stunned to find he couldn't make a conference call from the Oval Office with others in the West Wing and that, even more astounding, aides in the building could punch a button, pick up the line he was on, and listen in.

Mr. Eller says that, working with the long-term phone contract they inherited, they've fixed the privacy problem, quadrupled the capacity of incoming calls and have instituted a separate "comments line" for the public to call.

The administration is also looking at ways to introduce 800 numbers -- which were a staple of the campaign -- as well as 900 numbers and conference call lines.

In the Clinton age, even the White House press corps is electronically outfitted. Journalists covering Mr. Clinton wear pagers that, sometimes by way of satellite link-up, let them know when briefings are scheduled, if the president refrained from his morning jog, and when he's in for the night.

But the signs of generational change are showing up in more than microchips. Already the Clintons, coming from an age group attuned to spiritual, physical and intellectual self-improvement, are putting their New Age stamp on the White House.

In a move reminiscent of the annual Renaissance Weekend in RTC which the Clintons and friends ring in the new year with policy talk and spiritual rejuvenation chitchat, the president hired management experts -- professional "facilitators" -- to hold team-building sessions last weekend at Camp David for his Cabinet and other high-ranking officials.

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