Back in 1999 President Bill Clinton held an “internet town hall” hosted by a company called Excite@Home. Clinton answered questions submitted from the 50,000 people watching along. And despite the fact that Clinton admitted he was “technologically impaired,” it was essentially the first presidential Ask Me Anything (AMA).
On November 8, 1999 Clinton sat at George Washington University, fielding real-time questions for an hour and a half from anyone with a web browser. So what kind of questions did Bill Clinton get? A November 9, 1999 article from the Los Angeles Times gives us a hint:
When “Cynthia in Arizona” asked whether Clinton planned to have a food stash on hand because of problems that may rise from the Y2K computer bug, the president replied: “The answer is no,” adding that only “some of our small businesses” appear not to be prepared for the change.
Questions came from Canada and England as well as from throughout the United States.
One questioner asked Clinton about his post-White House plans, another about what Clinton believes will be his legacy. There was no mention of Clinton’s impeachment.
Some people complained that the questions, which were all screened by moderators, were too easy on the President. There were no questions about Monica Lewinsky, of course.
From the New York Times:
Many of the questions were softballs on health care, gun control and other issues that Mr. Clinton has answered many times before. He mixed serious policy answers with chuckles at occasional technical glitches and some of the e-mail names of the questioners—monikers like T Love and Sissy Bill.
So I guess nothing really changes. Barack Obama’s Reddit AMA back in August of 2012 faced similar criticisms and similar jokes about Reddit handles.
The event included plenty of politicians, but also tech celebrities of the time like Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, and current partner at the venture capital firm Andreeseen Horowitz. I asked Andreessen about his experience with the first presidential “internet town hall.”
“I was on it by video conference from @Home’s campus in Redwood City, I think. On a stage in front of a few hundred people there—it was such a novel thing,” Andreessen recalls. “The President called me after—giddy with excitement at what has become possible for political engagement.”
“@Home went bankrupt shortly after,” Andreessen adds.
In 2005 the historic Clinton webchat was made a part of the Clinton Presidential Library. The broadcast was preserved and is now part of its permanent collection.
“This was a major production; you have to realize this was the first time a President had decided to communicate with the general public using a very early technology in order to do so, video over the Internet,” Marc Scarpa, the producer and director of the Clinton event, would say years later.
“In addition, there were several remotes (video feeds) to manage in conjunction with the main venue at George Washington University, which was loaded with Secret Service, his aides, a live studio audience and the world watching - all making for a very tense real-time event.”
Of course, 1999 wasn’t Clinton’s first brush with computers. We have photos of him hammering away at laptops years earlier. There’s this photo from October 25, 1996 where he’s writing an “electronic message on a portable computer” for the first anniversary of something called NetDay—a day when volunteers helped set up schools in California with access to the internet.
By the end of 1999, Clinton was on a laptop in the White House, reportedly Christmas shopping.
It should probably be noted that Hillary, as First Lady, appears to have answered a question from the internet even before Bill. The photo below was taken on February 11, 1998 during the first White House Millennium Evening—a series of events to celebrate the coming year 2000.
And Bill’s 1999 town hall wouldn’t be his last, as this photo from May 4, 2000 shows Clinton participating in a “cyberchat” as Getty Images puts it.
I don’t need to point out that pretty much all of these images are just begging to be meme-ified.
But if you make a joke in the comments about Al Gore inventing the internet I swear I’ll come to your house and burn it right to the ground, then salt the Earth, and desecrate the graves of your ancestors.
Or let out an exasperated sigh. Whichever I feel I’ve got the energy for.