This week the White House learned what it’s like when critics accuse you of going too far with the content on your official government website. The Obama White House web team added policy facts and accomplishments about President Obama to historical biographies of past presidents on whitehouse.gov during an election year. As a former White House webmaster (2001-03) and a former governor’s office webmaster (1998-2001) for President George W. Bush, I find this week’s controversy a revealing example of statesmanship versus salesmanship.
A little known fact about the official White House website is that the historical presidential biographies are among the site's most popular pages, especially Abraham Lincoln's biography.
We discovered this fact when we took over the Clinton White House website in 2001. Students doing reports on presidents would use the biographies on whitehouse.gov as sources, which is why these pages received numerous hits. These biographies were written by biographers through the White House Historical Association. We kept the text of these biographies the same in the redesigned site.
I wouldn’t be surprised if these biographies are still just as popular. If so, that would explain why the Obama Team wanted to capitalize on pages receiving numerous hits.
We also wondered how we could best use these pages and leverage their popularity. However, it never occurred to me or anyone else that we should “promote” or "politicize" President Bush by connecting his policies to his predecessors’ accomplishments in any way. We linked Bush’s biography from these pages but that was as far as it went. I looked at these presidential biographies as “sacred” or neutral patriotic content.
Instead of politicizing these pages, as the prime designer and a writer, I decided to beef up the history section of the White House website to attract users of all political stripes. I read and researched what happened in the rooms of the White House and wrote articles to bring to history to life in a way that was real and relevant. I wrote tidbits, such as how Thomas Jefferson used the Green Room as a dining room and used the present-day State Dining Room as an office, where he secretly planned the Lewis and Clark expedition. I dished about Dolley Madison's favorite dishes, such as the ice cream she served and the hospitality she showed to her husband's worst political enemies.
My thought was to provide the American people, both Republicans and Democrats, with more information about their shared heritage. After a few decades when the emotions wear off, history becomes bipartisan. Stories bring history to life better than any other medium.
The only time a history page gave us trouble was a statement on the Warren Harding biography that claimed he was the worst president in history. One summer a descendent of Harding became a White House intern, and, understandably, complained. We didn’t radically change the biography because it was written by an outside historian, but we did soften its hardened edges.
The controversy surrounding the Obama web team this week is revealing because it shows that politics trumps statesmanship, an attitude that most likely comes from the top. When I first became Bush’s webmaster for his official governor’s office website in 1998, I grappled with this very question of statesmanship verses electioneering. In the early “billboard” years of the Internet, the dicey issue facing me was the appropriate size of the photograph of then-Governor Bush for his home page. Remember websites were still very new. The Internet was unchartered territory for elected officials. I looked to see how big President Clinton’s photograph appeared on the White House website and what other governors were doing with theirs. How far was too far?
I learned from my bosses the attitude of the big boss: statesmanship was more important than political salesmanship when it came to the official government website. That was Bush’s attitude, and it trickled down to “the web gal." One of the driving motivations behind many of Bush's decisions as president was this question: “is this presidential?” That is the standard we used as we made content choices for whitehouse.gov.
As this week has shown, the Obama Team has taken a different approach. They appear to be willing to push the envelope as far as they can, even risking charges of too much audacity and self importance on pages used by kids doing school reports. They have broken the first rule for a White House staffer: Do no harm.
I owe my current career and love of history in part to the historical section of whitehouse.gov during the Bush years. I fell in love with our nation’s history. The experience ignited in me a desire to write books and develop TV segments that bring our nation’s history to life. In 2003 I received a research fellowship from the White House Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. Most of my six published books and two on the way relate to America’s history, particularly presidents and first ladies. I have also written two screenplays, one on the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 and another on John Quincy and Louisa Adams. While the Obama team faced questions this week, I talked about presidential history with Neil Cavuto on the Fox News Channel and narrated my first documentary on Liberty Tree House on gbtv.com about the Revolutionary War. I would much rather write about history than make it by overly politicizing my boss.
Author Jane Hampton Cook, janecook.com, is the author of What Does the President Look Like?, a book about presidents and technology, the Faith of America’s First Ladies and Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. She narrates a documentary on the American Revolution based on her book for Liberty Tree House on gbtv.com.