Will the Clinton White House Archive Outlast Clinton?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 27 2000 9:00 PM

Will the Clinton White House Archive Outlast Clinton?

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

The World Wide Web and the Clinton presidency were born at approximately the same time. As a consequence, we have never known the official White House Web site to be anything other than an archive of Bill Clinton's presidency. Four short months from now, however, somebody new will be president. What will happen then?

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This question is of no small interest to journalists, historians, and members of the general public who take an active interest in public affairs. As government Web sites go, the White House Web site is unusually comprehensive and easy to navigate; much more so, for instance, than Thomas, the Web site for Congress. (This is a fascinating instance where Online Reality is the opposite of Offline Reality, since in real life Congress is much more accessible and open to the public than the White House is.) Although the White House Web site contains its share of partisan propaganda, it also posts just about all the official unclassified documents pertaining to the Clinton presidency and also all sorts of useful unofficial documents, such as press releases and full transcripts of press briefings, where reporters often ask rude questions. By contrast, the Web pages maintained by members of Congress tend to winnow out any material that might be even vaguely embarrassing.

It remains unclear, though, how the White House Web site's experiment in (relatively) open government will weather the transition to a George W. Bush or Al Gore presidency. Certainly the Bush campaign's Web site inspires pessimism about what a possible Bush White House Web site would look like; it's difficult to navigate, relentlessly On Message, and almost impossible to link to from other sites. The Gore campaign Web site is a bit more user-friendly but also falls far short of the White House Web site as a researcher-friendly archive.

According to Mark Kitchens, who handles White House press inquiries related to the Internet, the presidential transition that occurs after Election Day will include a Web transition. In White House lingo, the EOP (executive office of the president) will begin discussions with the OPE (office of the president-elect) about any changes OPE wants to the "content and design" of the White House Web site. The "new" White House Web site will go live at noon on Inauguration Day. When pressed, however, Kitchens concedes that no one really knows how the White House Web site will change, because "this is the first time this has ever happened." He also says he's aware of no discussions between the Gore and Clinton staffs about what in the White House Web site should change—or remain the same—if Gore wins.

What about the Clinton archive? Will that stay posted on the White House Web site? Kitchens says the plan right now is to "archive and remove all the content from the publications server and give the new administration a clean server on Jan. 20, 2001." All official presidential documents as defined by the Code of Federal Regulations would remain online via the National Archives' Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. All unofficial documents, Kitchens says, would be "housed and archived in the Clinton Library." In addition, the Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that sucks data off the Web and stashes it, is currently "crawling" the White House Web site as part of a larger project to record the 2000 presidential election for the Library of Congress. But moving all this archived material seems likely to be a messy operation. As a click on the above Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents link shows, the online compilation is not yet operational (though apparently you can get Clinton presidential documents through 1998 at the Web site for Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States). The Clinton Presidential Library doesn't yet have a Web site (though it's inspired a variety of parody sites), and no one knows what, if anything, the Library of Congress will eventually do with its snapshots of the Clinton White House Web page, which in any event may not constitute a complete archive. Given these uncertainties, wouldn't it be best to keep the Clinton archive—and maybe the archives of all future presidents—on the White House Web site?

Kitchens says if that's what Clinton's successor wants, then the Clinton administration will honor that request; that is, it will leave the Clinton documents on the White House Web site while simultaneously stashing copies at the National Archives and the Clinton Library.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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