Ari Fleischer kept getting paged. The White House press secretary was sitting in on a meeting last October between his boss and China's President Jiang Zemin during the APEC economic summit in Shanghai. But every few minutes, Fleischer would steal a look at the specially designed secure pager the White House gave him for the trip; his SkyTel didn't work in China. (Knowing how noisy interruptions annoy George W. Bush, he wisely had the gadget set on "vibrate.") What breaking world news could absorb Fleischer so? His beloved Yankees were in the playoffs, and an aide was sending him text messages with the score.
Baseball may be serious business in the Bush administration, but the main point of technology at the White House is to keep the president and his staff on their own game. During the presidential campaign, Bush earned a reputation for preferring a Sharpie pen to a Stylus. It was Al Gore who was thought of as Mr. Tech. But Bush, too, was an avid e-mailer--until he became president. As G94B@aol.com (now a de-activated screen name), he'd send regular messages from the trail to the 42 family members and friends in his e-mail group. Craving privacy, Bush no longer uses e-mail because every ":)"would become part of the official presidential record. Instead, he has directed his staff--many tapped from the private sector--to apply concepts of corporate efficiency to technological innovation in the government. Ever the CEO, the president hired a chief information officer, and a new-technology-review group evaluates every gadget the White House considers--from standard fare like PCs and cell phones to biometric tools and other security devices designed to protect online activity. "We don't want the White House to be on the bleeding edge of technology," explains a cautious Tim Campen, the first CIO.
Even before the BlackBerry passed its recent technology review, Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, was an early adopter at the White House. Wireless e-mail proved invaluable on September 11. With the president tying up Air Force One phone lines on takeoff from Florida, communications director Dan Bartlett borrowed Rove's BlackBerry to let his wife know he was safe. Now almost all the senior staff uses the device. Besides e-mail, the BlackBerries can transmit schedules, press releases and news clippings. As it happens, the review group rejected a handheld computer that had a built-in cell phone. That's because 9-11 showed redundant communications to be a good thing. So Rove also carries a SkyTel pager and StarTAC cell phone.
Air Force One has always been a cool perk, but the refurbished 747 has gotten a tech upgrade. The plane now has DirecTV so Bush can watch live television. Last March he saw news reports of the "Passover massacre" in Israel and reworked a speech to condemn Yasir Arafat. "It's a double-edged sword," says Fleischer, who's had to field questions in midair from reporters who can also tune in. The next upgrade to Air Force One will include broadband so staffers can tap into their White House e-mail and surf the Net from 30,000 feet.
White House technology follows the president everywhere he goes. On Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, there's a trailer loaded with state-of-the-art communications, in case the president needs to record a TV message. (The First Lady didn't want all that hardware cluttering up her new home.) Bush can drive his white Ford pick-up to the double-wide for videoconferences with top advisers instead of making them endure the Texas heat.
The West Wing itself is looking increasingly techie. That was the goal when Bush took office. "We wanted to at least bring the White House up to corporate standards," says deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, who was a vice president at Chiquita Brands. Gateway E6000 computers with flat-screen monitors have replaced decade-old mod-els. About a month ago, Fleischer got TiVo in his office, letting him digitally record right off his TV. His tech-savvy 21-year-old aide Brian Bravo is also using ShadowTV, a video archive that's searchable by key words.
The virtual White House got its own upgrade last year, and traffic has increased tenfold. The Web site, whitehouse.gov, does live Webcasts of the president's speeches and posts digital photos almost as fast as the news wire services. Nine techies work the site, including the only men with ponytails in the Bush White House. Web exclusives, like an upcoming online tour of the Oval Office by none other than Mr. Sharpie himself, help attract viewers. The site gets several million hits on an average weekday--though some users may get lost at the unfortunately named whitehouse.com, which features online porn.
Some technologies may never find a home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Bushies, for example, are bringing back White House operators and easing out the voice-mail routing system brought in by Bill Clinton. "Most Americans who call the White House want to hear a human voice," Hagin says. "What was thought antiquated is more efficient for the way we operate." Fair enough. All the operators surely know how to guide callers more efficiently than a computerized prompter that might offer only, say, "Press 1 for 'War in Iraq'."