Obama, Unplugged: Why Presidents Can't E-mail

President-elect Barack Obama will likely have to give up his well-worn BlackBerry and e-mail account when he takes office in January. For years, Obama has lived with his BlackBerry on his hip, but the Presidential Records Act would make all of his correspondence available for public review.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALISON STEWART, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Here are headlines from some of the stories we're following today here at NPR News. Fist fights broke out today in the Iraqi parliament as legislators continued debate on the status of forces agreement with the United States. Muqtada al-Sadr has vowed to derail the agreement and is calling for a major anti-American demonstration in Baghdad on Friday. And it's the battle of the titan committee chairman today in the House Democratic Steering Committee. Henry Waxman, long-time chairman of the oversight panel is taking on even longer time committee leader John Dingle to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee. You can hear details on those stories and much more coming up later today on All Things Considered.

Now tomorrow in this hour, we'll take a look at Michelle Obama and what she means to you. What do you expect from the future first lady? Plus the battle over gay marriage, have both sides gone too far? That's all tomorrow on Talk of the Nation.

Now think back a minute to the great BlackBerry blackout of '07. We all had to come to terms with our paralyzing dependence on these addictive instruments of communication. Some rejoiced, some wept. One Rutgers professor went so far to declare that a BlackBerry addiction was "similar to drugs" lending a bit of academic reasoning to the nickname CrackBerry. When the servers were back in line, we all put our debts down and looked at our BlackBerrys and gave thanks. Now, imagine that you are President-elect Barack Obama and that blackout is about to be extended to four years. He has been told he should give up his faithful BlackBerry.

Now email can't be secured enough for the president as the argument and the Presidential Records Act make all his communications part of the official record and up for public scrutiny at some point. If you think that Mr. Obama should be able to keep his trustee handheld, tell us why; or if you think he just needs to let it go. We want to hear from you, too. Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. You can always email us from your BlackBerry at talk@npr.org. One reporter that believes Obama should not be forced to unplug is Jonathan Alter. He's a senior editor and columnist for Newsweek magazine, joining us from our New York bureau and he's also my friend full disclosure. Hi, Jonathan.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Senior Editor and Columnist, Newsweek Magazine): Hi, Alison.

STEWART: So, why can't he just be on good old-fashioned email? Why does he have to have the BlackBerry?

Mr. ALTER: Well because, first of all, you know presidents do travel a lot, and I guess good old-fashioned email is better than nothing. They took that away from George W. Bush when he became president, and we saw how that ended up. You know he was cut off from all of his old friends - some of whom may have warned him in ways that could have kept him out of some trouble or kept him from driving the country over a cliff. You know a lot of times, the biggest problem that a president has is isolation.

And a lot of former aides and political scientists have written about this over the years that it's extremely important to have your old friends and people you've known for a long time have some access to you beyond a Christmas card or seeing you a couple times a year at a White House reception. And email allows that and certainly a BlackBerry, I think, could be secured. I think if they're talking about taking away his BlackBerry, they might be talking about taking away his email as well.

STEWART: Tell me a little bit more about this presidential bubble that presidents find themselves in.

Mr. ALTER: Well, it's just very disorienting because not only do you not have to obey any traffic rules and it's that hard to go outside, which is kind of a strange concept when you can no longer walk down the street without being mobbed. But you're surrounded by people who even if they tell you they're not yes man and women are to a certain extent. They're going to feed you what they think you want to hear. And so, Obama actually was very cognizant of this at the start and very concerned when he first decided to run for president that he not get too isolated in the bubble and that's one reason why he's maintained a very active BlackBerry email relationship with fairly significant number of people who've known him for many years.

He doesn't usually say much from his end, beyond go White Sox or thanks. And that's one reason why to my mind there is no security concern because the worse that could happen if it wasn't secured, if his BlackBerry was hacked into, is that some foreign government, some spies would find out what some of his old friends from Chicago were advising him to do. They wouldn't find out anything classified or anything that he was saying because he has long since given up you know I've being smart enough not to put anything that could be compromising in any emails of any kind. That's a lesson that anybody works in our office, I should have learned a long time ago.

So, to me the security implications of these are zero. It's just a totally bogus security issue. But it's - it's symbolic of what happens when you into the bubble, it's - a bunch of people come to you and say, look Mr. President your life is not the same. You got to do it this way, that way. This is the way it's going to be from now on for quote, security reasons and it's up to the president. And President Bush wasn't strong enough to do this to say hell no, you know, I'm going to continue to do it this way. And if there are security reasons you better convince me why they are genuine security reasons not - I'm not just going to take it on your say so.

STEWART: We're talking about Barack Obama. You may have seen an article in the New York Times over the weekend saying that he might have to give up his BlackBerry. Jonathan Alter from Newsweek has written an article saying No - you know what? Let him keep his BlackBerry. Why he needs to stay plugged in? Let's go to Mark in Rochester. Hi, Mark?

MARK (Caller): Yes, right here.

STEWART: First of all, do you have a BlackBerry?

MARK: Ah, yes I do.

STEWART: Do you love your BlackBerry?

MARK: Absolutely, 7100 model. Love it.

STEWART: What happened - what would you do if someone took it away?

MARK: Get another one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So what do you think should happen for the president-elect and his BlackBerry?

MARK: The technology that the NSA and the CIA have as well as the carriers have, there's encryption software that can completely disguise any transformations. I've done it with Homeland Security, I've done it for the medical and the EMS (unintelligible) communications company here in Rochester, New York. And I'm also done it for the New York State Troopers that took down the Lackawanna seven out of Buffalo for the terrorist, you may remember that.

STEWART: Wow, yeah.

MARK: Believe it, yes.

STEWART: All right. Mark in Rochester, thank you so much. Let's go to Nate in Kansas City. Hi, Nate.

NATE (Caller): Hello.

STEWART: OK, Nate in Kansas, sorry.

NATE: I'm not sure I understand why he would have to give up his personal communication just because he's president?

STEWART: Oh, well I'll let - I let Jonathan explain that.

Mr. ALTER: Well, you're absolutely right. There is no reason beyond, you know some bureaucrat or feeling like he needs to be, you know very self-important and advising him that he could no longer do it. As we heard from Mark in Buffalo, there is technology available, encryption technology that could make it secure in the same way that a president's telephone calls are - are perfectly secure and have been for years. So, you know to me this is an example of - it's really sort of a non-issue.

And it's an example of the kinds of things that come up when you do go in - in the bubble because it's always easier to say no than to say yes in a - in a strange way when it comes to national security issues of - of all kinds, that's one of the reasons why the whole eavesdropping thing got out of hand because if there was a question of do we eavesdrop or not, the safe answer would always be eavesdrop. When it comes to a question of can we secure the president's communication or not, the safe answer is, well have him not use a BlackBerry.

So what - it's up to the president, and he hasn't made a decision on this by the way. It's not like he has agreed to have his BlackBerry taken away. It's in - it's up in the air right now but it's up to him to say no, I'm going to keep my BlackBerry and that should then set a tone for some other things. Now when it comes with physical safety, there he needs to defer to the Secret Service. But when it comes to through these bogus national security claims, he needs to be you know rather contrary in raising objections.

You know, there's been a lot of talk about Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and one of the things that made both of them successful is Lincoln believe in what he called a public opinion bath. You would open doors at the White House and have all kinds of people and to tell him what they thought of what he was doing. And they can't do that anymore to the same extent. But the spirit of that was right and Franklin Roosevelt was the same way, he would drive around in his hand-controlled car around rural Georgia talking to farmers and other people and finding out what was on their minds and you know always had time for old friends who wanted to come in for, you know, brief chats in the White House. So it's an extreme.

STEWART: It was a reality check.

Mr. ALTER: Yeah, you've got to have that if you're president and a BlackBerry is just another tool for helping you breakdown the isolation that is the most crippling part of being a president.

STEWART: Let's go to Kurt in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hi, Kurt.

KURT (Caller): Hi. You know functionality aside as from working like a cell phone isn't really the purpose of the large presidential entourage-like staff that we're paying for isn't that kind of their purpose to do what the BlackBerry does coordinate all the information and manage, you know, his schedule or his appointment?

Mr. ALTER: Well that's what they think. You know if the problem is - and yes it's very important to have people like you know chief of staff who control the paper so that you're not just besieged with memos, control his appointment schedule so that he's not over scheduled, control the telephone calls. But the thing about email is that it's a really, it's a wonderful invention because, you know, and this is why, you know Bill Gates has an email that's - that's open you know lots and lots of people is that you can ignore it when you want to.

And you can kind of control your own flow you know by not opening the email. And you have an opportunity to kind of manage your own relationships on a much, much more efficient way. And who would want somebody else to do that. It's like every so often you run into older executives who say well I've got my - you know my assistant is handling my e-mail. Well, that's generally not going to be you know that's the - that's not a confidence inspiring executive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALTER: We want somebody who's got their own email and got their own you know access to lots of different forms of information so they can break down the chain of command. If you just let the chain of command dominate you will get in trouble. You've got to circumvent the chain of command in all sorts of ways to find out what's going on in your own organization whether you're running the PTA or the United States of America.

STEWART: So we should live up to his code name Renegade as what you're saying.

Mr. ALTER: Yes. Great point, yeah.

STEWART: That's his secret service name. It's interesting Gayle sent us a message from her iPhone. He should be able to keep it but he should use an iPhone instead because he's all about change.

Mr. ALTER: Yeah.

STEWART: Well, that's funny but it's been an interesting point that even this issue is going to be an issue for whoever is president from now on. He is - you know its 2.0 presidency. There going to be laptops and BlackBerrys and cell phones. So this in a way is an issue that - it's not going to go away.

Mr. ALTER: No and he's (unintelligible) decided apparently according to New York Times that he will have a - a desktop computer in the Oval Office for the first time in history. And so he's already made it clear that he's going to have you know some access via computer to the outside world. We don't know whether that will just be Internet access or whether he'll have email that he uses from the Oval Office. But he's going to - he's going to be shut down entirely. I think it would be a really bad sign for president was - it was actually something that you know was raised as a campaign issue by John McCain. I thought it was a totally legitimate issue and he was not online. In 21st century, your president has to be online.

STEWART: You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're speaking with Jonathan Alter from Newsweek magazine about whether or not President-elect Barack Obama should have to surrender his BlackBerry which has been suggested to him for security reasons. But also for reasons about the presidential records act, the idea of - would have access to this communications after I believe is 12 years, right?

Mr. ALTER: Yeah, but you know I don't see why email should be treated any differently than snail mail is by presidential records act. You know there is a process by which president's correspondents is the classified and released to the public and they can just apply that process to his emails. So it'll be difficult for historians because of there'll be dozens of emails to go through but that's their problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Let's go to Allan in Cleveland. Hi, Allan.

ALLAN (Caller): Hi. It seems that we've got to be able to trust the president of the United States to be able to control flow of communications both in and out, and make responsible decisions in terms of what he sends and if he's getting email that's not appropriate then cut it off but if he can't make these decisions don't we have other issues.

STEWART: That's a good point Allan. Thanks a lot. I want to follow that up with Laurel from Michigan wrote this. She is from Michigan, remember. If Mr. Obama does keep his BlackBerry I suggest he at least take a lesson on what not to do from former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Mr. ALTER: Yeah, that's harsh.

STEWART: That are - that is harsh. People need to remember that Kwame Kilpatrick was caught having an affair via tech - via messages on his BlackBerry, right? That's the bottom line.

Mr. ALTER: Yeah, and yet.

STEWART: We're not suggesting anything about that with the Obamas, of course.

Mr. ALTER: Yeah and there's nothing - that's a thing about Obama that you know they're - they're just haven't even been any rumors in that department.

STEWART: No, no but it's the idea that you become so yeah the idea though is you become so comfortable with your BlackBerry that you might type something that you know wouldn't say in conversation or it slips out of your mouth.

Mr. ALTER: It's process to let you know that he's been using it you know all throughout the campaign with a number of friends and there hasn't been any indication for being indiscreet. As I said what he mostly says, go White Sox and thank you for the - you know email. So he's pretty disciplined guy and I don't think that's something that we're going to have to worry about too much. And also we need to make it clear he has not made a decision on this yet.

I was just urging that when he does make a decision he decide to keep it. And so and you know I think it is really important for him to have all kinds of different views to pierce that bubble we've been talking about, pierce that isolation. Some of it is from his aids, from experts. Yes, even from polling to show some of what the American people are thinking from books, from all kinds of places. You want him to have a, you know an open mind as he moves forward.

STEWART: It's been suggested by one of our listeners that's now be a BarackBerry. We're going to Jason in Phoenix. Jason, you say there's a bigger issue here. It should be about symbolism.

JASON (Caller): Oh yeah it's symbolism because Obama he's kind of someone that my generation, the younger generation latches on to. He embraces technology, he's forward thinking. And I got to throw this out there. It's a little - short little story about - as quickly as I can.

STEWART: You got 20 seconds.

JASON: On 9/11, I was awake and I watched the second plane that hit towers live. Immediately, I started paging, texting and emailing people. I had emailed six - at least six people and talk to them on the phone by the time the president was made aware of it, I saw that on TV. Now this is the reason I didn't vote for McCain. It's because McCain said he just didn't know how to use a computer. So...

STEWART: Right.

JASON: When I say it's - he should he keep it and he should be allowed to keep and use it because it shows that we need to embrace technology and be then forward thinking in the way we do things.

STEWART: Jason from Arizona, thank you for sharing that story. Jonathan Alter is a senior editor and columnist for Newsweek magazine and the author of the book president-elect's - on President-elect Obama's night stand "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days in the Triumph of Hope." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ALTER: Thanks a lot, Alison.

STEWART: You can find his op-ed "Keep the BlackBerry" on our website npr.org/talk. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Alison Stewart in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.