CyberTed’s Legacy Lives On

Among the flood of news coverage that immediately followed the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy last Tuesday night was an article in the Washington Post which mentioned that The Senator’s web site included, with the news of his passing, his famous closing words from his 1980 Democratic Convention speech, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die”. Much repeated in the days of tribute that followed, they are a fitting label for his legacy. The Senator’s web site itself wasn’t the news; it was simply a conduit, a routine and expected place from which to learn information about Senator Kennedy and his work. Because of course, every Member of Congress has a web site.

That wasn’t the always the case.

Kennedy on North Shore Mac BBS - 1993In 1993, any Senate office that was attempting to explore and utilize this recently heard about ‘Internet’ thing generally had to find their own way, without any institutional help from the famously slow-to-change Senate. At the time, I was working as Senator Kennedy’s Systems Administrator, a poli-sci type with no real technical background, hired on to support Kennedy’s network of Macs. When our office began to post his press releases and to solicit public comment via a network of dial-up computer Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), we found the effort was regarded as both newsworthy, and praiseworthy. While not everyone who found Sen. Kennedy online necessarily agreed with him on every issue, his effort to use new technologies to share his positions was widely reported and universally applauded.

A happy coincidence helped to boost Kennedy’s online reach beyond the BBS’. After reaching out to the White House staff who were likewise breaking new ground for President Clinton, I was put in touch with two of the students at MIT who were helping that effort, John Mallery and Eric Loeb. They were enthusiastic and eager to extend the work of MIT’s ‘Intelligent Information Infrastructure Project’ to include our nation’s Legislative branch. In short order they had setup the means for Kennedy’s press releases to be posted to an FTP archive at MIT and into two Usenet newsgroups. And eight months later, in the spring of 1994, they worked with our office to launch Kennedy’s web site, the first for a member of Congress. The site was located at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, as provided only FTP and Gopher services by that time. And at the same time we announced Kennedy’s web site, we followed the example set by Senator Robb by establishing a public email address for The Senator and facing up to what remains today as a challenge to Congressional offices, managing and responding to torrents of inbound email.

Kennedy Campaign - 1994In 1994 Kennedy had more than his Senate work to occupy him. He faced a strong challenge for his Senate seat by Republican Mitt Romney. Polls showed Kennedy was in a very tight race, with some even predicting his defeat. In the fall, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) had contracted with Issue Dynamics Inc. to help develop a basic web site for each of their Senate candidates. Aware of Kennedy’s efforts to bring his Senate office online, the DSCC gave his campaign staff direct access to manage their campaign site and to make it their own. Senate rules designed to prevent incumbent Senators from using franked mail in support of their campaign were now interpreted to require shutting down their official online presence for 60-days prior to any election in which they were a candidate. The campaign’s web site kept Kennedy online, while his Senate site was shuttered.

Launched only a few weeks prior to Election Day, the campaign site contained issue papers, press releases and endorsements (the notion of actually raising money online was still little more that a geeky politico’s daydream). For his part, Romney was missing online, and was chided in the media for it. Kennedy ended up beating Romney handily. A Newsweek article reporting on the growth of online politics dubbed him ‘CyberTed’ and reported of his online campaign, “It helped counter his image as an out-of-touch baron who reeked of Old Politics. And it impressed the world of computer jocks, thousands of whom work in the important Boston branch of the industry.” The Internet had played some small part in keeping Kennedy in office.

I left Kennedy’s office in the spring of 1995 to join a new ‘Technology and Communications Committee’ created by the new Senate Democratic Leader, Senator Tom Daschle, to help other Senate Democrats follow in the path Kennedy had blazed online. But continuing to lead and to innovate online remained a high priority in Kennedy’s office. My successors there saw to the continued development of his Senate web site, as well as bringing the Senator online by other means such as into Q&A sessions with constituents in online chat rooms. By June of ’96, Senator Kohl became the 50th Senator with a web site, and it took four more years until all 100 Senators had one, when Illinois freshman Peter Fitzgerald launched his site early in 2000.

His online experience did more than just generate good press for Senator Kennedy; it informed his positions on important votes for which many of his less net-savvy colleagues were ill equipped to fully understand. One early example came when the Senate voted in 1995 on Senator Exon’s ‘Communication’s Decency Act’, a far-overreaching effort to censor adult content on the Internet, the bill passed by a vote of 84-16. Kennedy was on the right, but losing side of this vote, and it was left to the Supreme Court to overturn the act as unconstitutional two years later by a unanimous vote.

Outside groups have also played an important role in pushing Congress to do more than just ‘be’ online. The Congressional Management Foundation’s periodic ‘Golden Mouse Awards’ recognize the best of Congressional web sites and provide all offices with needed assistance and best practices for use in developing their online presence. Newer organizations such as The Sunlight Foundation support efforts to make Congress ‘more meaningfully accessible to citizens’, with the Internet at the core of their efforts. And early online guides to Congress such as CapWeb, which helped net surfers find Congress online, have passed the torch to newer resources such as Tweet Congress, which helps all to find members who are on Twitter.

On Saturday I joined hundreds of other current and former Kennedy staff on the steps of the U.S. Senate, waiting on The Senator’s funeral motorcade to make a scheduled stop, en route from Andrews Air Force Base to Arlington Cemetery, for a brief and final farewell from the institution he served for forty-seven years. With the motorcade more than an hour behind schedule, I wasn’t alone in following the tweets from ‘kennedynews’, which kept us informed of their progress. Kennedy’s current team has done him proud this last week by their use of the Internet to share news and information about his funeral arrangements as well as the legacy of his life in public service.

It’s easy to take for granted that the Internet has become an expected means of communication for public officials and for the candidates who aspire to become one. And the time has long passed when anybody was impressed by a politician just for being aware that the Internet existed, and for attempting to use it. Senator Kennedy benefitted from such early praise, and might have left it at that. But he ‘got it’ and instead chose not to let up after those earliest steps. He chose to value innovation, and to make the use of new technology a high priority in conducting his very public life.

The Senator’s legacy will live on in the legislation he passed and the causes that he championed.

Teddy’s legacy will live with his family, friends and loved ones.

And CyberTed’s legacy will live on… online.

One comment

  • September 01, 2009 at 05:41 AM

    <p>Fascinating inside look at Internet use through the eyes of a Senate staffer, back in the day.</p>