Boston's Alternative Source! image!

R: PHX, S: FEATURES, D: 01/20/2000, B: Dan Kennedy,

Virtually revealing

Presidential candidates' Web sites reflect the strengths and weirdnesses of each challenger

by Dan Kennedy

Eight years ago, presidential candidates didn't have Web sites. Four years ago, e-campaigning was still something of a novelty. In 2000, though, the Internet is a crucial electoral battleground.

All the major-party candidates -- six Republicans, two Democrats -- have a significant presence on the World Wide Web. Each offers extensive archives of speeches, issue papers, press releases, and, in most cases, video and audio clips. Taking a page from Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, whose Net presence was crucial to the success of his surprise 1998 victory, each candidate is using the Internet as an organizing tool as well: visitors can make online contributions, volunteer, or simply sign up to receive regular campaign updates.

But there is another, harder-to-quantify dimension to these political Web sites. And that is how each site reflects, in some telling way, the character of the candidate behind it. Al Gore's site panders desperately, for instance, and Orrin Hatch's is loopy in kind of a charmingly off-kilter way. Just like the contenders themselves.

So take a look for yourself. And let the downloading begin.


Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley the candidate is big, slow-moving, and utterly convinced that whatever coma-inducing topic he's addressing at the moment will hold his audience in rapt awe. Likewise, his Web site is enormous, slow-loading, and filled with updates on such less-than-gripping moments as a recent talk he gave to fourth-graders in Iowa on how his health-care plan will keep kids from smoking. (Note to Republicans: Bradley mainly proposes the vigorous application of tax money.)

There's a lengthy biography of Bradley in both English and Spanish, sprinkled with excerpts from his three books, Values of the Game (1998), Time Present, Time Past (1996), and Life on the Run (1976). There's also a separate sign-up section for the media, although the Bradley campaign wants you to know that it has no intention of coddling reporters: "We do not intend, in any way, to exclude any information from Bradley web site visitors who are not members of the press."

My favorite section, though, is the downloadable "Bill Bradley Dinner Party Kit," instructions on how to bring your friends aboard the Bradley express. The theory, apparently, is that if you grab them by the stomach, their hearts and minds will follow. The Dinner Party Kit begins with this helpful suggestion: "Plan a dinner party (it doesn't have to be difficult)."

Al Gore

So eager for outside validation is Gore that his site's home page begins not with a message from the vice-president, but, rather, with a link to a David Broder column in the Washington Post. The headline: GORE HAS TURNED THE CORNER IN HIS QUEST FOR THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION. Indeed, in contrast to the introverted egocentrism of Bradley's site, Gore's is almost pathologically reach-out-and-touch-someone. Here is Ted Kennedy's endorsement statement. There are Environmental Voters for Gore, led by Robert Kennedy Jr. Over here is a video of Dick Gephardt stumping for the vice-president. Over there is "Town Hall," comments from Web-site visitors with the general theme of "thank you for being so wonderful."

One of Gore's biggest challenges has been to find a way to take credit for the Clinton administration's economic successes without making potential supporters think about oral sex (or adulterous oral sex, anyway). So in an 11-minute video, bracketed by treacly music and by images of Carthage, the small Tennessee town where Gore didn't grow up, we see Bill Clinton talking about how crucial Gore has been to his presidency -- followed immediately by Tipper Gore talking about what an incredibly great marriage she and Al have.

Just about all the candidates have pop-up windows that let you easily make a donation, which points up another crucial difference between the Bradley and Gore Web sites. Bradley's window offers three choices: "Contribute Now!", "No Thanks," or "Remind Me Later." Gore's offers just two: "Check" or "Credit Card."

Web of politics

Obviously, you don't have to go to the candidates' own Web sites to find political news on the Internet. The online editions of the New York Times http://www.nytimes.
com), the Washington Post (http://www., and the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.
com), to name three, have excellent political archives. The Net publications Slate ( and Salon ( offer extensive lists of campaign-news links.

Three less-well-known sites are worthy of special mention.

Formerly known as the Political Junkie, is the one essential site, since its enormous database of links and resources will eventually lead you to everything else. The site offers news links, polls, candidate profiles, and tons of data on financial contributions. All this is offered up with a refreshingly cheeky attitude -- such as this item, which appeared one day last week: "Leonard Nimoy has given $1,000 to the most Spock-like candidate: Bill Bradley." A highlight is a little animation called "Watch the Pile Grow!", a constantly updated estimate of how much money has been raised at the national, state, and local levels, based on Federal Election Commission projections. Last week it was at $760 million and counting.

Freedom Channel

A project of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Freedom Channel has posted an extensive video archive of all the candidates addressing a wide range of issues. The Freedom Channel's definition of all the candidates, by the way, is pretty wide-ranging. The Democrats, in addition to Al Gore and Bill Bradley, include perennial favorite Lyndon LaRouche, who pronounces himself "one of the three leading candidates" -- a major dis to yet a fourth candidate, Dr. Heather Anne Harder, who's also here. Never heard of her? Shame on you. This, after all, is her second presidential campaign.

If it involves the New Hampshire primary, you'll find it on, a site lovingly maintained by Republican political consultant Chip Griffin, who's based in Concord, New Hampshire. Griffin's obsession is the media and what they're saying. Thus, is the ideal place to go to get a fix on campaign coverage if you're not inclined to visit a couple dozen news sites on your own. Though the focus has been on New Hampshire, Griffin says he's going to keep going after February 1, reorienting his site so that it will have more of a national focus. "We're not going to give up a good thing," he says. Good thing.

-- DK


George W. Bush

Critics of George W. Bush the candidate suggest that there's not much beneath the attractive surface. So it is with CyberBush, too. His Web site looks good: it's well organized and professional-looking, inviting you to explore deeper. But there's not a whole lot to explore. Call up his bio, for instance, and in place of the dense profiles offered by other candidates, you get family pictures and captions. Here he is around age 10 or 11, in a baseball uniform. "I never dreamed about being president," reads the text. "When I was growing up, I wanted to be Willie Mays."

Oddly enough, there's no video on the Bush site, although there is plenty of audio. These audio clips, with text transcripts, give Bush a chance to address the criticism that there's not a whole lot of "there" there. Unfortunately, Bush doesn't fully rise to the challenge. Take, for instance, his initiative on "abstinence education." It consists of exactly two notions: to spend "at least as much on abstinence education as on teen contraception programs" (at least he's not proposing to do away with such programs), and to let "faith-based organizations" compete for federal grants to teach abstinence.

The man with the $60 million war chest has been rapped for making it difficult to find out who contributed what, but I rather like the Bush site's simple search engine. Entering "Cellucci" and "Massachusetts," I immediately learned that Argeo R. Cellucci, of Hudson (Governor Paul Cellucci's father), gave $100 last September 16. Neither Democrat offers anything so convenient.

John McCain

Online John is as dependent on free media as the candidate himself. The first thing you see when you log on is a reproduction of a glowing cover profile in Time magazine titled "The Real McCain." There's also a recent piece by one of McCain's most admiring fans, Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan, headlined JOHN MCCAIN IS TAKING A BAD RAP. In the column, Nyhan attempts to debunk his Globe colleague Walter Robinson, who's reported on some questionable dealings McCain has had with the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of a campaign contributor. Two observations: Nyhan's name is misspelled, which is pretty funny when you think about how ardently he's has been carrying McCain's water; and, rather than link to the Globe's site, McCain's campaign simply reproduces the Nyhan column, in clear violation of federal copyright law.

Well, McCain always concedes he's a flawed human being.

Not that McCain isn't taking the FCC thing seriously. The site includes an elaborate denial of accusations that he improperly attempted to muscle the FCC, including copies of many of the letters he sent to that agency.

The principal theme, though, is his military service, complete with videos of the explosion aboard the USS Forrestal that he survived and his harrowing internment in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Steve Forbes

When he's out on the campaign trail or debating his rivals, hereditary zillionaire and suspected space alien Steve Forbes always acts as if he'd be much happier if he didn't actually have to meet people face to face. Well, thanks to the Steve Forbes 2000 National Online Headquarters -- motto: "He Wants You To Win" -- he doesn't have to.

The Forbes campaign may be slipping out of sight, but its electronic equivalent is truly an awesome thing. There's so much there that it's hard to get a grasp on it, but my favorite is "Your Personal Control Panel," where you can watch Forbes deliver video messages on taxes, Social Security, health care, and education. There's just something about the ultra-stiff Forbes, sitting in his living room in a dark suit and tie with a half-smile, saying of the Internal Revenue Service: "Take this monster, kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it, and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people."

Forbes betrays his roots as a magazine publisher in a section titled "Lead an e-Precinct," where volunteers are invited to "compete with other e-Precinct leaders for national recognition, awards, and prizes." Sounds like the propaganda that Publishers Clearinghouse foists on unsuspecting schoolchildren. No mention of whether winners get a secret decoder ring.

Gary Bauer

At the Republican debates, three of the fringe candidates -- Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Orrin Hatch -- make it clear that they are running to win, blissfully unaware that they have no chance. Gary Bauer, being made of shrewder stuff, has a much more attainable goal: the former Reagan adviser is running for recognition as the pre-eminent figure on the religious right now that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition is in tatters. On the Web, Bauer emphasizes his background as the head of the Family Research Council and the Campaign for Working Families, credentials that may repel the average voter, but that are sure to impress his intended audience.

Bauer hasn't gotten much in the way of media recognition for his efforts. One mention he cites excitedly is this tidbit from the Manchester Union Leader of January 22, 1999: "Bauer made it clear if he does run, people will know where he stands and where he will lead the country." Kind of like a restaurant review that says if you pay them money they will bring you food, but Bauer probably figured what the hell (oops, I mean heck), at least the UL spelled his name right.

The religious right has always demonized Clinton with a fury that's bewildering for its incandescence, and Bauer is no exception. He blames the president for -- I'm not making this up -- the growth of the "pornography industry" and the "increasing boldness" of the "worldwide sexual slave trade." Who knew?

Alan Keyes

You may have heard that various online polls show Alan Keyes is winning the Republican debates. Even after factoring in his obvious eloquence and intelligence, you may have wondered -- given his wacky views -- why?

Here's why. On Keyes's Web site is a page with links to every online survey the campaign could find -- 24 in all. It's accompanied by this message: "With your help we can use our grass roots power to make sure that Alan Keyes wins EVERY online presidential poll over the next two years. Please vote only once . . . " The effort has obviously worked. On Keyes's special New Hampshire Web site is the headline KEYES WINS ALL 4 MAJOR PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES. And it's true, it's true! Fifty percent of respondents to Dick Morris's, for instance, said that Keyes won the January 10 debate in Iowa, followed by 34 percent for Bush and 10 percent for McCain. Other surveys show similar results.

So much for the accuracy of online polls -- unless you believe, as Keyes does, that he would be winning if it weren't for the media's determination to "keep the black out."

Keyes lists no coming events after January 24, the date of the Iowa caucuses. Perhaps that means someone at Keyes Central has a grip on reality -- even if that person isn't the candidate himself.

Orrin Hatch

Even those who remember Orrin Hatch's exhaustive 1991 review of the pubic hair on Clarence Thomas's Coke can couldn't have been prepared for the sheer weirdness of Hatch's presidential campaign. This is a US senator, for crying out loud. Yet he often seems -- as Don Imus has helpfully observed -- as though he just landed from Mars. One of the flashing messages on his home page reads, "The new millennium dawns on a miracle moment for America." It's Hatch in a, uh, nutshell: vaguely inspiring, yet completely nonsensical.

Hatch at least deserves credit for refusing to underestimate his audience. The centerpiece of his Web site is a 28-minute video (that's 7.2 megabytes) in which he drones on and on -- and on -- about why he's running for president, even though no one outside his immediate family has any intention of voting for him. But it gets better. While I was listening to him tell me that "this will not be one of those hyped-up political productions we've all become used to," a send-Hatch-money window popped up.

As Hatch continued to talk in the background, a schlock Dixieland tune kicked in, with someone singing, "Just one little check for 36 bucks will help the Hatch campaign so much," a reference to Hatch's goal of raising $36 apiece from a million people. This was accompanied by a logo of something called a "Skinnycat," which is, I guess, how someone with no sense of humor or irony parodies the "fat cats" who've been funding the Bush campaign.

And why would you send Hatch $36? Well, did you know that "dietary supplements have no stronger champion in Congress than Senator Orrin Hatch"?

I thought not.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]