Guest column: Hey, Mr. President! M or F?

Bill Clinton became the first president to participate in an online chat Monday night, with mixed results and scant fanfare. In the shadow of the other Bill in the other Washington, Clinton's cyberspace romp barely made a dent in this week's news.

The chat's 30,000+ participants encountered some technical difficulties, which should have registered about a 2.0 on the Shock-o-Metre. The San Jose Merc filed a long and interesting report, but made the biggest deal over the mayor of San Jose getting shut out of the action for half an hour. The New York Times, in addition to its coverage of the chat itself, devoted a separate article to its technological roadblocks. NYT reporter Rebecca Fairley Raney said that the instructions were murky and only "elite" users with fast machines could participate. Apparently, even some folks with T-1 lines couldn't see the video footage - but that accusation came from the president of a Republican political firm, so take it with a grain of salt. "The audio gave voices a honking sound like the adults in the 'Charlie Brown' cartoons," wrote Raney. ExciteAtHome, which hosted the chat, stretched the truth like any good politician, and denied that technical problems had occurred.

The no-brainer questions weren't half as weak as the theatrics. Clinton answered the questions verbally and didn't touch a computer all night, but he sat in front of one - does that count? "The set looked like something out of cable television, more local access than Oval Office," wrote SJ Merc reporter Jim Puzzanghera. The New York Times' Marc Lacey couldn't resist a jab at the president's computer illiteracy, joking that at least Vice President Al Gore knows "spam is not a processed lunch meat." Lacey also had some fun pointing out that Clinton's event could hold 50,000 chatters but only 30,000-ish showed up - in contrast to the AOL chat with bubble-gum pop star Britney Spears, which brought in a record-breaking 234,000 teenyboppers.

Perhaps George Washington University professor Mike Cornfield summed up the semi-electronic, non-interactive town hall best: "This was online but it wasn't a chat." Regardless, Clinton patted himself on the back for embracing this brand spankin' new Internet thing, comparing the event to FDR's radio fireside chats and JFK's TV press conferences. We're surprised the eye-rolling media passed on the "You're no Jack Kennedy" gag. Heck, he's not even Britney Spears.

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