Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wiring Up The Hill: Chris Casey and the Making of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s First Website

By: Alexander Leedom

We live in an age when people are almost always online—we carry the Internet on our phones in our pockets, after all. But just two decades ago, the Internet was new and uncharted territory. And on Capitol Hill — a place that always seems to be behind the rest of the curve — most Members of Congress were hesitant to connect.

Netcentric Campaigns’ Director of Digital Strategy Chris Casey was there to help them dial up and log on.

At the beginning of 1994,, the now-familiar website that hosts Senators’ biographies, voting records and press releases, didn’t exist, and no Senator had a personal website.

That changed when Chris, thanks to assistance from MIT, helped develop Sen. Edward Kennedy’s website — a first in Senate history.

“Putting the Senator online seemed obvious, and yet no other office in the Senate had yet done anything like it,” Chris said.

The Massachusetts Democrat originally hired Chris as a systems administrator in his all-Macintosh office in 1992, when computers were still used primarily for word processing and other basic tasks, and email didn’t go outside of the office yet. Chris had been interested in networking and computers before coming to work for Kennedy, connecting to other users on early computer networks such as bulletin boards (BBS) and Usenet news groups. A growing number of people were connecting online, and Chris saw an opportunity for the Senator to reach them.

“That was kind of my light bulb moment,” Chris said. “People were talking online about gardening, about cycling” — and about politics. “Why couldn’t Senator Kennedy reach his online constituents on their own systems?” Chris asked himself.

Answering that question would lead the Senate in a new direction toward greater connectivity and access.

Chris had set up a network of Bulletin Boards that shared Kennedy’s press releases, but it was after collaborating with John Mallery and Eric Loeb, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Intelligent Information Infrastructure Project, that he put the Senator on the Internet.

“Eric set up a system that allowed me to e-mail a press release, speech, or other statement of the Senator’s up to MIT, where it would automatically be posted to two Usenet news groups and be archived for FTP access,” Chris writes in his book, The Hill on the Net, which chronicles the beginnings and development of the Hill’s use of the Internet.

This was the first step in connecting Senator Kennedy — and ultimately the Senate at large — to the net.

Kennedy had always been enthusiastic about new technology in politics, and computer networks offered a new, unexplored way to interact with his constituents. A 1993 Boston Globe article captured the Senator’s attitude: “Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is 61, but he hasn’t lost the drive to be ahead of the curve when it comes to politics.”

A 1994 Newsweek poll found that only 13 percent of Americans had ever been online, and only 4 percent had ever used the World Wide Web, which comprises the vast majority of the sites most people use today.

But after Chris helped Kennedy get online, things quickly started to shift. Newsweek called Kennedy “CyberTed,” (although the Senator had yet to use the internet himself). Kennedy’s press secretary called the site “a genuine strategic advantage,” and Chris recalls he became “a champion for the use of the Internet on the Hill, advising other congressional offices on how to be at ‘home’ on the Net.”

Kennedy’s early website (hosted on MIT servers), launched on June 2, 1994, looks simple next to the colorful and flash-animated sites of today, but its content is now reflected in every member of Congress’ own site.

A banner image of the Senator against a gray background heads a series of links to Kennedy’s stance on issues, his voting records and press releases. Website styles might have changed since then — now hosts content with embedded videos, images, tweets, email contact info and yes, banner images, too. But despite its humble beginnings, Kennedy’s first website set a precedent for all of the content Senators include on their sites now.

Kennedy’s website for his 1994 Senate campaign against Mitt Romney drew attention —both for its novelty and its usefulness — from national media outlets. But the idea of a Senator being online, either as a candidate or an officeholder, was still very new, in part because the idea of the Internet was new to so many.

Chris left Kennedy’s office in 1995 to work for a new Technology and Communications Committee formed by Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), then the Minority Leader. Chris’s new job was to promote the use of technology for the full Senate Democratic Caucus.

“I was basically an internet evangelist,” Chris said of his time with the committee.

By 1996, 50 Senators had websites; four years later, in 2000, all 100 Senators were online.

In his book, Chris details the long process of wiring up the Hill. But the story isn’t finished.

One of the hardest parts of writing the book was finding an appropriate stopping point, Chris recalls. He even kept writing online updates to the book after its publication.

That’s the enduring legacy of the Internet—as a whole, on Capitol Hill and in politics—its story isn’t finished yet. The last 20 years have seen the Internet change the way we cover and consume politics in almost every way.

Chris will have a lot to update for his next book.