In Box

Spinning History

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded "there are no second acts in American lives." But that was before the Internet. Today, retired U.S. presidents and world leaders can be born again by establishing personal Web sites. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s site, www.clintonpresidentialcenter.com, is typical, detailing the president’s writings, biography, leadership chronology, and highlighting recent commentary. ...

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald concluded "there are no second acts in American lives." But that was before the Internet. Today, retired U.S. presidents and world leaders can be born again by establishing personal Web sites. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s site, www.clintonpresidentialcenter.com, is typical, detailing the president’s writings, biography, leadership chronology, and highlighting recent commentary.

Michael McCurry, Clinton’s former press secretary, sees such Web sites as a "higher tech version of a very old tactic — telling your story first, before someone else does it for you." McCurry says most leaders believe "their records are better than the way they are treated by journalists." So they seek fairer treatment by historians.

The sites tend to spin leaders’ legacies. The site of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, www.margaretthatcher.org, claims among other things that the politics of popular current Prime Minister Tony Blair "would not have existed without her." Some sites contain glaring omissions. Clinton’s sophisticated site makes no reference to scandal or impeachment. Former South African President F.W. de Klerk’s site (www.fwdklerk.org.za) makes no mention of apartheid or race but celebrates his dedication to "national reconciliation." The site of Augusto Pinochet (www.fundacionpinochet.cl), former military dictator of Chile, credits him for "the freedom and development that is alive in Chile today."

Most sites profess to reveal the down-to-earth — such as the rugby-playing university days of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori (see www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/rekidaisouri/mori_e.html). Others are more blatantly self-promoting. The sites of de Klerk and Paul Keating, longtime socialist prime minister of Australia (www.keating.org.au), prominently plug their books. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (www.mikhailgorbachev.org) offers consultancy services to "preserve the heritage of perestroika."

As a generation of baby boomers leaves power in the next decade, at younger ages than ever before, politicians are unlikely to fade quietly — not with decades of service still to offer. McCurry believes the Internet will be an increasingly important tool. Having reached the summit of politics, leaders will reluctantly surrender influence and will seek international roles. The Internet offers global reach and visibility.

Will the establishment of a legacy-spinning Web site soon signify the death knell of one’s domestic political aspirations? Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has no site as of yet.

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