Thursday, May 01, 2014

Of Cages and Fishbowls

On the one hand, I tend to agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the phenomenon of "slavery to phones," etc. [hat tip -- Buzzfeed]. I hate carrying a cell phone that just anyone can ring me up on, and these days I don't (for that matter, there are maybe five people on Earth whom I'm willing to gab with unnecessarily on ANY phone).

On the other hand, I suspect that "public officials" are more "enslaved" in certain accessibility particulars than any random selfie-addicted TwitterFacebookLinkedInhead.

Do you think that US President Barack Obama has a personal Twitter account -- or for that matter a personal Gmail account -- that he accesses unmonitored at will? If so, I think you're waaaaaaay wrong. His every statement is, or could become, public. Therefore such statements are made at second hand through other people when possible and heavily massaged and prepped in advance when they have to be made in person.

If you think Victoria Nuland's remarks on the EU were controversial, consider this hypothetical: Obama has a couple too many drinks at a state dinner, gets on Twitter, calls Vladimir Putin a punk and offers to kick his ass. Whole 'nother level of magnitude there.

And what happens when Obama gets out of office?

For most of my life I've seen the eye-rolling and heard the sighs when some living former president speaks publicly in a way that embarrasses the current administration (e.g. Carter on the Arab-Israeli conflict). And those guys tend to continue to do so in the same heavily mediated/massaged way they did in office, because they were fairly isolated -- they had to actually sit down with a reporter or whatever. I vaguely remember, although I can't find a picture of it, LBJ appearing on television with long hair in a pony tail. I bet it caused a bit of a stir.

George W. Bush has been something of an exception, keeping largely to himself. Apart from a few speeches to friendly audiences, the only thing I can think of that he's done is a) paint and b) act as honorary chair (with his predecessor, Bill Clinton) of some disaster relief efforts.

Obama will likely be the first president to leave office, step back into the world and sink up to his neck in a social media swamp that he's now free to flap around in in a way he wasn't for those eight years. He'll be able to lash out at enemies, embarrass himself with friends, etc. And I'm betting he'll be the last to be able to do so, too -- Congress will act quickly to fund "social media secretaries" for former presidents just like they do Secret Service protection and presidential libraries. Future presidents may not be enslaved to cell phones, but I bet they'll live out their post-presidency lives in much smaller media cages precisely because media is now so immediate.

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