Clippings by John McCright: Internet brings the world to your fingertips

The Internet really is making the world a smaller place. Years ago presidents and other world leaders could have extensive private lives that were truly private. Now, with the 24-hour news cycle and the World Wide Web enabling just about anyone to become a publisher, any idiot sitting in a small town in Vermont can find out more than he ever wanted to know about everyone from his neighbor to the most powerful people in the world.
Of course, most of the movers and shakers who lead world governments have created their own website to manage their profiles. Typically, these sites, funded by citizens of the nations these respective presidents and prime ministers lead, are heavy on politicking and public policy and light on personal details that would enlighten one on their ability to inspire and govern.
Barack Obama’s biography on whitehouse.gov is relatively terse. Who knew you could sum up the background of the leader of the free world in only 311 words? At least there is the interesting tidbit that his grandfather served with Gen. Patton in World War II; and one does learn how to spell the names of his daughters, 14-year-old Malia and Sasha, 11. Obama’s Wikipedia bio is 9,339 words long and filled with links to more information.
At first the site on gov.uk called “Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street” appears to be easy to navigate, with a big photo of David Cameron and a conspicuous link labeled “Meet the Prime Minister.” Unfortunately, Cameron’s “biography” is pretty much crap. It is only 542 words long, has only three sentences about his private life (and it would probably have only been two, but his oldest son died in 2009) and includes only one sentence on his career outside politics. His bio on Wikipedia shows that he was an art student early in his academic career and he is a direct descendant of King William IV and thus a fifth cousin to Queen Elizabeth II. There is one interesting fact in the official bio — 10 Downing Street is not the official residence of the prime minister, but of the First Lord of the Treasury (a job almost always held by the prime minister) — but that is a fact about the house, not about Cameron.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has an official state website and a personal one. At the official website, eng.kremlin.ru, Putin, unlike Cameron, humanizes himself by including links to his pet programs — ones to help endangered species including the Amur tiger, white whale, polar bear and snow leopard. Then on his personal website — eng.putin.kremlin.ru — there is a gallery of 134 photos of Putin in action. The first couple dozen show that the president of Russia is very busy meeting military officers and Russian Orthodox priests, and that he has possibly less personality than a table lamp. Same bland mouth, same blank eyes in every shot. But he really lights up in the photos of his trip to the Sayano-Shushensky National Biosphere Reserve, where he put on camo and drove a speedboat. The most relaxed (and most hilarious) photo is of President Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the two most powerful men in Russia, wearing safari hats and sunglasses, standing on a boat, and inexplicably holding chunks of driftwood in their hands; Putin looks relaxed and self-assured but Medvedev’s quizzical expression is priceless.
Putin’s biography is much more interesting — and revealing — than Cameron’s. The Russian president makes it very clear that he is just a working class schmoe whose father was a security guard and mother baked curd tarts (vatrushki). Cameron’s bio mention’s his wife’s name once; Putin’s tells the story of how he met an airline stewardess through a mutual friend, where they went on dates, and how he reluctantly left his comfortable bachelorhood to marry Lyudmila after they had been going out for several years. Perhaps their respective official biographies say as much about the societies in which they live as about the men themselves.
There is certainly a lot more personal information about the Russian president on his website than there is about the leader of Germany on her official site, www.bundeskanzlerin.de. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal photos are much more engaging than Putin’s — she’s shown in a miniskirt in a 1973 school photo, talking with friends over coffee, yukking it up with the enormous Helmut Kohl (then chancellor), smiling with world leaders. I see that she and I share the same birth date (Merkel is exactly 10 years older than me). But her biography is only 127 words; it’s really more of a list than a biography. All of 1986 is summed up in one word: “Promotion.”
Who knows if the Chinese people have access to an official website for their supreme leader, Xi Jinping. There is an official English-language portal for the government of China — english.gov.cn. A photo of Xi has a link to a “biographical sketch” of Xi posted on a different English-language news website. The biography is nothing more than a resume — he entered the workforce in 1969, he joined the Communist Party in 1974, he studied basic organic chemistry at Tsinghua University (1975-1979), he was first secretary of the Party Committee in the Fuzhou Military Sub-region (1993-1996), blah, blah, blah. If the Chinese are trying to fly under the radar in the West by not making a big deal about themselves, they are doing a good job on this front.
Also, don’t look for much dirt on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on his site, president.ir/en. The biography has less to offer than an academic CV.
You have got to hand it to whitehouse.gov, at least they offer some distractions that might entice the bored web surfer to return to the site. Who wouldn’t love watching a video of President Obama with Malia and Sasha enjoying the teenybopper pop band The Jonas Brothers perform the Beatles’ “Drive my Car” at the White House? That’s at least a window into what the guy likes to do on the weekend.

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