Originally created 02/13/98

Historian worries about too much information



WASHINGTON -- President Clinton treated Internet users to a live cyberspace history lesson to honor the coming millennium. But the historian who gave the kickoff lecture suggests the founding fathers might have viewed the information age with apprehension.

The White House began a series of lectures Wednesday night to mark the nearing of the 21st century, using technology that enabled computer users around the world to hear and see the lecture by signing on to the White House Web site.

President James Madison and other framers of the Constitution "were worried about factions that could tear the country apart," said Bernard Bailyn, a Pulitzer-prize winning history professor at Harvard University.

"Their hope was that somehow you could moderate factions," he said, noting that wasn't so hard to do when communication was as slow as it was in the 18th century and the factions were diluted and spread out.

His comments came in response to a question from a former student at Harvard -- Vice President Al Gore.

Gore said he had detected "a warning about new technologies" in Bailyn's lecture, which dealt with American ideals that were advanced by the nation's first presidents and remain valid today.

A lot of politicians in Congress and elsewhere worry that the power of the Internet, coupled with money, could give various factions undeserved and tremendous political clout, Gore said.

He asked Bailyn to hypothesize on what the founding fathers might have thought of the computer information age, mentioning demagogic "30-second commercials on TV" in political campaigns and the Internet.

"I think they would be very concerned about it," he said. Then, in a poke at Gore's own political aspirations, Bailyn suggested that was "more an answer in your line than mine."

"Technology really has turned out to be a wonderful thing," Clinton said. He noted that 400,000 people electronically visited the White House site on the World Wide Web in the hours after the State of the Union address.

"Americans really are tuning in in a positive way to the Internet."

The lecture was also beamed via satellite to listeners at 110 colleges and universities in 40 states.

Bailyn and Clinton took several questions sent to them by Internet users from around the country, including one from a woman named Cindy in Indianapolis who asked why people seemed less patriotic now than in the past.

Both Clinton and Bailyn suggested people were just as patriotic, but often showed it in different ways. "Our lives are more complicated now," said Bailyn.

White House officials in charge of the millennium program selected which Internet questions to pose.

None of the questions touched on the current controversy over allegations of sexual misconduct and cover-up on the part of Clinton, although a college student from a Maryland suburb of Washington asked -- via the Internet -- how the founding fathers viewed the "right of privacy." Bailyn said the right wasn't recognized as a constitutional right until a court decision in 1965.

Gore brought a textbook with him and waved it to show his former professor. "I brought the book you assigned 30 years ago," he said. He said he hoped for an autograph.

Bailyn has written 11 books on U.S. history, two of which have won Pulitzers.