• Monday, November 24, 2014

Hold for the President

Why 19th century tech remains such a vital tool

Yahoo News Online
President William Howard Taft on the phone. Taft was the 27th U.S President serving from 1909 - 1913. Photo: Harris & Ewing Collection
President William Howard Taft on the phone. Taft was the 27th U.S President serving from 1909 - 1913. Photo: Harris & Ewing Collection

It's easy to wonder why a president needs to “work the phones” in the era of email, texting, Skype, and high-definition video chats.
Current and former aides to US President Barack Obama and his two predecessors interviewed by Yahoo News were unanimous: When it comes to communicating with world leaders, it is a technology developed in the 19th century that still rules. The telephone remains a dominant tool of international diplomacy in a world where many nations lack America's more recent technological advances. And the sound of the human voice – full of nuance and meaning, even without translation – communicates something essential to delicate negotiations.
“It's immediate. It's relatively easy to connect and to secure, but [is] still very personal. And basically everyone has a phone,” said a former national security official.
How a presidential phone call gets made is a story of technological advances coupled with careful research, negotiating skill, and a politician's gift (or lack of it) for grasping human psychology. Before Obama calls another world leader, an aide brings him a specially prepared National Security Council dossier. The package includes a closely held American intelligence portrait of the person he's going to call – including highly personal information about their personality, their health, and their loved ones. “Are they cool-headed? Or the opposite? Do they like to joke?” said one source familiar with the contents of the dossier.

Published: 12:01 am Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Last modified: 11:08 pm Monday, March 17, 2014

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