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Once upon a time, politicians' vices in their college days lived on only in memory. Now they're floating around
cyberspace in photographs, videos and blog posts. Will it matter in 30 years when you're gunning for public office?
By Andrew Grossman I Managing News Editor
f my housemate ever runs for political
office, he's going to owe me some money.
When he stumbled in the door and
tripped and fell at about 3 a.m. Friday,
some of my other housemates pulled
out a small digital video camera. They
taped him rolling around on the floor,
showing off a hole he had managed to tear in
his pants. They taped him saying things like
"You wanna suck my nipples?" They taped
him tossing a glass of water at the camera.
They taped him, quite literally, drunk under
the table. The result?
A hilarious 7-minute clip that's now sitting in
my e-mail inbox, waiting to be forwarded. I'm
not planning on distributing it yet, but imagine
the possibilities. Who knows where my friend
will be in 30 years?
Twenty years ago, this would have been
something out of a science fiction film. Still
cameras were clunky and took no more than 36
pictures on one expensive roll of film. Handheld
video cameras were a novelty. And the Internet
was in its infancy, still the province of geeks and
Now cameras take hundreds of photos, fit into
pockets and purses and can have their contents
sent around the world in seconds. We wake up on
Sunday morning and log on to Facebook.com to
find pictures already posted of what happened
on Saturday night. And many of us detail the
minutiae of our lives on blogs.
None of this is news, of course. We've all
seen and heard endless commentary about the
YouTube revolution. Time Magazine recently
made you (me?) the Person of the Year. But all
this new media put together has one effect that
is only now becoming clear: Our generation
will have the most well-documented youth
in history. It used to be that you could escape
your past. Now it follows you everywhere, just
a Google search away.
There's a future president walking around on
a college campus somewhere in America. And
this person is probably having some fun, if the
White House's two most recent inhabitants are
Here's what I mean.
Picture this imaginary scene:
Sept. 1968. New Haven, Conn. Yale Univer-
sity. A young George W. Bush is at a party at his
fraternity. One drink leads to another, and he's
doing keg stands or taking long swigs on a bottle
of whiskey. Soon he's dancing on a table with two
Thirty-two years later, Bush runs for presi-
dent, courting the Christian conservative
vote. His past is, for the most part, buried.
Sure, he talks about it, but he controls the way
that it's revealed, because there isn't much
Remember, Bush almost lost the 2000 election
when news of his 1976 citation for drunk driving
broke.Karl Rove, the White House's senior politi-
cal adviser, famously said that the revelation cost
Bush four million votes from evangelical Chris-
tians. What if, instead of a few cryptic docu-
ments, CNN had shown a batch of photos of Bush
at Yale, where, according to a 1998 Newsweek
profile, he "seems to have majored in drinking?"
Would evangelical voters have been so easy to
recapture if the image of Bush doing keg stands
was burnt into their minds?
Bush isn't the only example. It's one thing for
presidential hopeful Barack Obama to say he
tried cocaine and learned from it. Winning the
electorate's forgiveness would be a lot harder for
him if there were photos of the experience float-
ing around in the ether, waiting for someone to
find them. And just imagine what Sen. Ted Ken-
nedy's career would look like if all of his friends
had carried digital cameras.
One University professor, though, says our
digital past might not be an entirely unshake-
School of Information Prof. Margaret Hed-
strom is an archivist. She studies the way people
store things. She has a "retrocomputing" lab on
North Campus cluttered with old computers -
think the Apple II from first grade - where she
tries to extract data from media that's become
obsolete. It's all pre-Internet, of course, but the
lab underscores the rapid speed at which tech-
nology is moving. Stuff that was cutting edge 10
years ago is locked away in a lab now. She's got
boxes of floppy disks that no one can read. Soon,
the flash card from your digital camera might be
in a box like that.
But the pictures will probably be out there
floating around, especially if you posted them
"You can't really count on anything," Hed-
strom said. "You can't necessarily count on it still
beingthere 10 years from now." But, she said, you
also can't count on being able to hide anything
once it's online - no matter how hard you try.
So, yes, someone could dig up your sinful past
and show it to voters when you're 55, but that
might be tough unless that person realizes your
potential now and saves the pictures for the next
All this will make for muchmore interesting -
and possibly more vicious - political campaigns
when our generation starts running for office.
Instead of having to destroy a few print photos
or keeping a college buddy quiet, a candidate
with a sketchy past will have to wait and hope
that the evidence of his or her 'youthful indiscre-
tions' that was posted on Facebook or Flickr in
2007 remains out in the ether, out of the reach of
Or maybe this will all be for the better. When
two people who have had their lives online since
high school run for president, the trivialities of
their pasts might become irrelevant. If both can-
didates know that a video of that rough night
junior year or pictures of the time they passed
out and had penises drawn all over them could
end up on the Drudge Report, might the mutu-
ally assured destruction be enough to introduce
a little bit of restraint into the system? Will vot-
ers become more forgiving? Or will it be only the
squeaky-clean candidates who can survive in an
age when the past isn't something that can be
buried, butis instead just waiting for someone to
stumble upon it.