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High-tech surrounds Bush

He's interested in but not dazzled by the latest gadgets

WASHINGTON — No pager or PDA hangs off his belt, and there's no cell phone in his suit pocket.

President Bush, like many world leaders and business titans, relies on aides to carry the high-tech gizmos that are a staple of modern life. That's just fine by Bush, described as intrigued by what technology can do but not necessarily with the gadgets themselves.

Through his staff, he has access to the most advanced technologies. The president, for example, doesn't experiment with digital cameras, but a professional White House photographer is always nearby. He doesn't need to deal with online banking or shopping because his personal aide handles that for him.

He doesn't cart around today's keep-in-touch tools because someone is always nearby with communication equipment, and secure telephone lines are set up everywhere he goes by a White House office created just for that purpose.

"He's not one of these who has to have the latest and greatest model," said communications director Dan Bartlett, a close presidential confidant and a 10-year Bush employee. He placed Bush "about mainstream" on the spectrum of people who can barely operate their VCR to those always eager for technology's latest rage.

For Bush, who came to the White House with an MBA degree and a desire to run government like a business, technology has more a functional than recreational appeal.

Earlier this year, for instance, when a reporter touring Bush's ranch showed off a new camera-equipped personal digital assistant, the president responded with little more than polite interest. "Oh, fantastic," he said. "I notice telephones have got that now."

Bush's aides say he hasn't shown any desire to download music from the Internet or buy a portable digital music player. No one has seen a digital television recording system in either his White House or Texas residences.

Instead, as an example of his personal use of technology, several cited Bush's affinity for good fishing gear, such as a GPS navigation device, fish-finders and depth readers on his boat — equipment that has been around for years.

Still, Bush is not out of techno-touch.

He was once a prolific e-mailer. It was only after lawyers told him his presidential e-mail communications would become subject to legal and archival requirements that he signed off from cyberspace, just before taking office in January 2001. The president's staff, even at the highest levels, remain e-mail users despite the requirements.

On the way back from a recent Europe and Middle East trip, Bush excitedly pointed out a new videoconferencing system on Air Force One that now allows real-time, secure conversations via a wall-mounted screen in his airborne office.

Bush also loves Camp David's similar but even-snazzier system, which has a voice-detecting camera that turns toward whoever is speaking. During one early wartime session when British Prime Minister Tony Blair was visiting, the president was said to be impressed at the ability to simultaneously pull in commanders from the field, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld from the Pentagon and Blair's people back at 10 Downing Street in London.

"He's no Al Gore," said one Bush aide, comparing his boss to the former vice president known for his love of high-tech gadgetry, "but he's very serious about having all this stuff work."

So Bush's staff has worked overtime to upgrade White House technology. In part, the effort is in recognition of the president's well-known irritation with inefficiencies such as phone lines dropping in mid-conversation or unreachable staffers.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the president crisscrossed the country on Air Force One amid a maze of confusing developments, spurred on the effort to modernize White House communications, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin said.

Most changes have focused on adding clarity, reach and consistency to communications systems, Hagin said.

Air Force One also now has airborne e-mail access and a satellite television system that can pipe in news — or the baseball games Bush enjoys. Hagin took the White House's cell phone technology digital, upgraded the systems in the president's cars and moved staffers to the Blackberry wireless communicator, while not freeing them from carrying pagers as well.

And the West Wing's Roosevelt Room got a big boost with the addition of its own secure videoconferencing system, hidden in a nice piece of furniture, and other "corporate boardroom-type stuff" such as PowerPoint capability, complete Internet connectivity and 20 phone lines, Hagin said.

"We deal in an age when information is pretty much instantaneous," Hagin said. "To be behind is not helpful."