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CTIA Show: A Place To Connect With History

Trade shows are the place to connect with your industry, but the CTIA Wireless show has become a place to connect with the movers and shakers of world history.

This year, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton shared the stage on the third day of CTIA Wireless. They were the latest in a long line of historic figures to headline the third day’s keynote session, and I hope they won’t be the last.

In years past, Mikhail Gorbachev, former British PM John Major, Colin Powell, and Jimmy Carter made keynote speeches on the last day of the show, and some years ago, a satellite-phone company sponsored a private event at which I heard Neil Armstrong speak.

(Dear Mr. Armstrong: I met Buzz Aldrin a few years ago, and he autographed a picture of the two of you planting the American flag on the moon. I will donate to your favorite charity if I could get your autograph on the same picture. Name the place. I’ll be there.)

At this year’s show, former president Bush made a return appearance. He and Barbara Bush took the stage some years back, after which he visited some manufacturer booths. At the Nokia booth, I got a chance to shake hands and chat a bit about my uncle, who was on the conning tower of the submarine that rescued the former president after his plane was shot down over the Pacific by the Japanese. My uncle guided the sub to him.

President Bush’s handshake was firm the last time we met. This year, at age 83, his gait was a little less steady, his voice not as strong. But he made a few points about the impact of communications technology on history and his presidency. Bush recalled how, from his home in Maine, he spoke with world leaders when Iraq invade Kuwait and how he was able to call Gorbachev during the military coup that ultimately led to the demise of the U.S.S.R.

Bush also recalled a conversation with former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who recalled a conversation in the early 80s with West Germany’s Helmut Kohl, who became West German chancellor in the late 80s and presided over the unification of East and West Germany. In that conversation, Kohl told Mulroney that West German TV commercials beamed to East Germany would ultimately lead to Communism’s demise. The commercials depicted the West’s prosperity and freedom and contrasted sharply with a “bankrupt” Communist system.

On another topic, Bush claimed “there are things greater and far more important that individual politics.” The press’s relationship with the presidency is “uglier than I remember” and is turning people off to a life in politics, he also said. “I’ve never seen it as harsh and mean as it is now for the president.”

Clinton picked up on this theme. It’s “good for us” to disagree, but “when these differences get rigidified to the point where we become enemies…then the political system and country begin to atrophy.”

Back on topic, the now-white-haired Clinton talked about the role of information technology (IT), including telecom technology, in promoting economic well-being. In the 70s, when the U.S. was being integrated into the world economy, the growth of median wages was flat through the 90s, when they “rose vigorously for four years and then flattened in my second term,” he said. Median wages “rose not because of my economic genius,” he said. “They rose because of information technology.” He later said he created the conditions that enabled the IT industry to grow vigorously. I’m not sure if he was referring to the taxes he hiked while we were coming out of a recession, his signing of the telecom deregulation bill passed by his adversaries in Congress, or other things.

IT accounted for 7 percent of employment but 28 percent of economic growth between 1996 and 2000, Clinton said. Average economic growth was 4 percent, but the IT sector grew 21 percent during that time, he continued.

IT and other technologies are reshaping the world in other ways, he added. “It’s highly unlikely that the 21st century will claim as many lives” as the 20th century did, he said, but in the 21st century,” we all feel the victims can be us…because of technology.”

On a personal note, Clinton said wireless technology enables him to be in contact with his wife every day.

Perhaps the most impressive keynote headliner in years past was Mikhail Gorbachev, who made quite a few points through an interpreter during a Q&A session. He said he was still an atheist. He said he wanted to save communism and the U.S.S.R. by reforming them. He said Boris Yeltsin wanted the U.S.S.R. to break up after the botched military coup because after a breakup, Yeltsin would head up the most powerful country within the former Soviet Union. Gorbachev called Ronald Reagan “a great president” even though his first impressions were that the former president was a “dinosaur.” He said he knew communism’s days were numbered when he realized that the U.S.S.R. could not afford a missile-defense program on the scale that Reagan had undertaken.

When he took the stage, former PM John Major said he was turned out of office simply because voters got tired of the same old faces after so many years of Conservative Party government (not that the party ran out of ideas). For his part, Jimmy Carter positively glowed when he said he never fired a shot at another country during his term in office. (It might’ve been because our military was in such sad shape back then.) He was also proud about his role in deregulating the U.S. economy, although bills toward that end were percolating up from the Democrat Congress during Jerry Fords’ years, including a bill from Ted Kennedy.

As for Neil Armstrong, I was overwhelmed. The man who first set foot on the moon was speaking about mankind’s voyages throughout history to new worlds – and the technologies that got them there. I remember he said that Apollo 11 had less computing power on board than some of the first personal computers. And I remembered how I felt on a rainy night when the words “Armstrong on moon” flashed on the TV screen in black and white.