ZDNet Government: 2016 was a heck of year, wasn't it?

Now that the Electoral College has confirmed America's new president. ZDNet Government's David Gewirtz marks the occasion with a look back on the weird, wild, wacky, insane year that was 2016.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

People have always been divisive, especially when it comes to political views. About six months after I started to use Facebook, I deleted all my friends and decided to stop using Facebook. The decision came about because my friends couldn't get along.

That didn't stick, because I'm a public personality. Now, instead of using Facebook to connect with friends, it has become another publishing medium.

Originally, the people I friended were my personal friends. They generally fell into two camps: the uber-liberal types from the academic and editorial circles I ran in, and the ultra-conservative types I spent time with in the security community.

For the first few months, this dichotomy didn't pose a problem. Then there was "the incident."

One of my liberal friends is about the sweetest, gentlest, kindest guy on the planet. His politics run somewhere between Bernie Sanders-style socialism and fairy tales.

One day, he made a post suggesting policy that was -- well -- unrealistic is a vast understatement. He genuinely cares about just about everyone and everything, and his wishes for policy reflect that compassion.

My conservative friends disemboweled him. They were brutal, unrelenting, and nasty. My liberal friend, who normally lives in a bubble with people who think like him, was completely taken aback by the hard-edged opinions of a group of people he rarely, if ever, encountered.

I realized then that it wasn't a good idea for me, as a political commentator, to use Facebook to connect my social friends. I decided that Facebook, for me, was going to be another broadcast medium. If personal friends connected, that would be okay, but I wasn't going to put diametrically opposed groups together in my feed on purpose.

I'm telling you this because 2016 has been a year where we've been about as oppositional as possible. This was a very, very messy year. It was ugly. It was partisan. There were very few people on either side willing to find common ground.

You may not recall, but we started the year with Apple pushing back against the FBI over whether or not they'd release code to decrypt a terrorist's iPhone.

The first few months were dominated by disagreement about whether or not all encryption technology should have a back door for government investigation. That issue is still afoot, but a lot more happened to make the encryption issue disappear under all the other chaos.

It wasn't just an election year. It was an election year like no other.

As someone who has published political analysis pretty much since the birth of the Internet, I felt more at risk than in any other election cycle.

Don't get me wrong. In previous election cycles, I got the usual death threats, letters sent to my editors demanding my firing, and long articles published on other sites disputing my membership in the human race. I'm used to that.

But this election cycle, the people I work with, in both the academic and national security worlds, were beyond hyper-partisan. Agreeing, even in part, with a policy statement made by a candidate on one side inspired actual hatred and derision by associates who identified with the other side.

It became nearly impossible to do traditional platform policy analysis, where elements of each party are held up to scrutiny, and the best of both are presented to readers for their edification.

Instead, I narrowed my politics-related focus to a topic that, in retrospect, seems so mundane as to almost be ridiculous, yet may well have swung an election: Hillary Clinton's email.

I had the best of justifications for my focus on this part of the debate: I, quite literally, wrote the book on White House email. Secretary Clinton's email use was different, of course, from that of the Bush White House.

Both used private servers, but while President Bush never used email himself, Mrs. Clinton was an active user. The Bush email story also had a lot more plausible deniability than did that of Hillary Clinton.

The GWB43 White House used an outside server in compliance with the antiquated Hatch Act. Secretary Clinton used an outside server in direct violation of State Department rules.

In 2016, I looked at the history of email use among Secretaries of State. While Facebook was loaded with fake stories about Condi Rice's use of email, it turns out she didn't use email at all in the State Department. Colin Powell did. He bypassed the internal mail system, but that was before State actually had a way for employees to access the Internet.

I also took a deep dive into FBI Director James Comey's July pronouncement about Mrs. Clinton's email usage. Although he released her from any criminal prosecution, his declaration of Mrs. Clinton's "extreme carelessness" was troubling for many voters.

Over the year, I got many letters from readers asking why I was looking into Hillary Clinton's email usage, but was not investigating many of the scandals swirling around Donald Trump. The answer was simple: Trump's issues, from Trump University to the infamous Access Hollywood recording, were topics better covered by news reporters than a tech analyst.

Speaking of Mr. Trump, we're all quite aware that he won the election and will be America's next president. While his success during the campaign was unexpected and unprecedented, he did get some help from Hillary Clinton herself.

As far back as August 2015, I looked at the email issues swirling around Hillary Clinton. Almost six months before the first primary, my analysis showed that Mrs. Clinton was unlikely to win and, if the Democrats wanted to retain the White House, she probably shouldn't run.

In an eerily prescient article entitled, "Email may not be Hillary's undoing, but it may be the straw that breaks her campaign's back," I predicted:

Hillary Clinton has had an amazing career and has been an amazing American. She was First Lady of the United States, Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. She could retire from public life now as a true success.

Or she could go down in flames and leave as her legacy not a litany of her accomplishments, but all that baggage and a never-ending stream of punch lines.

The legacy of 2016 is troubling. The divisiveness of this election season was apparent early on. It did not get any better. This could be a big challenge moving forward, because although any election is a battle among interests, government is supposed to be "of the people, for the people and by the people," as President Lincoln so eloquently said in the 272-word Gettysburg Address.

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It will be a challenge for President Trump, a man not normally inclined to subtle moves, to find a common ground. Unlike all previous presidents, Mr. Trump has a perfected a new and unprecedented way for a president to reach out to Americans, bypassing all the gatekeepers and advisors that normally weigh in before a presidential communication.

Through simple tweets, Donald Trump has transformed how a president can reach a populace. For all our sakes, let's hope it helps him bridge the divides that separate us, rather than push us farther apart.

It's time to close out my column, so I'll just make a brief mention of the multitude of cyberattacks, breaches, the specter of Russian interference in our election, and the Panama Papers. It has been a heck of a year.

As we wrap up 2016, I'll share some personal notes. For me, the year began with the loss of two family members. In October, much of the East Coast of the United States was Ground Zero for Hurricane Matthew. Some of us, here in Florida, were blown back to the Stone Age for a week or more. 2016 was a challenging year, personally, as well as a troubling year politically. But here we are.

As we move forward into 2017, my fervent hope is that we can heal some of our wounds, work together, and have a Happy New Year all year long. We sure deserve a bit of a break. I wish you all the best. Let's have a saner, simpler, more pleasant year.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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