The self-described “Neanderthal” of the Grand Old Party (emphasis, old) has been catching flack for admitting that he is no techno-geek. He not only did not invent the Internet, he can barely use it.
“I don’t expect to set up my own blog,” he told the New York Times reporters Adam Nagourney and Michael Cooper. The Times has learned that Mr. McCain does not text, Treo or Twitter, either.
How would he possibly spend his time in the White House?
We joke, but the serious question — and one that has occupied many of the blogs and discussion groups that Mr. McCain does not partake of — is whether the computing habits of the presumptive Republican nominee should have any bearing at all on his fitness to be commander in chief.
While 73 percent of American adults use the Internet (only 35 percent 65 or older), according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, it’s likely that many of them would rather have a president who can get Osama bin Laden than get online. And there is a common belief that says being president should be more a “vision” job than a “management” job, and that the clutter of a digital life can only distract from the Big Picture and Deep Thoughts a leader should be concerned with. In other words, would we really want a president “friending” from the Oval Office, scouring Wikipedia for information on Iran’s nuclear program or fielding e-mail from someone claiming to be “Nigerian general” seeking an American bank account for embezzled millions?
As a practical matter, probably not. Presidents can avoid using computers if they want to. That’s one of the privileges of the office. They are surrounded by a staff entrusted with keeping them plugged in, day and night.
So why have Mr. McCain’s admissions of digital illiteracy sparked such ridicule in wiseguy circles?
Computers have become something of a cultural marker — in politics and in the real world. Proficiency with them suggests a basic familiarity with the day-to-day experience of most Americans — just as ignorance to them can suggest someone is “out of touch,” or “old.”
“We’re not asking for a president to answer his own e-mail,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley futurist who teaches at Stanford. “We’re asking for a president who understands the context of what e-mail means.”
The “user experience,” Mr. Saffo said, brings with it an implicit understanding of how the country lives, and where it might be heading. As Mr. McCain would lack this, he would also be deficient in this broader appreciation for how technology affects lives.
There will always be people who take great delight in the powerful betraying cluelessness over technology. When Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, was indicted last week on charges of filing false financial disclosures, the news was met with reminders that he once referred to the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Some mocked President Bush, too, when he referred to his using “the Google” and “the Internets.” Mr. Bush used to e-mail but gave it up when he became president because of concerns about security and a paper trail — the same things, presumably, a successor would consider.
In the rarefied context of the Oval Office, however, there can be great value in having a president who has an intuitive sense of how a technology works, said Tom Wheeler, a telecommunications entrepreneur and investor who wrote the recent book “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of how Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War.”
“I don’t think it’s so much a question of what a president is doing today,” Mr. Wheeler said. “It’s a question of how responsive are you to the fact that there will be continuing technological change during your term.”
Mr. Wheeler, a supporter and fundraiser for Mr. McCain’s Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, said that Lincoln was the model of a president who embraced technology. Lincoln’s mastery of the telegraph machine not only put him well ahead of most of his constituents on the technology curve but also allowed him to speak directly to his generals and track their actions.
Lincoln gave a speech in 1860 that said the United States’ responsiveness to new technology was the chief virtue separating it from Europe. The speech begins, “All creation is a mine, and every man a miner.”
It’s no surprise that Mr. McCain — standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln — has moved to press delete on the notion that he is a Luddite.
“I do understand the importance of the computer,” Mr. McCain reassured in The San Francisco Chronicle last week. “I understand the importance of the blogs.” He said, “I am forcing myself — let me put it this way, I am using the computer more and more every day.” But keeping up with technology “doesn’t mean that I have to e-mail people,” he said. “Now, I read e-mails.” The staff is “constantly showing them to me as the news breaks during the day.”
This was a decidedly different Mr. McCain from the one who said in South Carolina last year that it was important for leaders to communicate with bloggers, “as painful as that might be.”
Or the Mr. McCain who in an interview with Fortune magazine two years ago called himself a “Neanderthal” about computers, in contrast to his wife, Cindy, whom he called a “wizard.”
“She even does my boarding passes — people can do that now,” Mr. McCain marveled. “When we go to the movies, she gets the tickets ahead of time. It’s incredible.”
Mr. McCain’s sense of wonder evoked the episode in the early 1990s when George H. W. Bush became overly impressed upon seeing a price scanner at a supermarket check-out counter. It suggested to some people that the president, who had spent four years in the White House after spending eight years as vice president, was out of touch with the lives of average Americans.
The McCain campaign is sensitive to the notion that his limited knowledge of computing could be taken as a signal that he is blind to technology.
“You don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country,” said Mark Soohoo, a McCain aide for online matters, at a conference on politics and technology. “You actually do,” interrupted Tracy Russo, a former blogger for John Edwards.
Not knowing how to use a computer could reinforce a notion that Mr. McCain subscribes to the old-way-of-thinking, said Michael Feldman, a veteran of the Clinton White House and a top aide to former Vice President Al Gore. It creates a problematic “optic” for the McCain campaign, Mr. Feldman said, especially when juxtaposed with the younger Mr. Obama, frequently photographed with BlackBerry on his belt clip.
“There’s a certain tempo to the thinking of someone who uses all kinds of new media,” said Mr. Saffo, who said he would anoint Mr. Obama, if elected, “the first cybergenic president,” just as John F. Kennedy was considered the first telegenic president.
McCain supporters point out that his ranking position on the Senate Commerce Committee has steeped him in issues important to the technology sector.
“If John McCain needs to rely on a young staffer to set up his Facebook page, then so be it,” said Ed Kutler, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to the cybersavvy former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I can live with that.”