Thursday, July 17, 2008

Does it matter if McCain is email illiterate?

It's McCain Week here on the Jac blog, apparently.

Yesterday I talked about whether John McCain's aging brain will make him too old to be president, but the buzz right now is around the fact that he doesn't know how to use a computer.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, it seems like a clear negative for the same reason that the former President Bush's supposed unfamiliarity with a supermarket scanner was a negative. In fact, it's much worse for a couple reasons: (1) The Bush/scanner story wasn't really fair to Bush. He was apparently humoring some grocers who were demonstrating a new-and-improved scanner at a technology exhibit. The basis of the McCain/computer story is several straightforward admissions by McCain himself, so you can't really say it's unfair. (2) Computers and the internet are approximately a zillion times more important than supermarket scanners.

On the other hand, to the extent that it's a negative at all, most voters will see it as a very slight negative. In 2000, one of the most biggest raps against Bush was his verbal slip-ups. (This was largely a proxy for intelligence, but the media was reluctant to make that point head-on because "intelligence" is so subjective and difficult to prove.) Do you think that really hurt Bush? Or did it help him by focusing people's attention on an extremely minor shortcoming instead of the major ones? It was also easy for the candidate and his surrogates to laugh it off and segue into "what the American people really care about."

And it was easy for us voters to engage in the sloppy reasoning that "If that's the worst they can say about him, he can't be all bad!"

But I think Jonathan Chait has a key point about why McCain's computer illiteracy, and particularly his email illiteracy, might actually matter:

I wonder if it's actually possible to be an effective president today without being able to access email or the internet. McCain's entire staff surely uses email to communicate virtually everything with each other. If McCain is never in the electronic loop, how is he supposed to manage that staff? All those stories about the chaotic nature of his campaign -- "a swirl of competing spheres of influence, clusters of friends, consultants and media advisers who represent a matrix of clashing ambitions and festering feuds" -- actually make a lot more sense if you factor in McCain's total lack of emailing skill.
Here's the problem: "out of the loop in his own organizational structure" is unlikely to have the kind of resonance with the public as something like "flip-flopper" or "lefty."

But it seems pretty important. Someone who does a bad job at seeing the big picture of what everyone on his staff is saying, and who's faced with "a swirl of competing spheres of influence," might want to cut the Gordian knot by selecting a few advisors to fall back on. Isn't this more likely if the president isn't communicating with people by email?

Of course, even if McCain isn't able to sit down at a computer and email people, he could theoretically get around this by having incoming messages printed out for him to read, and dictating his outgoing messages. That's better than nothing, but it just doesn't seem good enough. If you have to miss an important meeting, it's nice to be able to read the minutes, but you really missed out by not being in the thick of things -- an active participant instead of a passive observer after the fact.

It used to be common to criticize email for taking us away from real life. But that cliche has become a moot point. For better or for worse, email is real life now, and it's only going to become more and more ubiquitous.

Back to the point about the connection between email illiteracy and loyalty. (I don't necessarily consider "loyalty" a positive term.) If I'm right about that, then that raises another question: Do we want a president who latches onto a few especially trusted advisors and gets his information heavily filtered through them? Didn't we invade Iraq because Bush was faced with an unwieldy ideological civil war within his administration and felt the need to use "loyalty" to a few of the more hawkish figures as a shortcut to avoid sifting through the details himself?

3 comments:

Anne said...

I understand what you're saying, but our country has, for a majority of its history, been run by presidents with just as much or as little access to information as John McCain will be if he doesn't learn to surf the internet and check email.

Using the inability (or disinclination) to use a computer to insinuate poor leadership just won't fly with a majority of voters. The younger set? Sure. But there are still many voters who can remember life without computers and empathize with McCain. Like myself. And I'm 32.

And heck, what politician has time to send their own email anyway? Didn't Barack Obama even have a staffer email Scarlett Johanson?

AJ Lynch said...

I suspect many many long-serving senators are not computer -savvy.

It is a result of having their needs met by their senate staffs IMO.

Not that surprising if you recall CNN's Larry King's comment about the internet.

vbspurs said...

JAC wrote:

McCain's entire staff surely uses email to communicate virtually everything with each other. If McCain is never in the electronic loop, how is he supposed to manage that staff?

Wasn't this also the case with President Clinton, who confessed in his rather longwinded autobiography, that he doesn't like or use computers?

Since I wrote President Clinton an email back in 1997, I'm fairly sure the White House staff were computer literate back then. His Presidency was judged to be a success by many, then I don't think his lack of computing skills prevented him from executing his duties as President.

Of course, even if McCain isn't able to sit down at a computer and email people, he could theoretically get around this by having incoming messages printed out for him to read, and dictating his outgoing messages.

Remember that he's also been a very well-regarded legislator in the Senate for many years. Many of those years (1990-2008) were lived through the height of the information revolution discussed here.

Though nothing can compare to the job of the US President, I daresay if he can handle the intricacies of communication well during this time, that if he's elected, he will have few problems along those lines, as President.

You know, John F. Kennedy suffered from dyslexia (it is fair to say, though he was never diagnosed). But the man was a speedreader who devoured books at an alarming rate, even if he couldn't spell well.

The point is that negatives can be overcome by sheer will, discipline, and an organised mind.

I sense John McCain has these executive attributes, in spades.

Cheers,
Victoria