Lincoln Was No Luddite

And neither is John McCain

The New York Times’s Sunday story about John McCain’s technological naivete makes an important point, even if its author doesn’t quite seem to believe it himself. Stating that McCain “does not text, Treo or Twitter,” Mark Leibovich then continues:

“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.”

Leibovich makes the valid distinction between two qualities that have often been conflated in McCain coverage: 1) being something of a Luddite and 2) being out of touch. That the former quality sometimes seems to gesture towards proof of the latter—remember “the Internets,” courtesy of George W. Bush?—isn’t reason enough for reporters to slap the two together.

As consumers and creators of visual and psychological portraits, reporters seem instinctively eager to note the origins of what might become a larger political problem, regardless of how tenuous the associations might be. (Remember the political damage caused by John Edwards’s $400 haircut?). That dot-connecting instinct makes it all too easy to create an optic that resonates even if it’s not necessarily true.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how some reporters were tempted to link Obama’s writing ability with his leadership potential. The McCain-as-hapless-Luddite portrait is the flip side of the same coin. The inability of his fingers to dance nimbly over the keys of a Blackberry is as irrelevant to his leadership capabilities as is Obama’s agility as a writer. (And as the Times article states, a president doesn’t have to be tech-savvy; that’s why he has a full-time staff.) Leibovich presents the contrarian hypothetical portrait of a president fettered by technology, not aided by it:

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?

This is too facile a sketch, because it furthers the silly conflation of tech proficiency and cultural (or policy-oriented) fluency. Still, it leads Leibovich to his conclusion, namely, that this “text, Treo or Twitter” stuff doesn’t really matter. But there remain hazier questions about whether or not McCain is “out of touch,” and what the appropriate metric to gauge that might be. The dishearteningly ridiculous McCain ad that puts Obama in the august company of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears was somehow meant to show that Obama himself was “out of touch.” But how is McCain the Luddite any less silly, or his “out of touch” factor ultimately any more determinable?

Somewhere in this discussion, there is still a legitimate point to make about how technology can help with a leader’s preparedness. And Leibovich does a good job with this by throwing in a reference to Lincoln’s mastery of the telegraph machine, which “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.” That slight separation between personal practice and efficiency in political office is a declaration. And reporters in their coverage will need to reach further than the McCain Tech Bloopers Archive to make that point today.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.