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McCain: Out of Touch, or Just Can't Touch-Type?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, September 15 2008

Friday, the Obama campaign released a new ad mocking John McCain for being so "out of touch" with current realities that "he admits he still doesn't know how to use a computer, can't send an e-mail." It seems as though a meme that started gaining traction back in June at the Personal Democracy Forum plenary, where Edwards blogger Tracy Russo lambasted McCain deputy internet director Mark Soohoo for defending McCain's admitted internet illiteracy, has now been embraced by Obama directly as a way to raise doubts about his rival's fitness for the White House.

Unfortunately, the language of the ad oversimplifies the issue (though it's hardly as big a distortion of the truth as McCain's recent attack ads). In fairness, McCain has not only admitted that he is tech-illiterate; in July he told the New York Times that "I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don't expect to be a great communicator, I don't expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need." Better late than never, right?

On the other hand, in that same Times interview, McCain stated, “I don’t e-mail, I’ve never felt the particular need to e-mail." He also said he did not use a BlackBerry, though he regularly reads messages on those of his aides.

The Obama ad's language has stirred up some conservative defenders of McCain, who think the words "can't send an email" betray an outrageous insensitivity to McCain's Vietnam war injuries. "The reason he doesn't send email is that he can't use a keyboard because of the relentless beatings he received from the Viet Cong in service to our country," huffed Jonah Goldberg on National Review Online's The Corner. LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm (who used to work for Laura Bush) wrote a post headlined: "Oops, Obama ad mocks McCain's inability to send e-mail. Trouble is, he can't due to tortured fingers."

ABC's Jake Tapper writes that this indeed is the problem, but that the McCain campaign discouraged him from writing about it. He reports, "typing on a keyboard for any sustained period of time bothers McCain physically." Tapper says it's possible the Obama campaign was not aware that McCain's disability hindered his use of keyboards, given how little McCain mentions the problem.

I don't know whether all of this is going to grow in importance, or be forgotten as the news-horde moves onto some new "issue." In my view, it's too bad the Obama team scrambled a serious question--is McCain up to speed on the Digital Age?--by using sloppy language that allows McCain's defenders to avoid it.

The issue is not whether the next President can send an email or knows how to get on a computer (though I do hope he or she knows enough to use a search engine and find things out for themselves once in a while). The issue is whether he understands how the world is being fundamentally transformed by the Internet; what this means for America's economy, society and government; and has a vision and a plan to keep America in the forefront of the Internet revolution. Or, as we put it a few months back, if he could be America's first techPresident. More on that question shortly.