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FCW Insider: Does it matter if McCain is Internet savvy?

So the blogosphere has been going haywire over a NYT interview with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) published on Sunday -- and many are intrigued by his acknowledgment that he just isn't that tech-savvy.

The piece, headlined McCain’s Conservative Model? Roosevelt (Theodore, That Is), is largely about how McCain runs against Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but here is the passage that has everybody all worked up:

He said, ruefully, that he had not mastered how to use the Internet and relied on his wife and aides like Mark Salter, a senior adviser, and Brooke Buchanan, his press secretary, to get him online to read newspapers (though he prefers reading those the old-fashioned way) and political Web sites and blogs.

“They go on for me,” he said. “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.”

Asked which blogs he read, he said: “Brooke and Mark show me Drudge, obviously. Everybody watches, for better or for worse, Drudge. Sometimes I look at Politico. Sometimes Real Politics.”

At that point, Mrs. McCain, who had been intensely engaged with her BlackBerry, looked up and chastised her husband. “Meghan’s blog!” she said, reminding him of their daughter’s blog on his campaign Web site. “Meghan’s blog,” he said sheepishly.

As he answered questions, sipping a cup of coffee with his tie tight around his neck, his aides stared down at their BlackBerries.

As they tapped, Mr. McCain said he did not use a BlackBerry, though he regularly reads messages on those of his aides. “I don’t e-mail, I’ve never felt the particular need to e-mail,” Mr. McCain said.

The news is not new. In fact, in the somewhat infamous CNN/YouTube debate, in a question by a cartoon of Dick Cheney asking about what authority the candidates would give their vice-president, McCain said the following:

McCain: Look, I am going to give you some straight talk. This president came to office in a time of peace, and then we found ourselves in 2001.

And he did not have as much national security experience as I do. So he had to rely more on the vice president of the United States, and that's obvious. I wouldn't have to do that. I might have to rely on a vice president that I select on some other issues. He may have more expertise in telecommunications, on information technology, which is the future of this nation's economy. He may have more expertise in a lot of areas.

But I would rely on a vice president of the United States -- but was Fred said, the primary responsibility is to select one who will immediately take your place is necessary. But the vice president of the United States is a key and important issue, and must add in carrying out the responsibilities of the president of the United States.

And there is even this wonderful video where the Republican candidates were asked the question: Mac or PC? (Mind you -- this is from late last year.)

But for some reason, the blogosphere got its collective engine going.
One of my favorite posts is from the SJMN's Good Morning Silicon Valley blog, under the post, Uh, Cindy, it’s one of those 3 a.m. crisis calls — can you sign me on to the Net?

OK, if he were the 72-year-old guy down the block, I could cut him some slack. Whatever age you are, if you don’t have any use for the Net, if you don’t want the hassle of learning all that new stuff, fine (and I mean that, Mom, despite the grief I give you). But if you’re running for the highest office in the land and one of the most powerful positions on earth, shouldn’t you at least know how to log on to the freakin’ Internet by yourself? “I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon.” Have it down fairly soon? It’s a double-click, Senator. A little closer together, sir — click-click. Sheesh. Ordinary folks from 3 to 103 have picked this up in minutes, and he’ll have it down fairly soon.

What bothers me is not so much that McCain is uninvolved with the technology, but that he’s willfully uninvolved — an aspiring 21st century leader who simply has neither the interest nor the initiative to take even the easiest steps toward personally participating in 21st century communication. To me, that’s a warning sign of a mind that has stopped exploring, content that it pretty much knows what it needs to know — a common enough quality, but not a good one in a leader.

And that raises an excellent question, which I pose to you: Does it matter if the president -- or any leader, for that matter -- is tech-savvy?

By way of background, President George W. Bush has said that he doesn't use e-mail, and neither does DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff nor former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez. I can hear some readers scoffing at the leadership abilities of these people. So let's venture to the other side of the isle because, from what I heard, President Bill Clinton wasn't a big Internet or e-mail guy. And by way of total contrast with all of them, it has been reported that some of the leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network don't use e-mail either.

So, again…is there a link between leadership and being tech-savvy? We've all been to a parade of conferences where it has become a truism that we should not use technology for technology's sake, but only if there is a real business reason. These days, I think that is becoming less true, to be honest, but if leaders don't see a good business reason to use e-mail or the Internet, why should they?

Perhaps GMSV's point -- that this is a "warning sign of a mind that has stopped exploring" -- is on the money. Yet we often hear that IT executives don't need to be technologists, they need to be leaders.

I guess my biggest concern is that it seems difficult to lead without being where your people are. Increasingly, that is online. And I think that will be increasingly true as government moves forward. How can you begin to understand government 2.0 if you aren't using the tools of government 1.0? And, frankly, I hearken back to a fascinating piece in The Atlantic magazine looking at how Obama campaign's Internet juggernaut might translate in to an Obama administration -- online fireside chats, perhaps? There seems to be opportunities ahead.

For me, technologies can seem too nondescript when they are explained. It can be difficult to understand the importance of technology if you don't use it in some form or fashion. (Try to explain a wiki or blog, for example -- but use one and it can be transformative.)

So…I put the question to you:

* Is there a link between leadership and tech-suaveness? If so, what is that link?
* Can a leader be successful -- can (s)he lead -- without being online?

What say you?

Posted by Christopher J. Dorobek on Jul 15, 2008 at 12:17 PM


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