Anna Quindlen: McCain Must Develop Cybersavvy

Honest Abe was a techie. Yep, it's true. President Lincoln pushed hard for the spread of telegraph lines across the country and used the new medium to make communications with his generals during the Civil War swift and specific. Sometimes he even slept on the couch in the telegraph office when he was monitoring battlefield conditions. In his book "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails," author Tom Wheeler brings the language of Silicon Valley to Gettysburg. "Lincoln's early-adopter instincts," he writes, "coupled with his being unburdened by the old dogmas, allowed him to outperform his generals in the ability to see change and harness it to his purpose."

Paging John McCain. Or at least calling him. Because he doesn't text-message. Or have a BlackBerry. Or use e-mail. Anyhow, he might want to pay more attention to Lincoln's successful future-think.

When the Republican candidate described himself earlier this year as a computer illiterate who had never gone online, it just made him look odd. And old. Of course, that's not fair. Both my father and my mother-in-law are somewhat older than McCain (although indubitably young at heart), and both of them have been using e-mail for years. While only one in three Americans over the age of 65 goes online, surveys of McCain's peer group—older, white, well educated—find the number rises to three out of four. Almost half of Americans say they've used the Internet, e-mail or text messaging to follow this presidential election. It's as though the senator had been invited to a massive rally of tens of millions of voters, and was reluctant to attend because getting there might be a bit of a hassle.

But McCain's explanation, that he depended on aides and his wife to show him what's in cyberspace, didn't only make him seem behind the curve. It made him seem Out of It. And that's important, because Out of It is what Americans cannot afford in a president at this moment. OOI describes too many of our leaders, in business and industry as well as politics. It means that manufacturing executives don't get ahead of the curve of consumer desires, that government-agency heads are often blind to how their policies really work for ordinary people, and that political figures can be insensible to undercurrents because they are always sailing over the mainstream.

The Internet can help. Sure, like any other medium it's often full of garbage, from get-rich-quick schemes that prey on those credulous enough to reveal their Social Security number, to snarky gossip blogs that chart the sex lives of people you've never heard of. A whole shaker of salt is needed for much of the material you read. But there's lots of interesting stuff, too, and lots of places that drill down into the collective mind of America. Any columnist who doesn't read comments about her work online is missing an opportunity to take the people's pulse. (By the way, she's already been told many times that she's a left-wing idiot.) If deposed McCain adviser Phil Gramm had spent some time reading posts about people's real fear of insolvency, he wouldn't have been so cavalier in referring to America as "a nation of whiners" and suggesting the recession is all in our heads.

But Gramm is a lobbyist, one of the black-sedan guys whose feet rarely touch the ground of a supermarket or gas station. That's how corporate executives crash and burn sometimes, estranged from the grass roots of both the company and the marketplace by business lunches and private jets. Those let-them-eat-cake moments occur in the public eye for those in high office. Who can forget the first President Bush, flummoxed by a supermarket scanner, or Hillary Clinton, staging a photo op at a gas station and admitting it had been a while since she pumped her own? Power isolates, and no more so than in politics. When McCain was asked to avow Mac or PC and replied "neither"—a totally great response if the question had been "boxers or briefs?"—he said he relied on operatives to parse Web content. It sounded pretty last-generation, like those execs who have their assistants print out the e-mail. Maybe that's why the McCain camp has suddenly gotten aggressive on the tech defense front, putting out a recent statement that says the candidate is now "becoming more familiar with the Internet." Good thing. It's America's keyhole. It pays to listen.

The president of the United States in 2008 can't afford to be OOI. That's more dangerous than a CEO of a big automaker who doesn't go into disgruntled-buyer chat rooms, or the chief executive of a pharma company who hasn't read the personal complaints about uncommon side effects online. In the intelligence community, America's tech shortcomings have been an open secret for years. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the head of the National Security Agency went on television and described the United States as "behind the curve in keeping up with the global telecommunications revolution."

So McCain's admission that he was behind the same curve raises a larger, more troubling question: if Osama bin Laden beat us with a laptop, shouldn't we at least have a president who is reasonably conversant with one? After all, some historians believe that one of the reasons the North prevailed during the Civil War is because Lincoln was savvy enough to use the most sophisticated means of communication available. If Senator McCain wants to know how it turns out for those who aren't as adaptable, he could take a look at Jefferson Davis. You can Google him. If you do that sort of thing. Or even know what it means.