Keys to leadership

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2008, 12:00am

Time and again during the US presidential campaign, septuagenarian Republican Party contender John McCain has shown how technologically unsavvy he is. He has said he is illiterate when it comes to computers, online jokes were sparked last month when an aide said the candidate was 'aware of the internet' and, on Sunday in an interview with The New York Times, he admitted that he does not use e-mail and needs help to browse the Web.

Senator McCain's awkwardness with what many of us take for granted is not shared by his Democratic Party rival, Barack Obama - who is 25 years younger. The 46-year-old Illinois senator has a Blackberry and a laptop with him wherever he goes, and is frequently seen sending e-mails or browsing the Net on the go.

In the circumstances, Americans will never receive an e-mail from Senator McCain, be able to check out his blog or read a posting by him on an internet forum. Questions have inevitably been raised about his ability to be president when he seems to have little feel for 21st-century communications and culture. He is just too old and out of touch for the job, some people argue.

This was also my reaction in January when the politician, asked by and Yahoo News whether he preferred a Mac or a PC, replied: 'Neither - I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all the assistance that I can get.' In response to the Times' question: ' Do you use a Blackberry or e-mail?', his response was an immediate 'no', but senior adviser Mark Salter chipped in that he used a Blackberry carried by campaign staff. The senator elaborated: 'I use the Blackberry, but I don't e-mail, I've never felt the particular need to e-mail. I read e-mails all the time, but the communications that I have with my friends and staff are oral and done with my cell phone. I have the luxury of being in contact with them literally all the time.' Allow me to be pedantic. Senator McCain clearly does not know what a Blackberry is. Without using its e-mail function, it is nothing but a glorified mobile phone - and he said in the same breath that he used his phone to communicate with his staff.

Such revelations would have been acceptable a decade ago. To say that your grandfather does not use e-mail is still understandable. (This said, my 77-year-old mother makes a trip to the public library in her Australian city each Friday to send me an e-mail; while there, she catches up with her 83-year-old friend who goes there to Google for recipes.) To be computer or internet illiterate in 2008 - and to openly admit it on the presidential campaign trail - is surely political suicide.

That view is not one shared by leadership guru Michael Maccoby, author of books like The Leaders We Need and a teacher on the subject at Oxford University and the Washington-based think-tank, the Brookings Institution. While I do not fancy Senator McCain's chances of becoming president - his campaign lacks the co-ordination of Senator Obama's - I agree with Dr Maccoby's opinion that it takes more than a Facebook page and a constantly updated blog to lead the world's most powerful nation.

For example, although US President George W. Bush was an avid e-mailer when he took office, he no longer sends messages because of security concerns. (We will excuse remarks he has made over the years referring to there being 'rumours on the internets' and using 'the Google'.)

Dr Maccoby rightly argued from his Washington home on Tuesday that using the internet had nothing to do with making the right kind of decisions. What need did Senator McCain have for such technology if he could get people to provide him with the information he wanted and get him on to the internet if required? The real question, he suggested, was how in touch Senator McCain was with the changing world and the trends affecting it.

Not being tied to a computer, the Vietnam war veteran has one of the most important assets for a politician - time - on his side. Delegation is a major leadership skill and he also obviously has that. His biggest challenge then, is not technology, but ensuring that he is surrounded by competent people.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor