Extending its coverage of Hillary Clinton and her personal email account, The New York Times turns the spotlight to “a small circle of members of Congress who shape 21st-century policy and legislation but do not actually send or receive email.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, exposed the group on Sunday when he said on Meet the Press that he has never sent an email in his life. “I don’t know what that makes me,” he told host Chuck Todd, seeming embarrassed only by his neglect to bring a pocket-knife and whittling stick to the interview.
The Times also elicited a boast by Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democrat from New York: “‘Maybe once every four months, I do one email,’ he said, with evident relish.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, says he limits his emails to “short things” like “Thanks.” We also learn that Ted Kennedy had no use for his Blackberry when he was in the Senate.
Politico ran its own story on the “Luddite caucus” in the Senate, including Republicans Pat Roberts of Kansas, Richard Shelby of Alabama, and John McCain of Arizona. (McCain uses Twitter but doesn’t like “to communicate with people” with email.)
You might have noticed that all of these examples are men. No women are mentioned in the Politico story, but the two women quoted by the Times are bemused by their Ron Swanson–like colleagues. “I can’t imagine how I could do my job without the ability to communicate on a constant basis,” says Democrat Claire McKaskill of Missouri. “Yes, of course I email—I’m modern, I’m contemporary, I’m hot, I’m hip,” says 78-year-old Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
Based on my work experience, this seems right. There are plenty of dudes who seem to type everything that pops into their heads, but the holdouts against the digital word are almost all self-styled men of action. (Peggy Noonan once described the ideal as “masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things.” They don’t type things.)
The aversion to leaving a paper trail—and in our paperless age, that trail is made up of saved emails—reminds me of Boston political boss Martin Lomasney, who advised public officials, “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.” Fittingly, Tom Menino was famous for never having a work computer during his 20 years (1993-2014) as mayor in Boston. One reason, he said in one of his last interviews in office, was the Freedom of Information Act—“used too frequently and too haphazardly.” (Hillary Clinton may have similar thoughts.)
In the Times story, Sen. Shelby explains his aversion to the keyboard: “The best thing is person-to-person, like I’m talking to you.” Sen. Schumer has similar thoughts: “I like to communicate by talking directly to people. I find it’s an important part of humanity to understand not just the words that are said, but how they’re said, the tone they’re said in, the speed they’re said with.”
Almost everyone has had the frustration of dealing with co-workers only via the Internet. (“Did it mean something that he ended ‘thank you’ with a period instead of an exclamation point?”, I’ve asked myself.) Bloodless communication is only getting more pervasive as more people telecommute and as more people conduct business online. So I can understand what Schumer is saying. At least, as much as I can when his words are only on my computer screen.
I’m not likely to hear Schumer explain himself in person. Few citizens can pick up the phone and spend a few minutes chatting with an elected official, let alone get some face-to-face time with him. If you’re not a campaign contributor, it’s not so easy to get a handshake and the chance to look into a U.S. senator’s eyes and tell your story about losing health benefits or trying to get zoning variances for your small business. Email is not only about transparency in government; it’s also a broadening of democracy in making it faster and cheaper to voice your concerns to public officials.
Getting back to gender, always a risky proposition, my experience has been that it’s almost always men who brag about having thousands of unread emails in their inbox. And it is bragging, a way of saying you’re too busy dealing with important people to bother with requests from nobodies. Women have traditionally been the ones who have to solve problems instead of waving them away with “make an appointment with my secretary” or “talk to my assistant [or, worse, ‘my girl’] about that.” It may never occur to female legislators that making an argument through a polite and reasoned email—instead of through intimidation and LBJ-style body language—is beneath them. That would be one good reason to elect more women to office, along with men who see no reason to brag about being technophobic.