03.10.09

John McCain Discovers Technology a Year Too Late

The notoriously tech-unsavvy senator’s staff set up his account for him, but the real McCain soon took over—and now his pork tweets are the talk of Washington.

John McCain has an articulate, reasoned argument against earmarks. He shares this view—point by point—with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), an antiwar liberal generally much beloved by the liberal blogosphere. A week ago, the two lawmakers held a joint press conference to introduce a line-item veto measure, which they expressly intend as a way for Obama to individually veto each one of the some 9,000 “directed spending measures,” aka earmarks, which haunt the omnibus spending bill.

Covering McCain’s presidential bid, I found him to be tough, sarcastic, funny, opinionated, impatient, and righteous. Twitter’s 140-character format exacerbates of all those traits.

But Feingold isn’t routinely mocked for “hating” science, or Guam, or libraries, as McCain is, despite his equally passionate opposition to earmarks that fund things like science, and Guam, and libraries.

What’s the difference? McCain Twitters. Lately, he’s been doing almost daily top-ten lists of the omnibus bill’s “porkiest projects.”

McCain’s embrace of the micro-blogging social network—he’s posted updates 173 times since starting his account in late January—has little to do with the frenetic “friending” model my fellow Beastian Mark McKinnon wrote about last month. Rather, McCain uses Twitter much as, well, I do: a personal mini-soapbox/stand-up gig/snark in 140 characters or less. Notoriously tech-unsavvy, the computerless McCain seems an unlikely early adopter. But, as McCain was fond of saying (and saying and saying) on the campaign trail, “If you live long enough, anything can happen.”

Actually, McCain’s Twittering career took off quickly once it started.

Though his Twittering initiative—Twitnitiative?—began life under the direction of his communications staff, he quickly became enamored with the service and started texting the messages in himself. “He LOVES it,” says Brooke Buchanan, his communications director. “LOVES it.”

McCain’s ready adoption of Twitter seems incongruous only if you don’t know McCain. He has an omnivorous and hyper intellect, and a quick wit—and is easily bored. During the campaign, critics compared McCain’s off-line life unfavorably with the email-addicted Obama, but frankly, I wonder if email is too slow for him.

I did ask a staffer why the campaign didn’t take advantage of McCain’s apparent ease with rapid-fire texting during the campaign. Wouldn’t it have helped counter the allegation that he was old and out of touch? “Think of the difference it might have made,” I said. The staffer replied quickly and sourly: “No, it wouldn’t have made a difference at all.”

It’s true that McCain’s adventures on Twitter haven’t changed my own opinion of him. Covering his presidential bid, I found him to be tough, sarcastic, funny, opinionated, impatient, and righteous. Twitter’s 140-character format exacerbates of all those traits. His asides about those “porky” projects have the flavor of someone mouthing off in class: “#6. $100,000 for the regional robotics training center in Union, SC—Does R2D2 or CP30 know about this?” and “#8. $200,000 ‘tattoo removal violence outreach program to help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past’ REALLY?”

Perhaps it’s that tone of wise-assery that’s made McCain’s pork tweets such catnip to liberal bloggers (and liberal Tweeters), who have made a cottage industry of defending many of the projects McCain mocks. They remind him that “pig odor research” is a real need in Iowa and contend that even the Kansas City Jazz Museum would create jobs.

McCain, I think, knows these things. Or at least he would be receptive to those arguments if someone made them to him during a hearing. But on Twitter, it’s easier to mock than it is to explain. Conversations that can’t be had without replacing every “and” for an ampersand are not likely to sway anyone. John McCain’s dismissive japes work well on Twitter because the limits of the medium don’t allow him to do much else. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks—but it’s still the same dog.

Ana Marie Cox is a Wonkette emerita, political junkie, self-hating journalist, and author of Dog Days. She has worked for Time, Mother Jones, Suck, and most recently, Radar. Follow her on Twitter.