Political personality reporter Mark Leibovich, whose informal style often lapses into an urbane snottiness (at least when conservatives are the subject), unearthed an urban legend in his Sunday Week in Review story on John McCain's discomfort with technology, "Hail to the Twitterer."
The myth (which initially appeared in a February 1992 story in the New York Times) relays the first President Bush's evident amazement at the sight of an ordinary supermarket scanner at a grocers' convention in Orlando. The myth of Bush's marveling seeped into the mainstream media and was used to portray Bush as out of touch with the common people during his re-election campaign.
Even the liberal-leaning myth-busters at Snopes.com have debunked the incident as a gross exaggeration, yet the Times continues repeating the bogus Bush story as fact. For a newspaper so exquisitely sensitive about anti-Obama myths, this kind of sloppiness amounts to a double standard.
It's no surprise that Mr. McCain - standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln - has moved to press delete on the notion that he is a Luddite.
"I do understand the importance of the computer," Mr. McCain reassured in The San Francisco Chronicle last week. "I understand the importance of the blogs." He said, "I am forcing myself - let me put it this way, I am using the computer more and more every day." But keeping up with technology "doesn't mean that I have to e-mail people," he said. "Now, I read e-mails." The staff is "constantly showing them to me as the news breaks during the day."
This was a decidedly different Mr. McCain from the one who said in South Carolina last year that it was important for leaders to communicate with bloggers, "as painful as that might be."
Or the Mr. McCain who in an interview with Fortune magazine two years ago called himself a "Neanderthal" about computers, in contrast to his wife, Cindy, whom he called a "wizard."
"She even does my boarding passes - people can do that now," Mr. McCain marveled. "When we go to the movies, she gets the tickets ahead of time. It's incredible."
Mr. McCain's sense of wonder evoked the episode in the early 1990s when George H.W. Bush became overly impressed upon seeing a price scanner at a supermarket check-out counter. It suggested to some people that the president, who had spent four years in the White House after spending eight years as vice president, was out of touch with the lives of average Americans.
Snopes.com refuted this evidently invincible myth:
Andrew Rosenthal of The New York Times hadn't even been present at the grocers' convention. He based his article on a two-paragraph report filed by the lone pool newspaperman allowed to cover the event, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, who merely wrote that Bush had a "look of wonder" on his face and didn't find the event significant enough to mention in his own story. Moreover, Bush had good reason to express wonder: He wasn't being shown then-standard scanner technology, but a new type of scanner that could weigh groceries and read mangled and torn bar codes.