Have you heard the one about the politician who doesn’t use e-mail?
No, not the one who didn’t use an official government e-mail account while she was secretary of State.
The one named Lindsey Graham, United States senator from South Carolina. He went on television this weekend to talk about the really big e-mail controversy of the day: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a private e-mail address for her work at the State Department under President Obama.
Senator Graham was pressing for transparency regarding the Clinton e-mails, when the conversation unexpectedly went this way:
Graham: “I don't e-mail – no, you can have every e-mail I've ever sent. I've never sent one. I don't know what that makes me.”
The senator shifted quickly back to questions about Clinton. But many viewers had already hit their mental pause button.
What was that again? A senator who has never sent an e-mail? (And, by the way, this particular senator is a possible Republican presidential candidate.) Incredulous comments began spreading on Twitter.
Many wanted to fill in the senator’s own blank by saying, in effect, that not using e-mail makes him a Luddite. Or that, if he’s not resisting technology, he’s at least out of touch with the times.
Well, frankly, it does seem to strain credulity that someone could serve in elective office for more than two decades without ever sending an e-mail.
After the NBC interview, on a visit to New Hampshire, reporters wanted to know more and Graham responded by offering essentially two reasons for not using e-mail: First, it can get you in trouble, and second, it can distract you from big-picture tasks.
And he laid to rest the question of whether he’s a complete technophobe or disconnected from the Internet.
“I've got iPads, and I play around," Graham told a Bloomberg reporter. "But I don't e-mail. I've tried not to have a system where I can just say the first dumb thing that comes to my mind.”
Graham said he prefers talking to people – in person or by phone – to text. “I get a text, and I respond not by sending you a text, but calling you if I think what you asked is worthy enough for me calling you. I'm not being arrogant, but I'm trying to jealously guard myself in terms of being able to think through problems and not engage in chat all day. I've had a chance to kind of carve out some time for myself not responding to every 15-second crisis."
He summed up his point this way to a gaggle of reporters: “The next president of the United States needs to be good with people, not just technology.”
Whether or not that lays the e-mail questions to rest for Graham, his two basic points have some merit.
E-mails really can get people into political or legal trouble, as Graham himself notes by raising questions about Clinton. “Did she communicate on behalf of Clinton Foundation as secretary of state?” he asked Mr. Todd on “Meet the Press.” “Did she call the terrorist attack in Benghazi a terrorist attack in real time? I want to know.”
And e-mail really can get in the way of people’s time for strategic thinking or face-to-face communication.
The question, of course, is whether those challenges mean one shouldn’t do e-mail at all. Plenty of people feel they don’t have much choice. Facebook or texts and mobile apps may have eroded its importance, but e-mail is still the channel for a lot of information.
“E-mail and search remain the backbone of the Internet (roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day),” a 2012 Pew Research Center report concluded.
And 91 percent of Internet users say they use e-mail, according to the 2011 survey data in the report.
So in that light, Graham really is in rarefied company.
Still, in another sense he may be representative of a not-tiny minority of Americans who choose not to participate in one facet or another of the digital revolution, and are perfectly happy with that.
For example, the Pew research found that among the roughly 15 percent of Americans are not Internet-connected, lack of money or access isn’t the main reason. Bigger factors are doubts about whether it’s really vital or a waste of time.