Beyond Clinton, Graham email revelations, Capitol Hill has long, odd relationship with technology

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told NBC a few days ago he has never sent an email.

The furor was such that the senator may as well have said he never heard of an iPhone.

Perhaps there's an upside to this. At least this means Graham doesn't have an AOL email address. Another positive is that he does use an iPad, not a Commodore 64.


Tech-savvy Americans were all a-Twitter when they spied Graham's revelation in their news Pheed. How could a senior, prominent, erudite leader be so far off the grid? Of course, the irony is that just as Americans Snapchatted about how behind-the-times they found the 59-year-old Graham, some simultaneously excoriated the 67-year-old Hillary Clinton for using email (55,000 pages worth!) and being so dialed-in. She even had her own, private email server.

Email may be the propellant that fuels Capitol Hill these days. But it’s also the Achilles Heel. Maybe it’s only appropriate that the first electronic message ever sent emanated from the bowels of the U.S. Capitol.

Technology and Congress have never quite gotten along. Perhaps that's only natural for a vibrant 18th Century institution still operating in the 21st Century. And before you go around dismissing Congress as being filled with a bunch of Luddites, check your history. Congress outdates the Luddites. The first Congress met in 1789, a full 22 years before English textile workers known as Luddites rallied against the Industrial Revolution and destroyed machinery in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire in the 19th Century.

Consider how hip the U.S. Capitol must have been when Samuel Morse acquired a then-staggering $30,000 Congressional earmark to send the first electronic message in history in 1844. Morse used the old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol to dispatch a cipher to Baltimore. “What hath God Wrought” typed out Morse in dots and dashes (Morse Code). It was the first message of any kind which traveled faster than a smoke signal.

If people lit up Graham on Vine for not using email, imagine the opprobrium directed toward lawmakers in Morse’s time who still used U.S. mail or horseback?

Morse is depicted on the fresco “The Apotheosis of Washington” affixed to the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda. Nearby on the same fresco is a representation of Neptune, laying the Transatlantic Cable. It was a major technological achievement for the time.

So Congress wasn’t always outmoded. Some of its best days lie ahead. Just wait until Al Gore invented the Internet.

Various incidents over the years reveal just how “offline” some lawmakers are.

Commentators and late-night comedians scoffed at the late-Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., during the 1990 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The hearings veered off on a wild track for days after allegations about Thomas surfaced from law professor Anita Hill. The incident introduced the term “sexual harassment” into the American vernacular and captivated the country. All TV networks blew out regularly-scheduled programming, carrying the sessions live to a transfixed audience.

Some Americans cringed when Thurmond -- then 87 -- and serving as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, brayed at witnesses because he couldn’t hear them.

“Could you speak into the machine?” implored Thurmond in his gravely, country drawl.

The “machine” Thurmond spoke of was simply the microphone placed in front of each witness across from the dais.

Some lawmakers revel in their antediluvian approach to government.

Former Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., often declared himself to be an “AM guy in an FM world.” Never mind that Coble frequently used the phrase in the early 2000s during the advent of satellite radio.

Perhaps that made Coble an “AM guy in an XM world.” And these days, SiriusXM isn’t exactly cutting age, either.

In 2004, I reached out to Ed McDonald, a longtime aide of Coble, to coordinate an interview with the congressman. I asked McDonald to send the congressman a message on his BlackBerry to meet me in the Speaker’s Lobby, the ornate hallway just off the House chamber. At the time, Coble chaired the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet. Much to my surprise, McDonald told me he couldn’t get a message to the congressman.

“Chad, he chairs the subcommittee that regulates the stuff and he doesn’t even carry a BlackBerry,” replied McDonald.

Some lawmakers struggle in their efforts to extoll the rise of technology. During an appearance last September on C-SPAN, Assistant House Minority Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. suggested a unique use of technology to organize political movements.

“We've got great tools to communicate about everything else,” said Clyburn. “We can text. What do we call it? Sexting? Let’s do some voting -- organizing -- over the Internet.”

It’s unclear if Clyburn’s technology advisor for the C-SPAN segment was former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.

Maybe the old ways are better. But that doesn’t mean that some lawmakers don’t try to bring the Capitol up to speed on other fronts.

At a February House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on spending for the legislative branch, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., discussed the need for an “in-house Web bulletin board.”

Farr noted that Craigslist and other services provide forums for apartment hunting, dog walking, etc. He said that old-style, cork bulletin boards in congressional cafeterias are currently the only venues to post such information these days on the Hill.

Farr also pressed House officials about the possibility of creating an electronic “Global Entry” system. He suggested such a plan could make it simpler for congressional staff to come and go from the secure Capitol complex. Such a concept could make it easier for U.S. Capitol Police to do minimal screening on the regulars who had already been pre-cleared and concentrate instead on visitors and tourists.

Technology is not always what bewilders lawmakers. Sometimes its pop culture. Such was the case with then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., at a 1993 hearing about violence on television.

“We’ve got this, what is it, Buffcoat and Beaver? Or Beaver and something else?” asked Hollings, referring to cartoon ne’er-do-wells Bevis and Butthead. “I haven’t seen it. I don’t watch it.”

Interestingly, before Lindsey Graham’s email admission -- on the back of the Clinton revelation -- official Washington always had a love-hate relationship with email and other forms of electronic communication. It’s hard to find a congressional office that doesn’t have some aides who complain about either the lawmaker or chief of staff who sends work directives at all hours of the day and night.

There are certainly huge swaths of lawmakers in both the House and Senate who are glued to their email 24/7, to the point of addiction. But some lawmakers are skeptical of electronic messages -- even if they have nothing to hide.

Former Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., admitted years ago that he didn’t use email for fear something might get leaked and used against him politically. He wanted no record at all. Consider how electronic messages blew up the political careers of the aforementioned Weiner (AKA Carlos Danger) and former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. Foley abruptly resigned in September, 2006 after it came to light he sent questionable text messages to male, teenage House pages. The Foley firestorm helped Democrats secure control of the House in that fall’s midterm elections.

What this all comes down to is a digital paper trail. And no one in politics wants one, even if they are squeaky clean. Archived emails reflect thought processes. The nexus of people someone communicates with. Bad days. Arrogance. Motive. Off-color or shouting messages. They reveal what someone is really thinking.

And if someone’s emails suddenly disappear, then the public is left to speculate (in the worst-possible terms) of what was said in those missives. Perhaps that’s why there was such an ardent pursuit for the emails of former IRS official Lois Lerner. And for political purposes, it may work better if people don’t know what’s in the messages, because well, they can just imagine what may have been said.

Email may be the propellant that fuels Capitol Hill these days. But it’s also the Achilles Heel. Maybe it’s only appropriate that the first electronic message ever sent emanated from the bowels of the U.S. Capitol. And perhaps it’s only fitting what Samuel Morse tapped out that day along the line strung to Baltimore: “What Hath God wrought?”