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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain’s War Injuries and Computers

Q: Is McCain unable to use a computer because of war injuries?

A: He can type. But using a keyboard for long periods is uncomfortable for him. He says he’s been an “illiterate” on a computer. But he says now he’s learning to use the Internet.


Is it true that John McCain’s injuries as a result of being tortured as a POW are the real reason he does not send e-mails (using a keyboard is painful for him)? Or is Barack Obama’s ad portraying him as a computer luddite true?


The Obama-Biden campaign is airing an ad titled “Still,” which says that McCain “admits he still doesn’t know how to use a computer” and that he “can’t send an e-mail.” The ad ridicules McCain as being old-fashioned and “out of touch.”

A few news organizations and a number of conservative commentators have countered that it’s not that McCain doesn’t know how, it’s that he can’t use a computer because of injuries sustained as a prisoner of war. They say the Obama ad is a low blow. As the conservative blog Hot Air said, “Making fun of a war hero’s severe injuries — smooth move.”

The truth is in between.

McCain isn’t discussing the matter with reporters, but a McCain campaign official describes this account by ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper as “accurate.” Tapper wrote Sept. 14:

ABC’s Jake Tapper: [T]yping on a regular keyboard for any sustained period of time bothers McCain physically.

He can type, he occasionally does type, but in general, the injuries he sustained as a POW – ones that make it impossible for him to raise his arms high enough to comb his hair – mean that small tasks make his shoulders ache, so he tries to avoid any repetitive exercise.

Again, it’s not that he can’t type, he just by habit, avoids when he can, repetitive exercise involving his arms. He does if he has to, as with handshaking or autographs.

This matches up pretty well with what was reported by other news organizations eight years ago, when McCain was running against George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.

A Boston Globe article from March 2000 said that “McCain’s severe war injuries prevent him from combing his hair, typing on a keyboard, or tying his shoes.”

And a Forbes magazine story from May 2000 elaborated further, saying:

Forbes, May 2000: His nightly ritual is to read his email together with his wife, Cindy. The injuries he incurred as a Vietnam POW make it painful for McCain to type. Instead, he dictates responses that his wife types on a laptop. “She’s a whiz on the keyboard, and I’m so laborious,” McCain admits.

Slate.com also said in 2000 that “because of his war injuries, he is limited in his ability to wield a keyboard.”

More recent reports indicate that he is actually learning to use a computer. In fact, McCain told the New York Times in July that he’ll soon be up to speed on using the Internet.

In January 2008, Yahoo! News asked McCain whether he used a Mac or PC, and McCain said, “Neither. I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get.” But two months ago in an interview with the New York Times, McCain said:

NY Times: What websites if any do you look at regularly?

McCain: Brooke and Mark show me Drudge, obviously, everybody watches, for better or for worse, Drudge. Sometimes I look at Politico. Sometimes RealPolitics, sometimes.

(Mrs. McCain and Ms. Buchanan both interject: “Meagan’s blog!”)

McCain: Excuse me, Meagan’s blog. And we also look at the blogs from Michael and from you that may not be in the newspaper, that are just part of your blog.

NY Times: But do you go on line for yourself?

McCain: They go on for me. I am learning to get online myself, and I will have that down fairly soon, getting on myself. I don’t expect to be a great communicator, I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need – including going to my daughter’s blog first, before anything else.

Does all this make McCain “out of touch” with modern technology and communication methods? Is the Obama ad unfair? You be the judge.

–- Justin Bank


Leonard, Mary. “McCain Character Loyal to a Fault,” Boston Globe. 4 Mar 2000.
Rapaport, Richard. “Net vs. Norm,” Forbes Magazine. 29 May 2000.
The Times Interviews John McCain,” New York Times. 13 Jul 2008.