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McCain 'helped create' the BlackBerry, aide says; campaign downplays it as a joke

September 16, 2008 |  1:40 pm

When it comes to a politician's role in technological advances, it's probably best not to overstate.

Former Vice President Al Gore learned that the hard way. While in Congress during the 1980s and early 1990s he played a legitimate role in laying the policy groundwork for the modern Internet, but he went a byte too far in 1999 when he told CNN: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet." The subsequent ridicule dogged him throughout the 2000 campaign and continues today.

Now, a top adviser to Republican presidential nominee John McCain has done for the BlackBerry what Gore did for the Internet: made it the punchline of a political joke.

Asked by reporters today about McCain's grasp of technological issues, senior policy adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin noted the Arizona senator's tenure as a former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Then Holtz-Eakin held up his BlackBerry.

"He did this," Holtz-Eakin said. "Telecommunications in the United States, the premier innovation in the past 15 years, comes right through the Commerce Committee. So you're looking at the miracle that John McCain helped create. And that's what he did."

The comment quickly spread across the Internet. The reception was similar ...

... to that for Gore's 1999 claim: It was shorthanded by some to McCain's "creating" the BlackBerry, and the mockery began.

Rather than talk about the role McCain played in helping set U.S. wireless policy while in Congress -- a tack that Gore and and others, including a scientist named Vint Cerf who can actually claim to have invented key elements of the Internet, tried in 1999 to justify the Internet comment -- his campaign quickly sought to stomp out the story by saying it was just a bad joke.

"John McCain laughed himself when he heard it," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said. "He would never lay claim to inventing the BlackBerry or anything else of that matter. It was a boneheaded joke from a staffer."

(It wasn't the only tech-related news of the day for the McCain campaign. Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, a leading McCain surrogate, said that McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, lacked the experience to run a major company. She later amended her statement to say that it also could apply to McCain, Barack Obama or his running mate Joe Biden, and that "it is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company.")

The Obama campaign hit McCain last week for his admitted computer illiteracy. And it quickly jumped on the BlackBerry comment.

"If John McCain hadn't said that 'the fundamentals of our economy are strong' on the day of one of our nation's worst financial crises, the claim that he invented the BlackBerry would have been the most preposterous thing said all week," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.

McCain told the New York Times in July that he uses a BlackBerry. And there's apparent visual proof that he has one here (and in the picture above, talking on what looks like a BlackBerry).

"He keeps a phone that's a BlackBerry," Bounds said. "He checks e-mail through a staffer who is with him, and that's on a BlackBerry."

But Bounds would not comment on whether McCain's injuries from his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam prevented him from using a keyboard -- large or small -- as was noted in a 2000 Boston Globe profile.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: Sen. John McCain talks on his cellphone on his campaign plane in July. Credit: Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press