A BlackBerry is handy, but don’t forget the human touch
The Hill: K Street Insiders | Aside from his landslide victory, President Obama made history running the most advanced technological campaign of the modern era. As the first president to use a personal BlackBerry, he fits right into a Washington where lawmakers and lobbyists alike use the latest in electronic gadgets and online tools to get the job done faster and “better.”
As a BlackBerry addict, active blogger and Facebooker, I’ve readily embraced these new tricks — even though, as a four-decade economic and tax policy advocate, I’m a dinosaur by many Washington standards. When it comes to being effective in lobbying and policymaking, old graybeards like me need to wake up to the latest in efficiency — but not at the expense of human contact, the personal touch and substance.
To be effective today, there is still no substitute for relationships forged over many years of personal contact and shoe-leathering, if you want to establish a track record of credibility.
One of the best lasting examples of influencing policy and opinions in our nation’s capital are the famed Washington breakfasts hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. Started in 1966 under former Washington bureau chief Godfrey “Budge” Sperling, the breakfast provides newsmakers a chance to break bread with the who’s-who of the Washington press corps.
It is considered to be among the premier launching pads for political candidates, including Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, as well as a forum for many policy debates and political discussions. Despite the scaling-back of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, the breakfast lives on today because of its longstanding reputation of hosting a personal and intimate forum for lively and substantive discussions — more than 3,600 breakfasts to date.
The American Council for Capital Formation (ACCF) has a similar longstanding tradition in its Economic Policy Evenings. For over 25 years the ACCF has hosted an intimate, off-the-record gathering of high-ranking administration officials, bipartisan members of Congress, leaders from the business community and high-profile Washington journalists and editorial writers to discuss economic and energy/climate policies in a current and topical context. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) once dubbed the dinner “Washington’s last salon.”
The value of interactions such as these simply can’t be replicated over online chats, blogs, e-mail or Twitter. They rely on human contact and rigorous substantive debate, which in this day and age has become a rarity.
In many ways, serious discourse over public policy has descended from the Sperling breakfast to electronic spam, the blogosphere and slick websites. Substance and credibility have taken a back seat to brevity and speed. Granted, sending a concise e-mail may be quick and efficient, but if you want to foster relationships and gather influential decisionmakers and media into one room, you have to get on the phone to make your case. Posting a blog in your pajamas may be an easy way to disseminate your opinion across cyberspace, but unless you’re also shoe-leathering, knocking on doors and hustling, then your ideas will soon be archived along with many others.
In Washington, you need every latest tool at your disposal to garner attention. In 1978, a business coalition hand-carried cassette-tape copies of the self-composition “The Risk Capital Blues,” touting the benefits of lower capital gains taxes. As a technological gimmick, it opened the door. But without academically solid research and positive relationships established through years of personal contact, the ’78 capital gains tax cut never would have seen the light of day.
Similarly, today, the slickest use of YouTube or clever leaking of news to a blog may get you your 15 minutes of fame, but without substance or credibility your time will soon be up — without results.
Old dogs must learn new tricks if they want to remain relevant, but new dogs must learn old tricks if they want to remain credible.