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Tweet, follow or get out of the way

Twittering is all the rage on Capitol Hill with politicians sending their followers short messages ranging from touching down in Baghdad to mom's lecture over texting during Obama's speech.

March 03, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — John McCain took to the Senate floor Monday and talked about Twittering.

For the increasingly popular networking tool, it was either a moment that marked the technology's full-bore entry into the cultural mainstream -- or a sign that Twitter is now about as hip as Pac-Man.

Just last year, McCain, the Republican nominee for president, was mocked by late-night talk show hosts for barely knowing how to turn on a computer. But McCain 2.0 is now plugged in, sending multiple "tweets," as Twitter messages are called, several times a day. "We have the most followers out of any congressman," boasts his spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, "topping over 122,000."

Tweet, follow or get out of the way. That seems to be the new mantra on Capitol Hill in the early days of the Obama administration.

While the rest of the nation is following the stimulus debate and the bank bailout, the city's political and media classes have become obsessed with Twitter, the social networking site that allows you to send short messages to followers, who view them on a website or on their cellphones.

Dozens of members of Congress use the service. They say it helps connect them directly with constituents. The value of that, of course, depends on how much unfiltered comment you really want from your elected officials.

"Jindal is weird," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) wrote while watching Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speak last week in response to President Obama's address to Congress. "I can't believe Jindal. Such a sad contrast with President. Doesn't even look or sound good, to say nothing about content."

Blumenauer was twittering throughout Obama's speech, as were several other lawmakers. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) later told her followers she was upbraided by her mother.

"Ok ok. Mom's upset that I was rude at Pres speech re: tweets," McCaskill later wrote. "For the record I tweeted bfor, at very beginning, & after speech. I wanted to listen."

Twitter's very nature means that elaboration is impossible. Messages can't exceed 140 characters. But you can transmit them instantly.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) was criticized for sending tweets during a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan last month that critics said compromised the delegation's security. Hoekstra said he revealed no sensitive information.

Some members such as McCaskill frequently tweet about their daily lives, but others simply use the medium to disseminate information you would find in news releases.

Why do they do it? Here's McCaskill's tweeted explanation: "Try to tweet 3-4 times a day. Combo of policy, personal, schedule, politics. Want to be candid and give a real glimpse of my life and job."

McCain, who began twittering last month, spent Monday tweeting lists of what he called pork in the omnibus spending bill and referred to them in the Senate. "$1,427,250 for genetic improvements of switchgrass -- I thought switchgrass genes were pretty good already, guess I was wrong," the Arizona senator wrote.

Congressional tweets range from the mundane -- "Happy to announce nearly $4 million in the recovery package for the Willimantic, Torrington, and Norwalk community health centers" from Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) -- to the confusing: "Great afternoon watching skijoring in Wisdom, Montana," wrote Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). (Turns out skijoring is a sport in which a skier is pulled by a dog.)

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a regular Twitterer. "Using Twitter to bypass traditional media and directly reach voters is definitely a good thing," Gingrich said in an e-mail interview. "Members should avoid Twittering from the House floor, though."

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joliphant@tribune.com

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