Wednesday, March 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The nation’s politicians have taken up a surprising new pastime — expressing themselves in 140 key strokes or less.
Washington has discovered Twitter, the online social networking tool that its Web site says offers “short, bite-sized updates about your life.”
Not since parents started asking their kids to be friends on Facebook has there been such a cultural clash in the digital world. Tweets are supposed to be quick takes on life, from the mundane to the profound: Perhaps you’re stuck in traffic or had a celebrity sighting or want to muse on the meaning of 21st-century life.
Post a tweet and all your friends can know what’s up.
Politicians can be incisive in 140 characters or less, to be sure. Consider some of pre-tweet history’s compelling lines:
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Those don’t hit even 100 key strokes.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Which brings us back to the intersection of politics and pop culture.
Not all politicians are comfortable revealing their unscripted selves. But that’s exactly what social networking is about — offering a glimpse of yourself for the world to see.
You’ve got to give a little to get a little.
Among Nevada’s lawmakers in Washington, the only ones who use Twitter are the Republicans, Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller.
Heller mainly limits his tweets to posting a few news releases and official statements, not quite the spirit of Twitter.
Ensign Twitters at a healthy clip, touching on the political issues of the day or his whereabouts in Washington.
“Did you catch my op-ed in the Washington Post today on protecting the 2nd Amendment?”
“Just confirmed Lou Dobbs tonight. Please tune in to CNN at 4:30 pm PDT.”
But Ensign’s Twitter voice also tends toward the starchy stiffness of the senatorial class, rarely delving into average-guy lingo.
“Just realized today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Gipper.”
The style may reflect a truth about Ensign’s tweets. He isn’t writing them. He dictates and staff posts his tweets. “I’m a really bad typer,” he explained.
The more personal tweets are the crowd pleasers.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, is among the most followed lawmakers on Twitter. She mixes emotions (“Beyond mad at AIG”) with recipes she’s cooking for her visiting daughter.
One Utah congressman posted about a dozen tweets as he agonized over which way to vote on a bill.
Similarly, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, has the largest following among members of Congress, mixing up politics and the personal.
Republicans are Twittering in greater numbers than Democrats in Congress, according to tweetcongress.org, which tracks such things.
Some say the Republicans are catching up to the technical savvy of the Obama administration as they try various avenues to rebuild the party after its election defeats.
Ensign said he looks forward to letting loose a little more in the future, saying he’s still getting used to the format. He wants to share different activities he’s doing in Las Vegas, “some of those sort of fun things people don’t always think of their senators on,” he said. For instance, he is trying to start a cycling community.
The most requested lawmaker on Twitter, according to tweetcongress.org, is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
He has yet to tweet.