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Correction to This Article
This column misstated the number of Twitter followers of four lawmakers. As of the date of publication, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) had 750, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) had 9,623, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) had 7,823 and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) had 530.

A Tale of 140 Characters, Plus the Ones in Congress

In a speech to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama tells America, "we will rebuild, we will recover."

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's a case of Twittering while Rome burns.

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President Obama spoke of economic calamity and war last night in that solemn rite of democracy, the address to the joint session of Congress. And lawmakers watched him with the dignity Americans have come to expect of their leaders: They whipped out their BlackBerrys and began sending text messages like high school kids bored in math class.

"One doesn't want to sound snarky, but it is nice not to see Cheney up there," Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) announced as Obama entered the chamber.

"I did big wooohoo for Justice Ginsberg," Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) broadcast, misspelling the name of the ailing Supreme Court justice. McCaskill could be seen applauding with BlackBerry in one hand.

"Capt Sully is here -- awesome!" announced Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), spotting the US Airways pilot in the gallery.

Then there was Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), in whose name this text message was sent at about the time the president spoke of the need to pull the country together: "Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren't going to bother watching pelosi smirk for the next hour." A few minutes later, another message came through: "Disregard that last Tweet from a staffer."

It's bad enough that Americans are paralyzed by economic jitters. Now the president has to deal with lawmakers paralyzed by Twitter. At a time of national emergency, when America needs the focused attention of contemplative and reflective lawmakers, they are dispatching rapid-fire thoughts in 140 characters or less.

Some members called it a new age of transparency, a bold new frontier in democracy. But to view the hodgepodge of text messages sent from the House floor during the speech, it seemed as if Obama were presiding over a support group for adults with attention-deficit disorder.

And it wasn't just Twitter. "I'm broadcasting live from the middle of Independence Avenue," announced Culberson, in live streaming video on Qik.com. He jammed his 8-gigabyte camera phone into the faces of three Capitol Police and demanded that they introduce themselves. They did not look happy. "The presidential motorcade will be coming from where?" Culberson asked. "What time are you expecting him to arrive?"

"That's classified," an officer replied.

Culberson continued to narrate his walk to the House floor for the speech: "I think that officer there is carrying a fully automatic weapon. . . . I suspect there's a James Bond type or two around this building, probably up there in the Capitol dome." Huffing and puffing as he climbed the stairs, drawing odd glances, Culberson went on. "I'll do one more broadcast and then I will tweet from the floor."

Some of the adolescence on the House floor could be chalked up to excitement. Even President Bush, at 30 percent support in the polls, was mobbed by well-wishers when he walked onto the House floor. And this president is new and highly popular, with an endearing style: a wink at Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a hug for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a big kiss for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


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