By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
It's a case of Twittering while Rome burns.
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.
Even the Republican lawmakers went gaga. When Michelle Obama walked in, one young Republican House member turned to a colleague and mouthed, "Babe." Only when Obama claimed his stimulus legislation was free of earmarks did the opposition party howl with derision.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it "a serious speech but one full of hope and optimism." And that was four hours before the speech.
In the House chamber, all the center-aisle seats were claimed early in the day. Lawmakers were so excited about the speech that they began reacting to it long before it was delivered. "The urgency and tone we heard from President Obama tonight is appreciated," Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). wrote in an e-mail two hours before the speech.
But on this night, e-mail was so five minutes ago. Lawmakers simply didn't have the attention span for anything longer than a tweet.
"On the House floor. Awaiting State of the Union speech. We need positive solutions," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) proclaimed at 7 p.m.
"In the House on the Floor six seats from center aisle stage left. Sitting next to Jeff Flake R-AZ. Seventh row," tweeted Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Some of the text messages were substantive. "Interesting comment that 'our confidence is shaken,' " wrote Blumenauer.
Others were atmospheric. "Place is on fire," tweeted Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont).
Many more were self-referential. "I am sitting behind Sens Graham and McCain," wrote Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.).
Or extraneous. "Fixed the tele-prompter, I think," wrote Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
Some lawmakers did a passable job giving play-by-play and color commentary of the speech: "Sounds like nationalization -- very bad news." . . . "Not many applause lines. Some in the audience not sure how to react." . . . "First big divide: he thanks Congress for recovery act. D's cheer, R's silent." . . . "Some Republican Senators are standing and clapping, including McCain." . . . "We must stand our ground as conservatives." . . . "Best line: 'For 7 years we have been at war. No longer will we hide its price.' " . . . "Seems to me honoring our troops should come on page one rather than the end of the speech." . . . "Americans are not quitters -- Amen -- what a great story."
And how many were reading these dispatches? Those following Congressman Wittman at 9:40 p.m.: 44. Senator McCaskill: 1. Congressman Blumenauer: 0. The live-streaming Culberson topped them all with 8,216.
All of which raises a question: Should these guys maybe spend time fixing the country and leave the Twittering to somebody else?
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this column.