WASHINGTON // There used to be just the podium and the press release; now there is Twitter. Politicians in Washington have increasingly taken to sending tweets, employing the popular micro-blogging service as an unfiltered platform to push a message, promote themselves and often - because this is politics, after all - put down their opponents.
There are tweets weighing in on the merits of healthcare legislation and the climate bill. There are tweets announcing cable news show appearances and radio programme call-in times. Best - or worst - of all, there are tweets of consciousness offering titbits about politicians' personal lives that you never even knew you had a mind to know. Newt Gingrich, the former US House speaker who weighs in on most political matters these days and is thought to be a potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, sent a tweet in advance of the White House correspondents dinner in May saying he was "right now going grocery shopping - already did dry cleaner and shoe repair".
Claire McCaskill, a Democratic senator from Missouri who is one of the most active Twitter users in Congress, got a little philosophical in one recent tweet. "I hope I'm never mean to people I disagree with. It makes me sad: many people are angry, downright mean to people who have different opinions," she wrote, conserving the 140 characters allowed in tweets by eliminating spaces between words. Mrs McCaskill actually got chastised - by her mother - after sending tweets from the floor of the House of Representatives on the night of the first major address to Congress by Barack Obama, the US president. She clarified later, in another tweet, that she had only sent them before Mr Obama spoke and after.
Twitter has emerged as an important political tool in a world where news and information are being delivered and consumed in ever-new ways. Mr Obama employed the service during his tech-savvy presidential campaign, announcing his choice of running mate in a tweet, as well as in a text message. He still uses it, though his tweets are composed by staff. Perhaps ironically, the Capitol Hill politician with the biggest Twitter audience by far is John McCain, who lost the presidency to Mr Obama last year and has described himself as computer illiterate. The Arizona senator had 971,104 "followers" on Twitter this week - slightly more than Martha Stewart but half the number of Oprah Winfrey.
There is a grassroots group trying to get Congress even more involved in the business of twittering in hopes it will provide more chance for average citizens to give their legislators feedback without picking up the phone or writing a more formal letter or e-mail. In a play on the wording of the preamble of the US Constitution, the website for TweetCongress.org declares: "We the Tweeple of the United States, in order to form a more perfect government, establish communication and promote transparency do hereby Tweet the Congress of the United States of America."
As of yesterday, according to the group, there were 95 Republicans twittering compared with 54 Democrats, a substantial increase from just several months ago. Shortly after announcing her impending resignation as Alaska governor with 18 months to go in office, Sarah Palin (90,039 followers) used her Twitter account to try to beat down what she described as a vicious rumour: that she was stepping down because of an investigation by the FBI.
"Trying to keep up w/getting truth to u, like proof there's no 'FBI scandal'," the former vice presidential candidate tweeted the other day. Then she tweeted the family was going fishing. But while Twitter can serve as a powerful way for politicians to keep in touch with supporters - and, as Mrs Palin and others have pointed out, get a little airtime without having to go through the media - it can also end up as a place of pitfalls.
Take one recent tweet by Peter Hoekstra, a Republican congressman from Michigan (8,951 followers). "Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House," he wrote, comparing the clampdown on Iranian protesters to the time the house speaker, Nancy Pelosi, cut off debate on energy legislation and some Republicans sent out tweets from a dark House chamber.
His mistweet led to a slew of parodies, also offered up on Twitter, and then later on various blogs. Among them: "I got into a fight with my brother this morning. Now I know what the Civil War must have been like." "My toilet just overflowed a little. Now I know how the Indonesian tsunami victims felt like." "The lack of choices in the Congressional cafeteria is just like being in Auschwitz." Mr Gingrich used his Twitter platform this week to offer some rare praise for Mr Obama, who was in Russia at the time. Wrote the Republican from his BlackBerry: "President obama made a useful and positive speech in russia yesterday on the importance of democracy as a self correcting force."
Soon enough, though, he was back to criticism, tweeting a link to his newsletter and an article on "How Team Obama Hijacked 'Change' And How We Can Take It Back". firstname.lastname@example.org