Pants on fire? Time to Tweet

Sen. Chuck Grassley’s pants were on fire last Friday — literally, not metaphorically; his honesty isn’t in question.

The Iowa Republican let the world know of his incendiary condition, sustained while battling brush fires on his farm, via Twitter, the microblogging website that has become all the rage among federal lawmakers.

Grassley didn’t issue a press release or give an interview, but instead sent a text message to more than 6,600 people who follow his comings, goings and musings on Twitter.

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He Tweeted: “Work on farm Fri. Burning piles of brush WindyFire got out of control. Thank God for good naber He help get undr control PantsBurnLegWound.”

Grassley is one of 123 lawmakers on Twitter, a number that has grown in recent months and suggests that the website is increasingly regarded as a valuable weapon in a politician’s communications arsenal.

Members and their offices use Twitter to reach constituents, showcase their latest work, campaign and, like many Americans, document their thoughts and reactions to everyday life.

It is this last category — the personal stuff — that has drawn the most attention, lending insight into the lives of public figures that are magnified by the spotlight.

So when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Tweeted on Tuesday, “D-backs off to a lousy start — hope Brandon Webb gets well soon!” perhaps he knew that Twitter can cast a different, humanizing light, which both draws attention and allows the Twitterer to seem like a friend.

One of McCain’s newest Senate colleagues, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), let almost 6,000 followers know that he was getting a hot dog.

“Just finished a town hall at Wytheville Community Coll. Gotta stop at Skeeter’s for a hot dog before we leave town,” he Tweeted.

But for many members, Twitter isn’t all play and no work. Some offices use it to send updates on their latest meetings and stances, while others relay their latest campaign messages.

One of the commonest types of Tweet, written by lawmakers themselves or ghostwritten by their staff, consists of an update on their latest meetings, travel plans or other events.

“At my miami district office mtng w/consts,” wrote Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who Tweets personally from a BlackBerry, adding: “At this moment: a belen high school junior who wants to go to the air force academy. Rite stuff!”

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) Tweeted, “Stops all around the 4th today. First up, visit to wind turbines in McBain, Mich.”
In the same vein, freshman Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) took to the Twitter with, “en route to ribbon cutting for Abound Solar Energy in Longmont.”

Other members have used Twitter primarily to give voters a window into their work on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) played up his recent support for vouchers for Washington’s public schools, as well as his opposition to comprehensive immigration reform.

“Fmr. DC Mayor Williams comes out strong for vouchers,” Issa Tweeted on Tuesday. “Is Obama listening to his own party?”

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) pushed to repeal the embargo on Cuba, Tweeting, “It is too much a sacrifice to ask our people to forgo funerals, weddings, births, and death-bed invitations on an island just 90 miles away?”

As a campaign tool, some lawmakers use Twitter to attack opponents.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) used it to buttress his offensive against likely primary opponent Pat Toomey, Tweeting in recent days that Toomey covered up his past work in the financial sector so as to downplay his association with that unpopular professional area.

“Toomey’s 2 Resumes. What’s he hiding?” Specter asked Monday, linking to his own Facebook page, at which a letter was posted from Specter, asking about Toomey’s background.

Rep. Artur Davis (D), running for governor of Alabama, routinely Tweets about his latest interviews, speeches and campaign movements.

“Talked about my new ethics proposal on @myfoxal Good Day Alabama this morning,” he wrote Monday, adding a link to the interview.

For most lawmakers, though, the Twitter stream tends toward a mixed use of the website, blending their work on Capitol Hill with constituent outreach and a personal touch.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), perhaps one of the most prolific congressional Tweeters, put it this way on Tuesday after acquiring her 20,000th follower: “Just passed 20,000 followers mark,” she Tweeted, “Thank you all. Wish everyone was as interested in govt as you all are. Govt works better with your input.”