Leaves of Grassley: A song of Chuck, the senator from Twitter

“Journalists are very liberal,” Chuck Grassley—Republican senator from Iowa, farmer, onetime sheet-metal shearer and proponent of a “pimp tax” and W-2s for prostitutes—explained to me this week.

That belief has long bedeviled him. But Grassley nonetheless spoke to this occupationally biased journalist for two hours about President Barack Obama’s raw intelligence, Mitt Romney’s chances in November and, above all, the uses and misuses of social media.

“Obama is protected by journalists,” Grassley said. “And we aren’t. If you’re a senior senator like I am, people say to you, ‘How come you aren’t confronting the president on this or that?’ And I say I could speak out on something, but if they don’t print it or put it on television, it doesn’t happen.”

About five years ago, Grassley alighted on a simple solution to what he sees as the obstructionism of a liberal news media. Twitter. One hundred forty characters—straight from the heart of a Republican old-timer to the people. No gatekeepers!

Ann Romney found the same solution Wednesday when it came time to throw down with Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen about child rearing. (The shorthand of threadbare social debates is perfect for Twitter: “Child rearing’s not work!” “Is too!” “Is not!”) Yet Mrs. Romney, as of this writing, has tweeted only twice since joining. And she seems to have joined solely to have at Rosen.

Grassley has been zealously tweeting for a full four and a half years, employing a reckless but not uncongenial style, like a competent fiddler who late in life takes up the hurdy-gurdy. His first tweet had none of the usual is-this-thing-on diffidence of first-time tweeters. On Nov. 26, 2007, he wrote, levelly: “Attending events in Iowa.”

He was off.  Twitter just speaks to some people. They get religion and learn it as they go. YouTube and Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram (a $1 billion division of Facebook) work the same way: Early enthusiasts are made to feel as though they’ve waited a lifetime to upload, update and pin.

Clearly, there were things that Grassley really, really wanted to tweet about. He posted about basketball (“Uni women bb half time uni19 creighton27”). He posted about ethanol (“eth uses only 3 pcent world COARSE grain and farmers get ONLY 11 pcent Food dollar”). And he posted about important congressional doings, which generated this inspired misspelling last May: “I'm in House Chamber waiting for Netanyahoo to address Congress.” Grassley now tweets up to 10 times on most weekdays.

He’s pithy on the phone. So maybe Twitter’s 140-character cap just made sense to him.

Or some number of characters did, anyway. “You have to say just a few things in a few words on Twitter,” Grassley told me. “That’s 140 characters—or maybe it’s 160 characters?—that’s all you can use.”

This slightly hazy point is one Grassley takes pains to make because last Saturday, driven to compress his complex thoughts into a single tweet, he posted something that he now says he shouldn’t have: “Constituents askd why i am not outraged at PresO attack on supreme court independence. Bcause Am ppl r not stupid as this x prof of con law.”

Though the tweet drew the playground wrath of Obamanauts like David Axelrod, who called Grassley “foolish” for calling Obama “stupid,” I liked Grassley’s tweet. In fact, I started to tell him that he wasn’t calling the president stupid exactly, just not as smart as the American people, who, because Grassley is an archpopulist, he by definition considers ingenious. Vox populi, vox Dei, right? And, I blundered on, if Obama is stupider than the godly people, or even the gdly ppl, he can still be pretty smar—

But Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cut me off. “That tweet didn’t go across very well,” he said. He sounded contrite.

“It was not a diplomatic approach,” he said. “Because everyone knows, and I know, the president is an intelligent person. He’s very intelligent. He’s got a Harvard law degree. You wouldn’t expect the president to take on the court. But maybe I should have expected it, from his State of the Union. He attacked the court. The president said the court would allow foreign corporations to influence politics in the U.S. Justice Alito shook his head! Knowing about Marbury v. Madison, and knowing the history of other presidents, like Franklin Roosevelt, packing the court—well, I know that, but my constituency doesn’t know that.”

He turned to Twitter, then, to set the record straight. But the character limit (it is 140) prohibited Grassley from name-checking Marbury v. Madison or otherwise refining his point. “Stupid” is a nice six-character way to get an idea across. Everybody knows that, too.

By now I was loving Grassley. If you like Twitter, you like Twitter zealots. And if you’re going to use the service at all, you should follow the house conventions, as Grassley does: Tweet often, use it yourself (no handler piping in PR bunk), and make mistakes (or you’re not going fast enough).

Grassley does all this—his staff threatens to screen his tweets but so far they’re all unfiltered—and more. He also follows almost 29,000 people and uses hashtags and at-replies, all signs of a good two-way Twitter citizen and not a mere celebrity preener. (Oprah Winfrey, who has more than 10 million followers, follows only 44 people herself.)

Grassley told me he thinks high unemployment and high gas prices will secure a win for Romney, as long as he “makes an issue out of jobs and the economy” and what Grassley sees as Obama’s broken promises. He can’t use his new government-issued iPhone to campaign for Romney, but he plans to tweet about policy in ways that will cut against Obama and in favor of his party’s nominee.

Grassley sees Twitter, above all, as a way to connect with the people. And he emphasized that voter contact is not just part of his job; it’s his whole job. He said he might not tweet at all if he weren’t a politician.

Having once read that the mental approach that farmers use to detect flaws in crops is the same one used by computer programmers hunting bugs in code, I asked Grassley on a whim whether he saw any similarities between agriculture and Twitter. He didn’t miss a beat.

“If you’re on a tractor, keeping track of where you’re going, it’s a pretty tedious job. And when you’re on Twitter, it’s kind of a tedious job.”

Whew. No kidding.

Whatever you think about his positions on judicial matters or the pimp tax, Grassley is about as superb a Twitterer as they come. The first time I really wondered about the political impartiality of the media was this week when the technology blog Gizmodo said Grassley “sucks at Twitter.”  

Really, gentlemen?! He’s a virtuoso! Perhaps this liberal bias thing should be investigated.