POLITICS MAY 20, 2009
OMG! Have you seen Episode 7 of CNN.com’s “Freshman Year”? Unbelievable. First, Congressman Jason Chaffetz (you know, the Utah Republican living out of his office) totally slams Nancy Pelosi at his birthday party, laughing about how he shares a birthday with “all the ugly people”: the speaker, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, comedian Martin Short, and that creepy old guy who played Spock in the original “Star Trek.” Meanwhile, crunchy Colorado Dem Jared Polis gets to meet Bono (!), and they bond over how much they hate wearing ties. (Funny. I always thought gay guys had great fashion sense—although, at least this time Jared didn’t overshare about how his one dress shirt has started to smell.) Then there’s the jumping back and forth like they always do: Jason talks a little about the census; Jared whips out a jar of bugs and a pic of some red trees to explain why he likes the FLAME Act (before you ask: It’s got nothing to do with gay rights); Jason snarfs down two soft tacos at a Taco Bell reception; Jared puts his first bill ever (so adorable!) into something called the hopper. Then, get this: Two Jared staffers (including that tall blonde chick I absolutely hate b/c she's so skinny) prank Jason for April Fools’. They steal his Pop-Tarts, pudding, and M&Ms and leave him all these apples, yogurt Super Shots, and Kashi bars, and they swap a bunch of his shirts for a turtleneck (maroon!) like Jared wears. Of course, the girls just happen to get busted by Jason (how fake is that?), who puts on the turtleneck and pretends to be Jared. He looked so goofy I swear I shot Red Bull straight out my nose. (For a slideshow of Congress's new-media antics, click here.)
For members of Congress, it’s always a struggle to avoid vanishing into the shadow of the White House. Whether your team is in or out of power hardly matters, gripes one Democratic Hill aide via e-mail: “[H]onestly, if you're rank and file it’s tough to get press no matter who’s in charge.” But, in the new Obama era, legislators find themselves in an unusually difficult spot: Our 44th president is the hippest, hottest star on the world stage today—a guy with so much buzz he makes your teeth vibrate. The average House member, by contrast, is one of 435 charisma-challenged, comparatively powerless dweebs. Under such circumstances, what’s an ambitious but unglamorous lawmaker to do?
The same thing, it turns out, as any other American looking to scale the mountain of celebrityhood: become a reality star. Chaffetz and Polis may be the only two legislators with their own network-affiliated show. But plenty of their colleagues have embraced the whole casual, up-close-and-personal ethos of the genre. Forget C-SPAN gasbaggery or starchy pronouncements in The New York Times. Today’s savvy Hill denizens, aiming to project a mix of grassroots connectedness and hip, new-millennium with-it-ness, are using tools like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, the celeb-obsessed TMZ.com, and “The Colbert Report” to give America a peek at what its elected officials are really like. At the rate things are going, even the staunchest fans of transparency in government might soon have had enough.
YOU'VE GOT TO HAND IT TO CNN: In casting its congressional docudrama, the network found a near perfect “Real World”-esque pairing to supply the requisite dramatic tension. In the Republican corner stands the affable, goofy, highly telegenic Chaffetz: conservative, Mormon, committed junk-food aficionado. A businessman turned chief of staff to Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, the 42-year- old father of three sleeps in his Capitol Hill office so he can send every penny back home to, as Chaffetz describes her, his “smoking-hot wife” Julie. He is disconcertingly energetic, neatly dressed, and well-coiffed, even for after-hours appearances like his 1:30 a.m. ambush of the guy who drives the automatic floor polisher through the corridors of the Rayburn House Office Building (see Episode Five). From across the aisle comes the slightly more reserved, slightly less telegenic Polis: liberal, Jewish, gay, (aspiring) vegan. A Web entrepreneur turned philanthropist, the 33-year-old Coloradan, one of the House’s wealthiest members, shares a Washington apartment with partner Marlon Reis. Allergic to suits and dress shoes, the chronically rumpled Polis likes to gripe about Congress’s dress code and provides video close-ups of his blistered feet. He tends to squint when he’s not wearing his glasses, and he typically looks in need of a haircut, even after he’s just had one.
Professional and sartorial contrasts aside, both co-stars place great faith in the power of new media to expand their political reach. “Through MySpace and Facebook,” says Polis, “I’m reaching people who don’t read the newspaper every day or follow the talking heads on television but whose votes count every bit as much as those who spend time following insider debate.” Polis and Chaffetz both blog, Twitter, maintain YouTube channels, and court Facebook friends. (“Jason and I have these little contests,” says Polis. “He actually has more Twitter followers, and I have more Facebook friends.") Chaffetz in particular has warmed to video blogging. In addition to the hours of handycam footage he turns over to CNN for each show, the congressman produces nightly “cot-side chats” from the folding bed in his office closet. These one- to-two-minute videos on the hot topic of his day (D.C. voting rights, the budget, the icky invasiveness of whole-body imaging in airports) are posted on Chaffetz’s House website, along with links to other memorable media moments—such as his January turn on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” (During his three hours of taping, Chaffetz, a former cosmetics executive, allowed host Stephen Colbert to give him a facial and lost three out of three rounds of leg-wrestling to him.) While playing straight man to Colbert or giving America a video tour of where he keeps his toothbrush, “undies,” and pudding stash may seem silly, Chaffetz says such shenanigans “create these great connections” with people—which, in turn, “opens a lot of doors” to talk about more serious matters.
Indeed, Chaffetz has far grander goals than winning converts to a particular policy position—or even winning extra votes back home. “I'm opening up a dialogue with a bigger, broader audience in the United States of America for the Republican Party in general,” he asserts. While the culture of reality television, YouTube, and Twitter has put down roots on both sides of the congressional aisle, Republicans seem to be embracing it in disproportionate numbers. (At last count, GOP Twitterers on the Hill outnumbered Democratic users by more than two to one.) As Chaffetz sees it, his out-of-power party has no choice. “We’re essentially in the business of communicating rather than legislating,” he tells me. “Democrats have the numbers. If we want to be back in the majority, we’re going to have to win the communications battle.” At a January off-site meeting, Chaffetz stood up in front of his caucus and declared himself “their worst nightmare.” Boasting that he “ate one of our own” in the primary by building a grassroots network based on a more intimate, more direct, and more light-hearted connection with voters, he warned colleagues to do the same or brace for defeat. “It’s killing me,” he groans. “At the end of the day, we have the better message.” The failure, he says, is with the party’s “methodology” and messengers. “John McCain may be an American hero, but ...” Chaffetz laughs awkwardly, clearly weighing candor against diplomacy. “He may be not the most dynamic, fun personality.”
Expressing optimism that the revolution will spread, Chaffetz notes that other lawmakers are engaged in similar outreach. Many members now maintain their own YouTube channels—some more enthusiastically than others. Ileanna Ros-Lehtinen, for instance, has set up cameras in her office and has staff video her off-site events. (Those looking for excitement can watch the Florida Republican engaged in such engrossing activities as flipping through a brochure at Native Tree Day at John Pennekamp State Park, standing around swatting bugs with volunteers at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and posing for pictures next to a giant sandcastle at Islamorada’s Island Fest.) Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is known as a big Twitterer, as is Texas Representative John Culberson. Even Senator John McCain, who conceded last year that he didn't know how to use a computer and had “never felt the particular need to e-mail,” has not only begun Twittering but recently participated, with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in the first ever “Twitterview.” Admittedly, some members lean more heavily than others on ghost-Twitterers—up-close-and-personal has its limits—and, now and again, the technology leads a lawmaker to forget himself, such as when Republican Representative Pete Hoekstra Twittered about having just touched down in Iraq on what was supposed to be a hush-hush visit. But every novel communications phenomenon has its growing pains.
As for using old media in new ways, recent congressional guests on “The Colbert Report” have included Wyoming’s Cynthia Lummis and Illinois’s Aaron Schock, the 27-year-old freshman who—in one of the strangest signs of both the political and the media times—has been winning national coverage of his six-pack abs from outlets ranging from TMZ.com (which has taken to stalking Schock) to CNN’s “State of the Union” to ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Like Chaffetz, Schock sees value in reaching beyond the Sunday talk shows. He told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that “some of these alternative forums are important because it gets non-traditional voters engaged. If they’re learning about me on TMZ or some of these other blogs and YouTube videos, then they’re recognizing my face and my name so that, when I’m out on CNN or the other networks talking about issues, they’re going to maybe stop from clicking the channel and listen to what I have to say.”
Chaffetz admits that not all of his colleagues are ready to loosen up. When he agreed to appear on “The Colbert Report,” the congressman recalls, “a lot of people were critical. They said, ‘Are you crazy? He'll tear you apart.’” And he doesn't even try to explain the CNN.com show to stodgier members: “They don’t even get it. I don't even go there.” But, to reach voters these days, he says, “you better make it fun, or people are going to tune you out.” Worse yet: They might just vote you off the island.
Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 20, 2009 issue of the magazine.