It was only fitting that last night, attempting to squash the firestorm created by his criticism of President Obama’s latest ad attacking Mitt Romney’s private equity at Bain, Cory Booker took to Twitter. If there’s one thing everyone agrees upon about Booker, it’s that his Twitter feed is so great. He has famously used it to talk directly to voters for some time now, a move that regularly earns him the kind of praise summed up in a recent admiring article by Buzzfeed: His social media presence is “a singular glimpse at the future of political life on the social web,” that offers a “mix of responses to constituents complaining about broken traffic lights, self-help aphorisms, and the occasional song lyric or words of encouragement for the New Jersey Devils.” So when Booker started the hashtag #IStandWithObama to repudiate a Republican National Committee petition, hinted at the pain he was undergoing (“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” - Albert Camus“), and retweeted messages from people who were backing him (“Thanks RT
@Keethers: @Creoleleo @stefsstuff I’d submit that Booker has done more to elect Obama than all the folks upset with him right now”), that should have been the perfect crisis-management solution, right?
Wrong. It was irritating, in a way that’s quintessentially Booker. Twitter ruined the shining Cory Booker image for me some time ago, the same way his Bain remarks seem to have ruined it for others. It has nothing to do with his policy and everything to do with his self-presentation. Things I admire about a politician in the abstract (dogged, micro-level commitment to his constituents, say) are incredibly annoying when I and the more than a million other people who follow Booker are looped in on all of those interactions — mostly, I can’t help but suspect, so we could all know they were happening. A mayor showing up with a snow shovel in response to an @reply might make a great story, but is responding to individual complaints about garbage pickup and electricity outages really the best use of his time — or the most efficient way to tackle the problem? And it’s but one step from there to: Should he really be spending this much time on Twitter, anyway?
Booker seems to genuinely enjoy it, but there’s surely a heavy dose of brand-management behind the decision to tweet (as there is for any politician, naturally). His feed reveals Booker to be relentlessly self-promotional and narcissistic; these are qualities inherent to most politicians and acquired by the rest in order to win campaigns, but there’s something particularly unnerving about having them so fully on display. Twitter is a place where bragging, humble or otherwise, is mocked. That Booker is doing the bragging himself, rather than letting a staffer sing his praises, makes it worse. The man rescued people from a burning building not so long ago, and yet by that point I’d become so closely attuned to his self-promotion that I found myself getting irritated with him for basking in the moment. He’d risked his life, admirable any way you slice it, and I still couldn’t help wondering if the PR possibilities had been a factor in his decision.
Yet the bar is so low for politicians’ Twitter feeds that Booker still gets praised as the form’s highest practitioner. Mostly, their feeds err on the side of the extremely anodyne: Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Michelle Obama, and even Mr. Gaffe-tastic himself, Joe Biden, keep their feeds strictly to preapproved, vetted talking points and announcements of appearances, manned by faceless low-level communications staffers. A few politicians offer a more unmediated look at their inner lives, and are celebrated for it — Claire McCaskill’s football fandom, we now know, is not just for show, nor is Chuck Grassley’s hatred of the so-called History Channel. Politicians! They’re Just Like Us! (Except with less aptitude for smartphone keyboards.)
But even those feeds feature plenty of deadly dull tweets. “At 1 pm central going to talk on the floor of Senate about saving rural post offices.“ Or “Watch C-SPAN live on the internet if you want to watch our hearing on wartime contracting. Will last 11/2 to 2 hours.” Hold the phones, Claire! And that’s the problem: The central tension in political tweeting is really just an outcropping of a more general tension politicians face every day, and why the whole thing drives so many observers nuts — you need to show enough personality that people aren’t bored, but show too much and you might just shoot yourself in the foot. Or @reply yourself into the ground.
Related: Twitter Made Me Hate You