BlackBerries play politics

In Washington, the seat of U.S. government, participants spell out the language of the political process on the tiny keys of BlackBerries.

Many lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, and other political players don't leave home or office without the wireless handheld devices from Research in Motion (RIM). Though other wireless devices vie for market share, the dark blue BlackBerries dominate.

In fact, many inside-the-beltway types are so obsessively attached to their BlackBerries that the gadgets are commonly called "crackberries" here, in homage to their addictive nature.

Craving Connection

"I cannot live without my BlackBerry," says Jarvis Stewart, a Washington lobbyist who represents such corporate clients as Wal-Mart Stores, Federal Express, and Toyota.

"I use it mostly for communicating with my clients. I've been able to sit in the audience at a hearing, and before it is over I can send my client five or six highlights from the meeting, or I can do it in the cab ride back to my office after the meeting," Stewart says.

The lure of the BlackBerry became widespread after the massive failure of cell phone communications on September 11, 2001. On that day, many public officials were alarmed to find themselves cut off from communication with their peers, their staff, and even their families.

After the tragedy, several congressional communications departments began promoting the use of wireless technology as a way of improving communication during emergencies.

But what began as interest in a precautionary device has blossomed into a communications revolution for lawmakers and their staffs.

"The congresswoman uses her BlackBerry to multitask during hearings while she is listening to witnesses," says Nadeam Elshami, an aide to Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois). "She uses it to exchange information from her colleagues in Congress...or sometimes when she is waiting for her turn to question the witnesses, we will send her e-mail on her BlackBerry with important questions to ask."

Elshami says Schakowsky uses the BlackBerry as an essential tool for staying in touch with her district office back in Illinois.

Staffers also use the BlackBerry to notify lawmakers of important press calls or upcoming votes on the floor of the House or Senate, and to forward the text of proposed legislation, Elshami said.

Following Protocol

But the addiction goes deeper than convenience. BlackBerries have become a staple of Washington culture. They have become as much an insignia of the political elite as the power tie and the chauffer-driven Lincoln Town Car.

House and Senate rules of decorum forbid the use of cell phones, cameras, tape recorders, and other such gadgetry on the floor. But according to a spokesperson at the Sergeant at Arms Office, BlackBerries can be used so discreetly that the rule banning communications devices is not enforced against the handheld gadgets.

RIM introduced the BlackBerry five years ago as an always-on e-mail device marketed in partnership with wireless services providers. RIM has improved on those first models by adding color, global telecommunications support, and wireless phone service.

Users manipulate the keyboard with agile thumbs, and the devices remain small enough and quiet enough to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

That's why BlackBerries have become ubiquitous in Washington. They coexist peacefully with decorum, which after 228 years is integral to the operations of the federal government.

Certain lobbyists and other influential types have even been known to e-mail BlackBerry-toting congressmembers when legislation is being "marked up" in committee. But that, lobbyist Stewart says, is a step over the line.

"I don't usually send e-mails to members during hearings--I think it's a little too aggressive; it's a little rude," Stewart says. "Anyway, if you haven't already made your point by then, it's probably too late."

Sullivan writes for the Medill News Service

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