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Inspiration In 140 Characters, Long Before Twitter

Newt Gingrich announced that he is running for president this week in a tweet: a short message on Twitter, where all messages can't be longer than 140 characters. Mr. Gingrich included a link to a YouTube video.

Tweets and other social media platforms have become their own media. Jokes and gossip, to be sure, built a lot of Twitter followings. But reporters and politicians now use it because tweets can reach millions of people almost as quickly, and more directly, than even radio or TV can.

I began to write a few cranky reporters' remarks despairing over the idea that important ideas can be shrunk to 140 characters. You can imagine some of my outrage: would you want to cram the Ten Commandments or the Magna Carta into just 140 characters?

But the more I wrote, the more I realized: I like tweets. I like the clarity and discipline of 140 characters.

When Paul Revere yelled, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" he was sending the tweets of his time: they were called shouts.

You wouldn't want to crunch the Declaration of Independence to 140 characters. But just the phrase, "All men are created equal," may remind us what a truly revolutionary thought that was in 1776.

As George Pyle, an editorial writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, tweeted me yesterday, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth," from Lincoln's Gettysburg address, even leaves 38 characters to spare.

Winston Churchill's electrifying oratory "armed the English language, and sent it into battle," as President Kennedy once said. Churchill's speeches should still be savored for their eloquence as well as their resolve.

But "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," and "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender," are phrases that, all by themselves, but steel into human souls. As Lincoln's, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive to bind up our nation's wounds," builds bold compassion into a few words.

Politicians often use words to obscure, not clarify. They use scads of words to hide their ideas in plain sight, piling up phrases like mounds of popcorn, hoping to give everyone a little something to scoop up.

You wouldn't want to compress Don Quixote, Macbeth, or a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into 140 characters. But instead of having a debate in which a dozen presidential candidates rattle off rehearsed phrases to score points, maybe we should just say: please tell us in 140 characters what would you cut from a budget? That might be a little longer, but more revealing, than a bumper sticker.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.