Heard on the Hill

How Orrin Hatch Found His Twitter Groove

‘He has this incredible sense of humor, he loves self-deprecating humor, he loves age jokes’

Matt Whitlock, left, says the voice of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Twitter account is the senator himself. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s not easy to create one of the most popular Twitter handles in Congress when you’re speaking in your 83-year-old boss’s voice.

But Matt Whitlock, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch’s communication director, has done just that. The Utah Republican has about 65,000 followers.

What makes his tweets so popular? They’re hilarious.

“I hope that people see that it is Orrin Hatch,” Whitlock said. “It’s not a bunch of millennial staffers testing out funny jokes. It’s a reflection of Orrin Hatch, someone who’s been here 40 years and still has some fun work left to do that will be good for a lot of people.”

While the platform skews young — the majority of Twitter users are under age 50, according to the Pew Research Center — Hatch, who is retiring after this term, has no interest in hiding his age. 

“He has this incredible sense of humor, he loves self-deprecating humor, he loves age jokes,” Whitlock said. “The fact that he’s in his 80s is not something he’s trying to hide because I think he actually sees it as more of a virtue than a negative.”

Watch: Hatch and Alexander Play Piano, Discuss Songwriting Legislation

His own voice

Whether it’s a message Hatch wants to get out or a joke at his own expense, he shares it on Twitter. 

“I think that it is the most Orrin Hatch thing in the world to use humor and sometimes a little bit of wit to spread that message and make sure that it gets to that audience that needs to hear it,” Whitlock said. “There’s kind of a misconception. People ask, who’s the voice behind Sen. Hatch’s Twitter? Well, it’s Sen. Hatch.”

UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 01: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talks with reporters before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced that Republicans have enough votes to pass the tax reform bill on December 1, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Hatch talks with reporters in December, with Whitlock behind him to his left. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The senator was caught on camera trying to remove glasses that he wasn’t wearing during a contentious Senate Judiciary hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

“I showed the senator the video on loop, the one that went so viral just of him doing that. He watched it for about a minute and was just laughing so hard,” Whitlock said.

He created a fake Warby Parker page, implying that invisible glasses were the new trend. 

“What they’re doing here on Capitol Hill is important, no one would ever say that the issues they’re dealing with are not serious issues, but, I think that Sen. Hatch believes that that’s no reason to not have some fun with it,” Whitlock said.

“He likes what he does and he enjoys it, so he’d like for people to also have an opportunity to see that he’s having fun doing it, or else he probably wouldn’t have done it for 40 years,” he added.

When Whitlock thinks a light-hearted statement is appropriate, he will run a few different iterations of a joke by the senator.

For example, as debate over the removal of Confederate monuments raged last summer, Hatch saw that an ESPN reporter was pulled off the air because his name was Robert Lee. He wanted to weigh in.

The joke they settled on? “If you happen upon a Civil War-era Orrin Hatch in your reading, do not be alarmed, that was also me.” 

Getting serious

But Hatch has also used social media to make profound statements.  When neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, he wrote, “My brother didn’t give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home.”

“I was really surprised at the reception that that got, but that was genuine Orrin Hatch,” Whitlock said of the tweet. 

And there are times when more than a quick tweet may be needed when the day’s events take a serious turn and evolve rapidly.

That was the case last week when White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned after allegations of domestic violence from two ex-wives surfaced.

After initially preparing a defense of Porter — Hatch’s onetime chief of staff — his office tweeted another statement, saying the senator was “heartbroken.” The course correction was later attributed to a miscommunication with the White House.

Hatch unfiltered

Retweets, memes, Snapchat filters — Hatch’s office has dabbled in them all. Last year, when Hatch was in a meeting about agriculture, Whitlock was playing around with Snapchat filters and came across the infamous dancing hot dog.

“While [Hatch] was thinking about something, staring at the coffee table, at a book on it, that’s exactly where I superimposed the Snapchat hot dog that was dancing,” he said. “He happened to be staring at the Snapchat hot dog for 10 seconds, which I showed him afterward, and he thought was the funniest thing in the world.”

The office continued to use the filter to spread the senator’s message of the importance of Utah’s pork industry.

Whitlock’s advice to staffers trying to relate to their bosses, who may be from very different generations (Hatch is 53 years older than him), is to look for ways to bridge the gap.

“Our bosses are here because they have skills, knowledge, experience. How can we amplify that?” he said. “His legacy here is about finding people that he may have fundamentally disagreed with about so many things and yet finding opportunities to work with them to do important things. I hope that people see that in social media.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.