WASHINGTON » No single emoji seemed quite adequate to capture the collective flip-out over the admission by Sen. Lindsey Graham that he has never, ever sent an email.
"I don’t know what that makes me," Graham, R-S.C., said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
A card-carrying member of the Flip Phone Caucus, perhaps. A first-team all-Luddite, maybe. And, without a doubt, one of a small circle of members of Congress who shape 21st-century policy and legislation but do not actually send or receive email.
The email quirks of politicians burst into view in recent days, after news broke that Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, used a private email address during her time as secretary of state. On Tuesday, Clinton held a news conference to try to quell the controversy.
But in a city where aides and operatives take an almost perverse pleasure in checking their email in the middle of the night when they wake up to go the bathroom; in a Capitol complex where lawmakers are often trailed by "purse boys" and "body men"; and in a building that still employs staff to press the elevator buttons for the senators, some members seem to take pride in not emailing.
In some ways, after all, eschewing email can be seen as the ultimate status symbol — second only to sending someone to fetch your lunch.
Graham — rarely a sympathizer with Clinton — could have given her tips. His frequent Republican sidekick, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has said he also does not use email — in part to prevent himself from filing off hot-tempered missives he might regret.
Nor does Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "Maybe once every four months, I do one email," he said, with evident relish. "I like to communicate by talking directly to people. I find it’s an important part of humanity to understand not just the words that are said, but how they’re said, the tone they’re said in, the speed they’re said with."
And Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said his email habits tended toward "not very much." When he does turn to his iPhone 6 — "the latest," he noted — his emails are "short things, like ‘Thanks.’ ‘Great.’"
In a Capitol where bare shoulders for women are considered too informal for the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor, forgoing email also seems like a polite vestige of the rules and etiquette that once reigned in Congress.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and longtime former Hill staff member, recalled that one of his bosses, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., could not use his BlackBerry "if his life depended on it."
"When the Senate first distributed BlackBerrys to members, he gave his to his assistant — and it was never seen from again," Manley said.
He added that while it is now common to find lawmakers and staffers pecking away on smartphones, "back in the day" when Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was alive, "staff and members, at least on the Democratic side, all lived in fear of him catching someone even peeking at the things, because it was strictly against the rules and defied decorum."
On Monday, Schumer proudly displayed his silver LG flip phone. "It’s a Verizon 3G," he said. "What is it called? 3G?"
"Nope," said Matt House, his press secretary, with the amused resignation of an aide accustomed to having his boss call every time he has a new thought to share. "I don’t know, but 3G is not the correct answer."
Undaunted, Schumer enumerated his phone’s perceived virtues — "It goes from your ear to your mouth," and his staff prefers it. "If a Type A personality like me emailed, I’d be bothering them all the time," he said. "This way, they don’t have to answer."
Like Schumer, Graham also still has a flip phone, though they do own iPads, which they use to read the news. McCain has an iPhone 6 Plus — and came under criticism for playing iPhone poker during a committee hearing on Syria last Congress. (An aide says now that McCain is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, his cyber poker-during-hearing days are behind him.)
But the Flip Phone Caucus is, admittedly, still the outlier — not unlike the flip phone itself. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., snorted in laughter when asked if he used email. "Constantly," he said. "One of my goals and challenges as a parent is to stop texting, Tweeting, emailing, Facebooking, while I’m home with my kids."
And Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was "in awe" of her colleagues who did not email. "I can’t imagine how I could do my job without the ability to communicate on a constant basis," she said, looking up from her iPhone 5 — with an extended battery pack — to answer the question.
"Now admittedly, I have seven children and eight grandchildren, so that’s also a consideration," she said. "I’m multitasking most of the day, helping somebody figure out how to negotiate with their landlord at the same time I’m trying to go to a hearing."
Other lawmakers offered a more droll take on their colleagues’ decidedly low-tech tendencies. "Yes, of course I email — I’m modern, I’m contemporary, I’m hot, I’m hip," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who at age 78 recently announced her plans to retire at the end of her term. But, she added, "If they want to cling to papyrus and stylus, they can."
And Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., when asked about his email habits, responded dryly: "Never. I’ve never used it. I understand some of my colleagues do, but I figure if I end up using email, I’ll get into real trouble."
"So I have a quill," he continued, unable to suppress a giggle. "And what’s the paper they have in Egypt?"
Indeed, as Clinton learned this week, email — whether you use it, don’t use it or set up your own private server to store it — can be politically confounding. There just might be some merit in avoiding it entirely, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist.
"Politicians used to be taught ‘don’t write if you can say it, don’t say it if you can nod,’" Feehery said. "’Don’t email it is the updated version, and a very smart way to avoid embarrassment and possibly jail."