At the middle of last week, an e-mail landed in this blogger's In Box from The White House
[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
To Obama With Love, and Hate, And Desperation
By Jeanne Marie Laskas
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
On a recent October morning in the White House mailroom, on the ground floor of the Executive Office Building just beside a loading dock, 10 interns sat at two long tables, each trying to get through 300 letters. Grab a bundle, sit down and read. It was pretty straightforward: Read. A girl doesn’t want her mom to be deported, and can the president please help? A guy finally admits to his wife that he’s gay, and now he would like to tell the president. A car dealer writes to say his bank is shutting him down, and thanks for nothing, Mr. President. A vet who can’t stop seeing what he saw in Iraq writes a barely intelligible rant that makes his point all the more intelligible: “Help.” An inmate admits to selling crack to all those people but he wants the president to know he is not a lost cause: “I have dreams Mr. President, big dreams.” A man can’t find a job. A woman can’t find a job. A teacher with advanced certification can’t find a damn job. A lesbian couple just got married; thank you, Mr. President. A man sends his medical bills, a woman sends her student-loan statements, a child sends her drawing of a cat, a mother sends her teenager’s report card — straight A’s, isn’t that awesome, Mr. President?
This pile, that pile, another pile over there; pull from the middle if you want. The narrative was sloppy and urgent, America talking all at once. No filter. The handwriting, the ink, the choice of letterhead — every letter was a real object from a real person, and now you were holding it, and so now you were responsible for it.
Mr. Obama — My President,
In 2007 I was proud of my hands. They had veneered calluses where my palms touched my fingers. Cuts and scrapes were never severe. Splinters and blisters merely annoyed me. With a viselike grip and dexterous touch my hands were heat-tolerant and cold-ignorant. I was nimble when whittling or when sharpening an ax. I could exfoliate with an open palm when my wife’s back itched or my cat arched for a rub. My nails were usually stained after a chore; they were tougher, not cracked, seldom manicured. My hands defined my work, passions, my life.
After 23 years as a land surveyor and nearly 2 years unemployed, I miss my career and my old hands. I kneel nights and clutch new hands together, praying we all can recover what seems lost. May God guide your hands to mold our future.
Thank you for listening to the Citizen I am,
At the beginning of his first term, President Obama said he wanted to read his mail. He said he would like to see 10 letters a day. After that, the 10LADs, as they came to be called, were put in a purple folder and added to the back of the briefing book he took with him to the residence on the second floor of the White House each night.
Choosing which letters made it to the president started here in the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, in the “hard-mail room,” which had the tired, unkempt look of a college study hall during finals — paper everywhere, files stacked along walls, bundles under tables, boxes propping up computer monitors dotted with Post-its, cables hanging. Hushed young men in ties and hushed young women in sweater sets and hose — you dress up if you work for the White House — held pencils between their teeth or behind their ears, all of them with their heads bent, reading. There was an equally crowded work space, “the email room,” in a satellite office just outside the White House gates on Jackson Place. All in all, the Office of Presidential Correspondence — “OPC” was what everyone called it — required the orchestration of 50 staff members, 36 interns and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers to keep up with about 10,000 letters and messages every day.
Anyone could nominate a letter or email for inclusion in the day’s 10LADs. They called it “sampling.” To sample a letter in the hard-mail room, you just wrote “sample” (in pencil) on the top left corner of a letter, and then you walked it over and dropped it in the wooden inbox with a sticker on it that said “Samples.” About 2 percent of the total incoming mail ended up there. Did the letter move you in some particular way? Don’t overthink it. Sample it. The bar was kept deliberately low. These were people writing, and you’re a person reading, and the president is a person. Just keep remembering that, and you’ll be fine.
Dear Mr. President,
It’s late in the evening here in Oahu, and the sun will soon be sinking behind the horizon onto the ocean. [ ... ] Sir, I was injured in Afghanistan in 2011. [ ... ] I wasn’t afraid in Afghanistan, but I am horrified at the thought of my future. I want to serve my country, make a difference and live up to the potential my family sees in me. I am scared, I think, because I have no plan on what employment to pursue. It is something that is extremely difficult to me; and with my family leaving the island soon I am truly lost. Sir, all my life I’ve tried to find what a Good man is, and be that man, but I realize now life is more difficult for some. I’m not sure where I am going, and it is something that I cannot shake. [ ... ]
“You get attached,” Jamira Chick, an intern, told me. She had her hair bundled tightly on top of her head and wore a pretty print top. She said that one time she opened a letter from a woman who was writing the president to say she had lost a family member to gun violence. “She had enclosed photos,” Chick said. “Just blood all over in a car. ... ” She tapped her eraser on the table, up and down on the table.
“Everybody has that one letter,” the staff member in charge of the interns, Yena Bae, told me. The letters could take a toll. Unlike most other shops at the White House, OPC offered monthly counseling sessions to anyone who felt the need.
Besides deciding whether to set a letter aside for the president to read, you had to code it. Every letter. Code it with a “disposition,” on the top left corner (again, in pencil). Gun violence; health care; drone strikes; domestic violence; Ukraine; taxes. Put your initials under the code. Code a stack, then stand up to stretch your neck and your legs and take your stack over to “the wall,” a tan shelving unit stuffed with paper, labeled shelf after shelf with corresponding dispositions. Gitmo; mortgage crisis; immigration; bees. (Bees?) The codes corresponded to more than 100 different form-response letters from the president that the OPC writing team, a group of nine, worked to constantly update. Meantime, all the letters from kids went into a separate bin, to be picked up by the kid team upstairs; requests for birthday, anniversary and baby acknowledgments went to the greetings team; gifts went to the gifts team. A casework team of six across the hall handled letters that required individual attention from a federal agency. Maybe someone needed help getting benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example; a caseworker could step in and investigate. Two more codes to be aware of: “Sensitive” meant someone was writing to the president about a loss, a sickness or other personal trauma. Those went over to Jack Cumming, a quiet guy in beige and the occasional shy grin who spent his days reading letters of condolence from the president, and who often needed a break from the unbearable sadness, and so he liked to hang out in the hard-mail room. “It’s nice to come in here and just ... read,” he said.
The most important code everyone needed to know about was “red dot.” A red dot was an emergency. These were from people writing to the president to say they wanted to kill themselves, or someone else, or they seemed in some way on the edge; if you were wondering if you should write “red dot” on a letter, you probably should, and then you immediately walked that one across the hall and gave it to Lacey Higley, the woman in the back corner more or less in charge of rescuing people.
“Do you need a break?” Bae asked me, whispering, as you do in the hard-mail room. She was sitting with us, flipping through letters faster than us, scribbling. Like all the OPC staff members, she was young, mid-20s; she had carefree, shiny long brown hair, and she wore two rings, a regular band in the regular place and then a thin silver one sitting above a knuckle for flair. “Do you need cookies? We have cookies.” She reached for a tub of oatmeal-raisins and slid it. I asked her if she had a letter that haunted her.
“It was from a mother who missed her son,” she said. She pushed her hair behind her ears. The son had been kidnapped, and the investigation was underway. Bae read the letter a dozen times, stunned by details in it that for reasons of OPC confidentiality she could not reveal to me. “Everything was hush-hush.” She told me she alerted the authorities, then felt helpless because there was nothing more she could do. “Nothing.” Weeks later, she learned that the son had been killed. She came in to the office and sat at her computer and sobbed. “What if his mom wrote again?” She told me the experience changed the direction of her life and her sense of her place in the world.
Chick was leaning in to hear Bae tell the story of the mother and the lost son. She had put her pencil down. “It’s weird I’m going to go from this to being back at school,” Chick said. “It’s hard to explain all this to my friends.”
“You can’t,” Bae said.
“I never thought about how powerful a letter was.”
“Did you even know we had a correspondence office before you came here?” Bae asked her.
“I had no idea.”
“You think you’re going to be the mail lady or something.”
“We’re in the mailroom.”
On a whiteboard was the countdown: “You have 99 days to make a difference in the life of a letter writer,” referring to January 19, 2017, the last day of the Obama administration and the last day for this OPC staff, nearly all of whom were political appointees and would no longer have a job at the White House. The election was less than a month away, and Donald Trump was still trailing Hillary Clinton by 8 points, according to the polls. “Our time is, like, ticking,” Bae told me. “We want to put our letter-writers in good shape for the next administration. We want them to be in good hands.”
Presidents have dealt with constituent mail differently over the years. It started simply enough: George Washington opened the mail and answered it. He got about five letters a day. Mail back then was carried by foot, or on horseback or in stagecoaches — not a high volume. Then came steamboats, then rail and a modernized postal system, and by the end of the 19th century President William McKinley was overwhelmed. One hundred letters every day? He hired someone to help, and that was the origin of OPC. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that things got especially tricky. In his weekly fireside chats, Franklin D. Roosevelt began a tradition of speaking directly to the country, inviting people to write to him and tell him their troubles. About a half-million letters came pouring in during the first week, and the White House mailroom became a fire hazard. Constituent mail grew from there, and each succeeding president formed a relationship with it. By the end of his presidency, Nixon refused to read anything bad anyone said about him. Reagan answered dozens of letters on weekends; he would stop by the mailroom from time to time, and he enjoyed reading the kid mail. Clinton wanted to see a representative stack every few weeks. George W. Bush liked to get a pile of 10 already-answered letters on occasion. These, anyway, are the anecdotal memories you find from former staff members. Little hard data exists about constituent mail from previous administrations; historians don’t focus on it, presidential libraries don’t feature it; the vast majority of it has long since been destroyed.
President Obama was the first to come up with a deliberate and explicit practice of 10 letters every day. If the president was home at the White House (he did not tend to mail when he traveled), he would be reading constituent mail, and everyone knew it, and systems were put in place to make sure it happened. The mail had currency. Some staff members called it “the letter underground.” Starting in 2010, all hard mail would be scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every email every day would be used to create a word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at what everyday Americans were writing in to say.
Dear Mr. President,
[ ... ] YOU, sir, are the PRESIDENT of the United States. YOU, sir, are the one person that IS supposed to HELP the LITTLE PEOPLE like my family and others like us. We are the ones that make this country what it is. You say that jobs are up and spending is up. YOU, sir, need to come to my neck of the woods and see how wrong that is. Because here in Spotsylvania County, it’s not. I live in Partlow, a rural community of Spotsylvania, and I tell you what ... jobs are few and far between. My husband and I just want to be able to live and be able to buy a cake or a present for our kids when it’s their birthday or for Christmas. That’s another thing — my boys didn’t even have a Christmas because we did not have money to buy them presents. Have YOU ever had to tell your girls that Santa isn’t coming to your house? [ ... ]
So much of the mail in the beginning of Obama’s presidency was about economic hardship and helplessness. There was a feeling of dread about climate change, and a loss of faith in everything from government to banks to the Catholic Church. Here was the new guy who said he could fix things. It was the getting-to-know-you phase. They told him their problems. They told him to quit smoking. They told him, wow, a black guy in the White House. They told him to get Bin Laden. They told him to create jobs. “Let’s see if you’re as smart as we hope you are.”
The tone of the letters was the main difference that Annmarie Emmet, a volunteer and a retiree, told me she saw. She read mail all through most of Bush’s two terms in office, then stayed on. “With Bush it would be more like, ‘Why aren’t you helping these people as a group, or doing more for that group?’ As opposed to personal struggles. I would say they felt a more personal connection with the Obamas. Kind of like, ‘I’m like you were, I need your help.’ And then from the beginning the LGBTQ people have flocked to him. You never saw that in the Bush administration.”
Dear Mr. President,
(Because the person I love can be dishonorably discharged for loving me back, even though he is honorably serving his country right now in Iraq, I have to send this letter anonymously. It pains me to have to do so.)
[ ... ] My partner is currently serving in Iraq, and is in a situation where he is under fire on a daily basis. He’s a good soldier, and our country needs him to continue doing the excellent job that he has been recognized for.
The day he deployed, I dropped him off far from his base’s main gate, and he walked alone in the dark and the rain to report for duty. Where the rest of his buddies were surrounded by spouses and children at mobilization ceremonies, he stood by himself.
The phone trees don’t have my name on them, and base support services don’t apply — even though we’ve been together for 16 years and are raising a beautiful child together. Our communication is self-censored, and we are cruelly unable to nurture each other at the exact moment we both need it the most.
If something were to happen to him, no one from his unit will call me. If, like so many good soldiers before him, he gives that last full measure of devotion, no one will come knock on my door. No one will present me with a flag. It is, and would be, as if the most important thing in his life — his family — never existed. [ ... ]
In 2009, Natoma Canfield, a cancer survivor from Medina, Ohio, wrote in detailing her staggering health insurance premiums, a letter Obama would keep framed and hung in a corridor between his private study and the Oval Office. “I need your health reform bill to help me!!! I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health care costs!!” It stood in for the tens of thousands of similar letters the mailroom was handling on the health care issue alone. They saw spikes in volume after major events like the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Charleston, S.C.; the Paris terrorist attacks; the government shutdown; Benghazi. You could see it in the word clouds. “Jobs” might grow for a time, or “Syria,” or “Trayvon,” or a cluster like “family-children-fear” or “work-loans-student” or “ISIS-money-war” surrounding a giant “Help,” the most common word of all. After a gunman opened fire on police officers in Dallas last year, the word “police” ballooned, surrounded by “God-guns-black-America” with a tiny “peace” and even tinier “Congress.”
When Obama started commuting prison sentences, a large influx of inmate mail followed. There were scores of regulars writing in. Like the woman who emailed, daily, asking to become the ambassador to Cuba. (She quit after Shaquille O’Neal got the sports-envoy gig.) If one issue remained constant, a solid drumbeat, it was gun violence.
My wife and I very recently lost our 22-year-old son, David Jr. He took his life with a handgun that he purchased. Our son was precious to us. He could have done anything he chose to do.
I am writing because our son was suffering from mental illness yet still was able to purchase a gun. He had been involuntarily hospitalized when he was 17, yet Pennsylvania allows people with this on their record to purchase a gun.
The sadness we are feeling is overwhelming us. We are trying to be strong for our other three sons, but we are breaking down every day. [ ... ]
The conversation happening in the mail did not always align with the one the White House may have been advancing. “For years and years, sentencing disparities and criminal-justice-reform issues were coming a lot into hard mail, because that’s often the last-resort channel,” Fiona Reeves told me. She was the director of OPC, in charge of everything. “There was this feeling like only we knew about it.” The letters made their way to Obama — Reeves decided to include inmates in his nightly reading, ending a standard practice among modern administrations of ignoring inmate mail, or forwarding it to the Justice Department without a response from the president. In 2014, when the administration rolled out a Justice Department program offering executive relief to federal prisoners serving long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, it surprised no one in the mailroom. The president, they were happy to see, was reading the mail.
There was a similar trajectory with issues around same-sex marriage and repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. These conversations happened in the mail whether or not they happened anywhere else at the White House. The guy who wrote in anonymously in 2009 about his partner in Iraq wrote again in 2014, and this time he used his name.
July 4, 2014
Dear Mr. President,
On August 3 my husband, David Lono Brunstad, will be promoted to senior master sergeant, and I’ll be there to hand him his new shirt with the extra stripes on it.
[ ... ] My husband will deploy next June, but this time his pack will be a little lighter without the worry of whether or not his family will be taken care of. Sir, I doubt that I will ever be able to thank you in person, so I just need you to know that this military family will always be grateful for all you have done for us.
With sincere gratitude,
Darin Konrad Brunstad
When I met with Reeves, she was sitting on the blue couch in her office on the fourth floor of the Executive Office Building, surrounded by letters, all potential 10LADs. Chief among her duties was sorting through the samples each day, roughly 200 or 300 of them between the ones the hard-mail team set aside and the ones the email team forwarded to her. She had to choose the 10 the president would actually read. And no, she didn’t want help. “I have to read,” she said, bouncing a stack of pages up and down and into order. She was in her early 30s, unadorned, the kind of person who wore her professionalism earnestly: a well-practiced posture, a sensible maroon dress, sensible flats. You could imagine her becoming dean of a really hard liberal-arts college one day. She grew up in a house loud with conversation about the way government works — her father is the presidential historian Richard Reeves. She had wanted a career in publishing, not politics. She went to Duke, studied public policy and African and African-American studies, and then came Obama.
Curating the 10LADs was a job she regarded as sacrosanct. She thought of it as a daily conversation with the president, each package an array of voices she believed most accurately rendered America’s mood: Here’s what America is feeling, Mr. President. “Sometimes I think of it as a tray passing under a door,” she said.
Dear Mr. President,
[ ... ] My family has been in farming for years. When I was young, I watched my father and grandfather work from before the sun came up to after I went to bed in order to provide our family with an income. Now grain prices are dropping so low that farmers across the nation are beginning to question whether they will be able to make a profit. America produces food and products to be shipped around the world, yet often in our own small towns, many cannot even make a proper living without federal assistance.
[ ... ] During your presidency you have been busy with controversial topics such as gun control, refugees and health insurance, but what do you plan to do about the above-addressed issues? [ ... ] We must fix these problems first, Mr. President, if we wish to maintain the United States of America.
For Reeves, getting a couple hundred letters down to 20 was one kind of challenge, but the real work was getting to 10. She had to be ruthless. The two previous directors (both of whom lasted two years) used a linear system: subject folders. Give the president letters from energy, health care, immigration and so on. “But then letters in each folder are sort of in competition with each other instead of with the broad group,” she said.
I suppose the point was obvious, but it took me a moment to compute the implications. It had to do with fairness, and an underlying assumption that the letters represented people, not problems.
“Anyway, a disorderly pile is more honest,” she said. Today’s pile was down to 15. She read through them again, one then the next. Her fingers were long, and her nails were painted shiny red, and she held the pages gently, laying each one down slowly, as if she didn’t want to hurt it. “Well, this one has to make it,” she said. “And then this one, it’s hard to follow, but I think even the fact that it’s hard to follow is part of the story. ... And then this, we’re getting so many of these long-term legacy reflections, I don’t know. ... ”
She looked for stories. Not pro-this or con-that, not screeds, not opinions about what someone heard on NPR. The president needed to hear the stories — that’s what he couldn’t get himself. “He can’t walk down a street and see what it normally looks like,” she said. She thought of the letters as a periscope outside the bubble, as a way for him to see as he used to see, before Secret Service protection and armored vehicles and a press pool and the world watching.
“So we have one, two, three, four ... nine, 10, and then this one is 11 so we have to remove one.” She read, shook her head. “O.K., O.K., I guess.” She draped the discard on the far end of the couch. She looked over at it, then reached out to give it a little pat.
The finalists were now a pile on her lap, and she began shuffling them, pulling one out, putting it behind another, and another in front. I wondered about all the shuffling.
“Oh, the order is critical,” she said. It was like putting a book of poems together, or a photo album. “The order in which you see stories affects the way you perceive each one,” she said. “We sometimes use the term ‘sucker punch’ in this office, which is brutal, but. ... ” “Ballsy” was the word one staff member used to describe Reeves. She could put three Dakota Access Pipeline pleas back to back. She could set the president up with a letter from someone gushing about the Affordable Care Act and then another from someone on the margin whose life was made worse because of it. “It’s not: ‘You failed,’ ” she said. “It’s more, ‘Solutions don’t solve things for everyone.’ ”
She grabbed a pencil. “Sometimes on Friday, particularly on Friday, we’ll end with one that’s like, ‘Hey, I like the way you tie your tie.’ ” She called that a chaser. It could be a comment about the dog, or about riding his bike, or just, “Hey, are you a pancakes or waffles man?”
Dear Mr. President,
I think this country needs more spunk. With all the attack, the Zika virus and the wars, this country is a very sad place. Please do something fun. Wear a tie-dye shirt and shorts to something important. Go on a water-skiing trip in the caribbean. Take your family to disney world. Do something fun and outgoing. Also, please say something that will make everyone calm. You do not know how many polotics worries I have. [ ... ]
Lily, Age 8
“OK, this is it,” Reeves announced, finally, gathering the pages on her lap, smoothing them like you would pet a cat.
She flipped over her pencil and went at the letters with her eraser, removing any and all codes. The president should definitely not see codes. “If a letter takes a turn that is surprising in the text — say, on Page 3 something surprising happens in her life, but the way we’ve assigned what category it falls into kind of spoils the surprise — then the writer doesn’t get to bring the president through her experience in the same way.” That’s why everybody had to use pencil.
I asked President Obama if he read the letters in the sequence in which Reeves gave them to him.
“I actually do!” he said.
He said he liked to read the mail after dinner. He took the briefing book to the Treaty Room, did the work in the front first and saved the letters in the purple folder for last. “There are occasions where the letter is particularly, uh, pointed at what an idiot I am,” he said.
I asked him how he came up with the idea of reading 10 letters a day, and he thought awhile, then credited his chief of staff when he first got to the Senate. “Pete Rouse,” he said. Rouse had made it a point to set up a responsive correspondence office. “Constituents feel like you are hearing them, and that you are responding to them — that makes up for a lot of stuff,” Obama remembers Rouse telling him. “That kind of instilled in me the sense of — the power of mail. And people knowing that if they took the time to write something that the person who represented them was actually ... paying attention.”
I don’t know why I was surprised by how slowly the president talked. He seems so pensive on TV, but one on one, he is even more pensive, pulling out each word only after having examined it, like an old man putting together a jigsaw puzzle of some swirly seascape where there is blue, but then there is blue, and then there is “blue,” and ... blue! It occurred to me that the letters gave him permission to legitimately slow down, an opportunity for nuance and contradiction. “I, maybe, didn’t understand when I first started the practice how ... meaningful it would end up being to me,” he said. “By the time I got to the White House and somebody informed me that we were going to get 40,000-or-whatever-it-was pieces of mail a day,” he continued, “I was trying to figure out how do I in some way duplicate that experience I had during the campaign. And I think this was the idea that struck me as realistic. Ten a day, I figured I could do.”
I asked him if there were letters that stuck with him, and he talked about the mail he got from wounded soldiers and veterans, particularly those who had PTSD. He thought back to other letters. He said the good ones weren’t necessarily the dramatic ones.
“The letters that matter the most to me are the ones that ... make a connection,” he said. “Somebody just recently wrote me a letter about when they were growing up — their mom always used to use the N word and was derogatory about African-Americans, but was also an unbelievably great mom who worked three jobs to put the kids through school, and how ... sort of both troubling and proud — how troubling this woman saw her mother’s prejudice, but how proud she was of her mom as a person. And how, toward the end of her life, her attitudes changed, and she ended up announcing she was going to vote for the black guy. She had now passed away, but she thought I should know that.
“You know, there are those kinds of letters, I think, that — shape your attitudes.”
He volunteered stories of other letters: a woman in Minnesota writing about her monthly expenses, a dad writing to say that his son had befriended an illegal immigrant and that the experience had flipped his own bigotry on its head. He talked about a guy who wrote recently to say how joyful he was that the Obama administration was about to end. “I remember that one said, ‘Pack up your bags because, thank goodness, we’re about to undo everything you’ve done, it couldn’t have come a moment too soon,’ something along those lines. I don’t think I responded to that one.”
I asked him about the line between the person and the president when it came to reading the mail. I wondered if the letters had a way of breaking down the barrier. I wasn’t even sure if that was a good thing, but maybe it was the unintended consequence of the 10LADs experiment.
“I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve ... lost myself,” he said. Like everything else, this thought was coming out slowly. But I suppose not losing yourself is a big thing to think about quickly.
“I feel as if — even if my skin is thicker from, you know, public criticism,” he said, “and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become ... cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.”
I asked him how he might advise Donald Trump on what to do with the mail if he were to become president.
He laughed. “You know what, this is a great habit. But um, it, uh,” he said about the idea of a President Trump reading constituent mail. “I think it worked for me because it wasn’t something I did for anyone else — I did it because it ... sustained me. So maybe it will sustain others in the future.
“Back from the OVAL” was what the stamp said on the letters Obama had read. They were returned in batches to OPC, and most had some kind of notation in the margins. “What’s going on here?” the president may have written, which meant he was requesting a follow-up memo from staff with some broader context — say, in response to a teenager dealing with a trend he didn’t understand. He might say, “DOJ, can we help?” which meant he wanted the staff to reach out to the Justice Department to look into the situation, like making sure an inmate is getting the medications he needs. Or he could simply say “Reply,” and if he did that, he would offer notes in the margins for the writing team to use as guidelines for how to respond in his name.
Kolbie Blume was the person who translated those notes from the president. Her office was on the fifth floor of the Executive Office Building — where most of the elevators don’t go; you had to take a back staircase. “Even people in the White House don’t know this office exists,” she told me. She had the clean, untouched look of an adolescent: a neat, short bob, a buttoned-up top with pearls. She was 23. “This is my first job out of college,” she said. “I mean, it’s a lot of pressure.” She grew up in Utah, saw Obama on TV when she was in high school and became one of the only Democrats in town.
Blume was working on a letter to a man who was angry about being profiled by the police in his community. She showed me some of Obama’s handwritten comments in the margins. He had underlined sentences and added exclamation points; the words he wrote were sparse, but Blume understood the code. “See?” she said. “You can break down the sections of his thoughts: I’m mad, too. My administration can’t intervene. But this is what we are doing. No one should have to fear being profiled. And then he ends with, This is what you need to do.”
She’d been at this for two years, and by now she had it down. “It took me awhile,” she said. “It’s so easy to think linearly, like, O.K., here’s a person who wrote about climate change, let’s just plunk in some language about climate change here.” Reeves kept tossing those letters back to her, saying, “No.” This was a person she was writing to. And the president was a person.
“And I vividly remember, almost like an epiphany,” she told me. “It was like, one day I just got it.” Every letter coming from the president was ultimately a variation on the same theme, she realized. “It’s: ‘Look, I hear you. You exist. I’m listening, and your voice matters.’ ” There was something surprising about all of this, the idea of the president in the role of a nation’s therapist.
I reached out to some of the people who sent letters to President Obama and asked them why they decided to write. “Well, I never thought he’d read it,” was the most common refrain, followed by: “I was desperate.”
“My mom, my brother and I were cleaning up the glass,” Ashley DeLeon, who is from Jacksonville, North Carolina, told me, relaying the story about the night in 2014 when she decided to write to the president. It was Christmas. “All the remnants of the fish tank and everything that my father had shot up,” she was saying. “And he shot the flag that was awarded to him when he retired and all of his medals and everything — all the memorabilia associated with the Marine Corps, he shot first. And that to me spoke more than anything. And so we cleaned up as much as we could, and then I went upstairs and I wrote the letter. And — yeah, I wrote it that night.”
Dear Mr. President,
My father was a United States Marine for 22 years before retiring as a master sergeant. As part of the infantry, he deployed on six occasions. Each deployment, my father came back less and less like himself. [ ... ] But after he retired, my father was forgotten. [ ... ] He no longer had the brotherhood of fellow Marines; no one thanked him for his service; no one called to check on his well-being. He was diagnosed with severe PTSD and was medically disabled.
So he drank. And drank. [ ... ] He would drink all night, come back at 6 a.m., sleep all day and repeat the cycle.
I am a junior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. [ ... ] Every day I would look in the mirror and see the remnants of him in my facial features. But the man that I resembled so much, the man who constituted half of me, wasn’t one that I knew any longer.
Christmas Eve was a rainy day in Jacksonville, N.C., Mr. President. I was taking a shower upstairs when I heard the first two shots. I knew it was him. As I jumped out of the shower and ran down the stairs in nothing but a towel I could see my father pacing in the living room with a shotgun in his hand and tears in his eyes. He yelled at me, his little girl: “Get the f*** out of my house! GET OUT!” And in that moment I knew that I had two choices: to run and leave my little brother upstairs and my dad with a loaded weapon. Or to stay. I chose the latter. You see, I chose to stay in that room and fight over that gun because I knew that my dad was still in there somewhere. He had to be. As I struggled with my father, he shot. And shot. The small girl who grew up waving the American flag at her daddy’s homecomings yelled “NOOOO” from the bottom of her gut. Glass shattered. The dogs barked. [ ... ]
I didn’t care if I died, Mr. President. I’m 21 years old, and I would sacrifice myself without a second thought to save the man who raised me from taking his own life. Because when his country turned their back on him, I was still there. The light has long been gone from his eyes, but he is still my father. I am still his little girl. [ ... ]
I’m writing to ask you for your help. Not for my family, Mr. President. My family died that night. I’m asking you to help the others. The little girls and boys who have yet to see their mothers’ and fathers’ souls die away. They need help. Get them help. Don’t forget about them. They need you. Just like Sasha and Malia need you. They do.
Jacksonville, North Carolina
DeLeon’s letter ended up in a pile just like all the others in the OPC hard-mail room. A staff member read it and wrote, “red dot.” He took it across the hall to Lacey Higley. “This is the first time that I read something and I needed to take a walk,” he told her. “We need to make sure someone else sees this. We need to make sure this goes somewhere.” Higley scanned the letter, forwarded the scan to the V.A.’s crisis unit. Then she took the letter to Reeves. “The president needs to see this,” she said. Reeves included DeLeon’s letter in that day’s 10LADs.
DeLeon’s letter didn’t come back in the next batch marked “Back from the OVAL.” It didn’t come back in the batch after that either. Some letters the president stewed over. Some letters he answered in his own hand, on a white card marked, “The White House.”
I was so moved by your letter. As a father, I can only imagine how heartbreaking the situation must be, and I’m inspired by the strength and perspective you possess at such a young age.
I am asking the VA to reach out to your family to provide any support that you need. And please know that beneath the pain, your father still loves his daughter, and is surely proud of her.
Ashley told me she was shocked when she got a letter back from the president. She said she was grateful. But that didn’t mean she got her dad back. He later crashed his motorcycle into an SUV. “He had two gallon-size freezer bags full of medication at the time that he died,” she said.
Higley told me she kept DeLeon’s letter hanging over her desk. It was the letter that helped shape in her a sense of purpose. “It was one of those moments where you just kind of realize the importance of what you’re doing,” she said. “It led me on a new path. Like, helping people and helping families like Ashley’s is something I want to do.”
When people in the West Wing talked about “the letter underground,” this is part of what they meant. This whole thing was just supposed to be about the president getting 10 letters a day, but the mail grew into something else; letters informed policy proposals and speeches — Obama referred to DeLeon’s letter when he signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law — and they affected people personally. Reeves was the chief driver of the letter underground. Why should the president be the only one reading 10LADs, she reasoned a few years ago. “I started spamming people,” she told me. Constituent letters began popping into the inboxes of top aides and speechwriters and advisers. Why not? It caught on. Recently, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, asked why she wasn’t on the list for the 10LADs, so Reeves added her.
“I’m a big hustler of the mail,” Reeves said. “My whole team, we are Kool-Aid drinkers for these letter writers.” And I suppose that was the surprising point. The Kool-Aid wasn’t something Obama was serving. The Kool-Aid was the mail.
This was the message Reeves was preaching, and Blume was preaching, and this was the message you were bombarded with in the hard-mail room: Individual voices matter. Empathy was the name of the game. If that was the code of the mailroom, well, maybe it worked to sway the minds of lawmakers, and maybe it didn’t, but there was a certain degree of sorrow attached to the thought that an experiment like that had to end.
It was raining on the morning after the election, and I arrived at the White House gates early. No one at the main OPC office on the fourth floor was in yet except for Reeves, who was shuffling through papers while I sat on the other side of her desk. “Well,” she said, looking up. Her face held the vague puffiness of a morning after little sleep.
“Well,” she started again, raising her chin. She was having trouble making eye contact. The sky outside her window was a flat, steely gray. I could hear the distant whir of a printer revving up. There was a wet umbrella at my feet.
“Well, your hair looks great,” she said, “Um.”
I told her no, her hair did. “Oh, it’s just. ... ” She shook her head to make a swish. We discussed my bangs. Hair talk, even for someone as poised as Reeves, is a refuge.
Email was expected to fire in at an unprecedented rate the day after the election, and over in the email room, a staff member stood up to address the packed room of about 50 people — all hands on deck — who were becoming confused about what to do. “We’re seeing a lot of people in meltdown mode,” he said, referring to the letter writers. He was a young, slightly pear-shaped guy with jet black hair. The first task, he told everyone, was to simply read. As a matter of routine, each email was coded according to the same scheme as the hard mail, with the prewritten policy-response letters ready to go. But that day staff members were forced to come up with new codes in order to categorize the flow: “election pro,” “election con” and “legacy.”
“So ‘election pro’ is like, ‘Donald Trump is the best, and this is a great day for America,’ ” he told the group. People leaned their heads away from the rows of screens to listen, and others looked up from laptops jammed into corners. There were tissues. People were crying. McMuffins had been brought in, along with doughnuts, juice, Power Bars.
“And then ‘election con’ is going to be like, ‘I’m scared,’ ” he went on. He was standing in the middle of the room, and you could tell he was not used to having to make his voice carry. “So, like, ‘I don’t know what to do, I have a disability, I’m in an LGBT family, I don’t know what’s going on anymore.’ That’s ‘election con.’ ”
“Then ‘legacy’ is gonna be, ‘You know, I was really disappointed about last night, your family is amazing, I think you did great things’ — that’s ‘legacy.’ Some of these things will be a little vague, and I know it’s going to be hard, but feel free to ask questions as we’re going through this, and let’s try to make sure you’re being as specific as possible.”
“What about people talking about election recounts and fraud and rigging?” one intern asked.
“Election fraud? Just close those out — ”
“What about people writing before the results were out?” another asked. “Like people writing in to say, ‘I’m looking forward to President Clinton,’ but it’s clearly obvious that that’s ... not.”
“Yeah. We can close those. We can close those out.”
“What if they’re saying, ‘I’m nervous about the election, I don’t know what I’ll do’?”
“Do we need to call up the military?”
“My wife is undocumented, I have three children, I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
“I’m disabled, I have seizures, will I still have health care.”
“Is he going to void my marriage? Am I going to still be with the person I love?”
Con. Con. Con.
The writing team would have to figure out a response to the election email later that day. What, exactly, should Obama say to all these people?
At the end of the day, Reeves had to pick the 10LADs from the email that came flying in, and Kyle Herman, on the writing team, had to compose the response to America in meltdown mode.
“I haven’t gotten very far,” he told me in his office, sitting in front of a blank screen.
He had been up all night, at his parents’ house in Ohio, where he’d been knocking on doors to get out the vote, and then he flew back to work, and he had never expected to have to write a letter like this.
“Personally, the worst thing is that it feels like a rebuke of the connection we’re trying to make between the president and the people,” he said. “Like, if our responsibility in this office is to connect the president to the people, I’m asking myself, ‘Did we fail?’ ”
He looked at me, expecting something.
“And I don’t understand it, because he’s read more mail than any president in history, he seems more connected to the people than any president in history.”
I felt compelled to remind him that Obama wasn’t running for re-election. Clinton was the one who lost.
“The bargaining stage of grief,” he mumbled.
I could hear Bae outside in the hall, laughing and joking with some other staff members; the discrepancy was palpable. Bae was the kind of person you would want at your mother’s funeral. She told me she had tried to cheer Herman up. “I said, ‘Kyle, isn’t it so cool?’ ” she said. “I think we have a real opportunity to home in on the president’s message. But more than that, like, this is friggin’ America. Which is like, what an opportunity. Like, what an honor. You know what I mean? Like, Woo! What an honor! Like, what? I lived my life!”
She told me that the team had handed over all the transition materials — pages and pages explaining O.P.C. procedures — to Trump’s transition team. Reeves told them she would be available for in-person briefings. She wanted to explain everything, how they built the systems they built, and why.
“It’s like, the Obama administration did all this to hear people’s stories,” Bae said. “How could they possibly not meet us and grow it further?”
Like everyone else in OPC, Bae would be leaving once the new administration took over. That, of course, was always the plan. And the letters had set them on a new course. Bae was applying for graduate programs, where she considered studying kidnapping negotiations. Blume was looking for a PhD program in children’s literature. Higley will forge a career path in mental health and suicide prevention. Reeves said she wanted to focus on being married for a while.
I stopped by Reeves’s office to see how she was coming with the 10LADs. She was already on the couch with the finalists on her lap. “I had some rice pudding,” she said, managing a smile. The emails had been printed, and she was flipping through the pages considering the sequence. “I think it will hit him like it hit us, a pile of voices that don’t follow a tight narrative.” She spoke quietly as she sorted, mostly to herself. “People concerned for others,” she said, holding a few out. “People concerned for themselves,” she said about another group, and when she was finished she sat up straight.
“O.K., so this is the first one,” she said, showing it to me. The writer was cheering Trump’s victory. He recommended a fire into which Obama could put all of his executive orders and, together with the rest of the ruinous liberals, watch them burn.
“It’s an introduction, because it sort of feels like the day began,” Reeves said, and I could tell she had no interest in defending her choice.
“And then I like the personal nature of this one for the second,” she said, going through her choices with the satisfaction of an author reading her final draft. “She’s married to someone who voted different from her. But they will continue to be a family. Then this one is incredible. What a guy. Then behind him — this is someone who is in dire financial straits. I felt that was someone whose voice really matters right now.”
She gathered the letters. She checked her phone. She jiggled the lid on the glass water bottle that always accompanied her. “So I’m going to hand them off. And they’ll get scanned and sent around.” On the whiteboard was the countdown: 72 days until the experiment ended, and the new administration decided how to handle the mail. #35;##
[Jeanne Marie Laskas is a Professor of English and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, From 1994 until 2008, she was a regular syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Magazine. Laskas is a new contributing writer for the NY Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ. She received a BA from St. Joseph's University and an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.]
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