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17 October 2018

The president and the pen: letters to Obama

Throughout his presidency, Obama read ten letters from US citizens every day, slipped to him in a purple folder.

By Nicky Woolf

On election night, 8 November 2016, Amanda Bott of Rochester, Washington, wrote an email to President Obama. “Tonight I’m crying tears of sorrow,” she wrote. “I’m crying for my beautiful country with its beautiful ideals.” It was an expression of  fear sent into the ether, but one that reads like a message between old friends. “How did we fall so far?”

The email, published as part of Jeanne Marie Laskas’s To Obama, was one of tens of thousands sent to the president every day, a mass of raw communication both vast and at the same time deeply, often uncomfortably intimate. Obama read it. Throughout his presidency, he read ten letters every day, slipped to him in a purple folder. People wrote to Obama on the best or the worst days of their lives. They wrote to berate him, praise him, or to beg him for help. Some wrote just for the heck of it.

One batch on any given day could include the daughter of a veteran who attempted suicide writing to plead for better mental health provision; a gay couple, newly allowed to wed, writing to express their thanks on their wedding day; a prisoner in a federal penitentiary pouring out his life story; a note from a Republican complaining that Obamacare has made his business more difficult to manage; and a postcard from a four-year-old who aspires to be president one day.

“The narrative was sloppy and urgent, America talking all at once. No filter,” Laskas writes, overwhelmed by the profundity of holding a raw stack of letters in her hand for the first time, each one freighted with depth of meaning. Obama read them diligently, and answered many of them personally by hand. Others he had staff chase up.

Filtering them represented an enormous task. At the core of To Obama is the story of the team responsible for carrying it out: the Office of Presidential Correspondence. Fifty staff, 36 interns and hundreds of volunteers read and triaged every single letter. A complex system marked them up in pencil, coded for disposition. Obama was the first president to formalise the practice, to ingrain a habit of listening, communing and responding in this way. (The unspoken sorrow of the book is the feeling that he might also be the last.)

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Laskas learned the mantra of the mailroom. “These were people writing, and you were a person reading, and the president was a person.” Those letters that reached the purple folder weren’t always the most positive or affirming. Often, they were the most painful. They made it because they moved someone. “You got attached. You became an advocate for your letter,” Laskas writes.

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The letters formed an illicit channel between Camelot and the real world. White House staff took to calling the system “the letter underground”. Fiona Reeves, who was responsible for selecting the ten letters Obama read each day, likened the act to “a tray passing under a door”, a metaphor that contains an unmistakable implication of imprisonment. The letters were not a gimmick for Obama. They drove the whole administration, making their way into major speeches and driving policy initiatives. The letters changed what it meant to hold the office.

They also changed the man. The title of the book indicates not just the literal way the letters were addressed “to Obama” but also what they came to mean to him. “These are the voices in the president’s head,” Shailagh Murray, a senior White House communications aide who helped oversee the programme, tells Laskas.

The book is an extension of Laskas’s New York Times magazine feature of the same name and retains much of the original, which was published only three days before Trump’s inauguration and was therefore practically destined to launch into the stratosphere. Those were heady days. The contrast between the two men was so vivid as to be preposterous. The tragedy of replacing one of America’s most elegant, thoughtful and empathic leaders with one of its most pompous, ignorant and cruel seemed so silly we thought it could only be understood as farce. Laskas captured the poignancy of that moment of transition.

Obama said the original magazine article was “my single favourite story about my presidency”. But oddly enough, the interview with Obama himself for the book, conducted after the Times piece was published, is the part that feels a little anticlimactic.

In earlier chapters, when diving headlong into the lives of the letter writers, Laskas blends her authorial voice in joyous perspective-bending streams of consciousness reminiscent of Tom Wolfe at his best. But when she is finally face-to-face with Obama, that style necessarily fades. It is with what reads like both awe and frustration that Laskas writes that “his words are precise, and the sentences are… dense. It’s like you could add water to them, and they’d keep expanding.”

Obama is too monolithic for such writerly exuberance. He is too measured – too Obama – to be inhabited that way. He remains remote and out of reach.

It may be trite to say that To Obama is itself a love letter, but that’s how it reads: like a letter to someone long lost. It is steeped in  a powerful yearning for a period in time that slips further from us with every passing day. How did we fall so far? 

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair
Jeanne Marie Laskas
Bloomsbury Circus, 416pp, £20

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This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war