Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The President and the Pen

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The President and the Pen

Article excerpt

To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair

Jeanne Marie Laskas

Bloomsbury Circus, 416pp. 20 [pounds sterling]

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.)

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.

The letters formed an illicit channel between Camelot and the real world. …

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