Each night at the White House, Barack Obama gets handed what he calls his “homework packet”: a three-ring binder filled with policy memos, intelligence briefings. Yet it is a slim purple folder that he often reaches for first. Inside the folder are ten letters carefully selected by Mike Kelleher, the director of the White House correspondence office. The letters are a cross-section of then 200,000 e-mails, 100,000 letters, and 12,000 faxes that American citizens send the president each week. For Obama, these letters offer a window into the real emotions of Americans, often lost to the president in the day- to-day demands of the executive office.
Eli Saslow, a staff writer at The Washington Post, has traveled across the country to spend time with ten authors of Obama’s letters. The product is Ten Letters, a story about America through the lives of its citizens, and of their complicated connections to the president. These authors include Democrats, Republicans, those alienated from politics, and those too young to have an affiliation. In their messages, they pour out the details of their lives and those of their families. They exhort Obama to act on various issues, both thanking the president and condemning him.
Lucy Gutierrez, an Arizona resident of Mexican heritage in her young twenties, was spurred to write one of these letters after seeing her town, Kingston, transformed after the passage of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Senate Bill 1070 mandated the prosecution and deportation of illegal immigrants. Its passage forced Lucy to make a decision as the unofficial matriarch of the family: stay, in the midst of increasing discrimination and hostility, or go, as had over half of Kingston’s Hispanic population. As Saslow recounts, Lucy saw the bill in many forms. “It was the false rumors of immigration checkpoints at [Lucy’s] local grocery store and policemen sweeping through Hispanic neighborhoods wearing black ski masks. It was the empowered conservatives who walked around town wearing T-shirts that read ‘Why Should I Have to Press 1 For English?’…It was the cable customer who approached her desk at work angered by his bill and told her that ‘we don’t want you people here.’” Beleaguered by the stress, Lucy writes in her letter, “I am a U.S. citizen but I feel like I don’t belong here anymore.…Right after the bill was signed I went into a restaurant to buy breakfast and I was greeted by a gentleman who told me ‘I don’t know why they let you kind in here.’… Where is the America I thought I knew?”
Saslow explains that this connection between writer and president is increasingly valuable to Obama, living in an era where the Oval Office seems ever more remote from Americans’ daily concerns. The time when the public could make leisurely visits to the White House, joining the first family for meals, is long gone. Saslow notes that Obama, as the first black president, was given Secret Service protection a full eighteen months before the 2008 election, the earliest in history for a candidate.
Yet other letters are often a desperate last prayer for those affected by the president’s decisions. For Jen Cline, a young woman on the verge of filing for bankruptcy for the second time, it didn’t matter that no one might actually read her letter. The three pages, “more a stream- of-consciousness journal entry than a formal note,” was a cathartic exercise in itself. In such cases, the president seems like the one person who could make a difference, even though it is likely that he will never read the missive. For Hailey Hatcher, concerned with the fate of his town after the BP oil spill, Obama was last of the many politicians he had written to in an attempt to spur change.
Saslow is a master at evoking the authors’ stories through vivid dialogue, vignettes of daily life, and powerful language. One can’t help but grip Ten Letters tightly as Saslow depicts Natoma Canfield, a leukemia patient who becomes an important part of Obama’s fight for health reform, reluctantly swallowing her eleven daily pills, wincing through the pain caused by the abrasions chemotherapy has left in her mouth. Saslow does not romanticize these individuals; the people Saslow introduces his readers to when are those they run into on the street every day.
However, while Saslow’s narrative offers us three- dimensional Americans, the man who does fall through the cracks is Barack Obama. The president is shown entangled among constituents’ interests, balancing between catering to organizations, genuinely trying to express himself, and attempting to connect with the public. Saslow depicts Obama somewhere between the Obama of grandiose dreams and speeches the public sees, and the personal Obama with all his banality and his private passions.
Instead, the president’s own perspective in Ten Letters is a wistful recognition of the limits of his role. Comparing the presidency to his earlier days of community work, Obama reminisces: “The people were right there in front of me, and I could say, ‘Let’s go to the alderman’s office,’ or ‘Let me be an advocate in some fashion’… What I have to constantly reconcile in my mind is that I have a very specific role to play in this office, and I’ve got to make a bunch of big decisions that you hope in the aggregate will end up having a positive effect over this many lives.” In such a context, the letters are the president’s most honest window into a citizen’s life, yet words that cannot be directly answered in a forceful act of problem-solving. However, Obama often writes back, and on occasion sends a check or forwards the letter to a relevant public official with a note to “please take care of this.”
The letter writers are aware of the president’s limits. And yet, the poignancy of their messages lies in the connection they declare to Obama both as the president and as a fellow human being. “I’m sure you know, Mr. President, what it feels like being raised without a father… what would you do if it was your mom out there being treated like that?” asks teenage Jessica Duran. “I know you are a busy man…and on top of that having a family… But please understand I too have a family that expects me to fix everything for them,” explains Lucy. Whatever the number of Secret Service agents that now surrounds the president, or the protocol that carefully regulate the president’s every appearance, Ten Letters gently reminds us of those defining elements that remain as true as ever in Americans’ relationship to their president.
Lena Bae ’13 is a Staff Writer.
Photo Credit: Pete Souza, U.S. Federal Government