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To Obama: What letters to the President reveal about the American people

President Barack Obama in 2010 with letters in support of healthcare reform. Photo/Getty Images

The correspondence between the American public and Barack Obama forms the basis of a book by Jeanne Marie Laskas and shows the hopes, fears, triumphs and failures of a nation during his historic presidency and in its aftermath.

Imagine it. You fire off a letter to the most powerful leader in the world: a fan note, a plea, a blistering rebuke. A sort of prayer you never expect to be answered. Then comes a card headed “The White House, Washington” with a message written in Barack Obama’s neat cursive hand, some of the t’s left uncrossed. “I guess what I’m saying is your President is thinking about you,” he writes sweetly. He can also sound a little piqued: “First, no one is moving the country towards socialism.”

John from Leetsdale, Pennsylvania, writes, in 2013, about signing up to Obamacare, a process that “stank”. Obama takes it on the chin: “Thanks for the letter. The website really was a screw up, but I’m glad the actual program is saving you money!”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“Nice job on the homework,” writes Obama to Kenny from Chicago, who heard that the President helps his daughters with their schoolwork and posted his. “I caught only two words misspelled on the vocabulary list.” The good citizens of America write in with advice: “If you want to be there for your girls, then stop smoking NOW!”

US journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair, is a sort of love letter to the touching, terrifying, sometimes random communications that inundated the Office of Presidential Correspondence during the Obama administration. The letters tell their own story about the nation during that historic presidency. “The narrative was sloppy and urgent, America talking all at once.”

Jeanne Marie Laskas. Photo/Scott Goldsmith/Supplied

America never shuts up. There were 10,000-plus letters a day, wrangled by a dedicated postal army – 50 staff, 36 interns, a roster of 300 volunteers. Obama insisted on reading 10 letters a day, answering some himself. Others he marked and left to writing staff adept at his style to deal with.

“I was, like, ‘Huh. I wonder how they do that?’” says Laskas. “Any time you try to pull the curtain on a hidden world, that’s just fun. The fact that he was willing and almost eager to talk about the mail said a lot about his relationship to it. It really opened up questions, like the role of empathy in politics and what’s it for and do we need it.”

To Obama began as an article in the New York Times not long after election day, November 2016, when Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. The early days of the Trump administration, with its rogue tweets, fake news and alt facts, sparked a sort of nostalgia for quaint concepts such as statesmanship. “All of a sudden this little magazine article took on so much more meaning. It was like whoa, whoa.”

Obama dining with correspondents in Denver, Colorado. Photo/Getty Images
Laskas, Skyping via a shaky connection from Pennsylvania, where she shares a farm with her husband, two daughters and assorted livestock, says “whoa” a lot for someone whose default setting is an amiable and furious fast forward. She is possibly the least cynical journalist on Earth. “Maybe I’m gullible. I’m always giving people the benefit of the doubt to begin with, so it takes me a long time to get sceptical, maybe sometimes too long, but I err on the side of rooting for people.” She’s made a career out of it. She once spent weeks 150m underground, talking to coal miners. Her 2015 book Concussion drew attention to player brain injury in the National Football League.

She tends to dig in for the long haul, which made it all the harder to be in that repository of hopes and dashed dreams, the presidential mailroom, the morning after the 2016 election. To Obama records an email to the outgoing President that morning: “Get ready to watch a big bonfire, maybe in the vegetable garden, where Trump will burn [Obamacare] and most of your executive orders,” wrote James. “You can watch it from your new residence with all the other liberals who have been trying to destroy the country.”

The mailroom couldn’t be further inside the beltway. The election result came as a bombshell. “If our responsibility in this office is to connect the President to the people, I’m asking myself, ‘Did we fail?’” one staff member says. “Oh man. That was a hard moment,” recalls Laskas. “Everyone was doubting themselves and that is such a keen reflection on so many people in individual jobs across that nation, thinking they’d failed.”

A presidential response to a cancer victim’s letter. Photo/Getty Images

As a journalist, Laskas felt she’d failed. “Because these are supposed to be people that I have a finger on the pulse of, everyday Americans.” In a divided America, it can be easy to tune out, turn off Fox News. “I feel like that’s part of the problem, that we’re all doing that. We’re not going into the belly of the beast, as it were.” She still sounds gutted.

“As I write in the book, my only response was Obama didn’t lose. Hillary Clinton lost. Let’s get a handle on this. But I understand that failure feeling.”

They might write to the President in their droves, but that election suggested many Americans felt they weren’t being heard. “That has to be, at some level, at the core of it. When you’re that frustrated that you will cast your vote for a guy who is showing every sign of being a madman, there’s a desperation in that.”

Laskas’ New York Times article struck a chord. It was popular with Obama, too. “My single favourite story about my presidency,” he declared. He granted Laskas an interview for the new book. “That was pretty amazing, because he was not talking to anybody at that point.” After the election, Laskas writes, he stepped out of the spotlight, “no matter how many of his supporters clamoured for him to jump in and somehow rescue America from what they came to see as the grip of a tyrant”. Lately, Obama’s been more vocal. He seems like a sort of president-in-exile after some kind of coup. “Ha, I haven’t heard it put quite that way, but yes, this is a whole new thing hearing from him.” He put himself firmly back in the spotlight before the 2018 mid-term elections.

Obama meets people who wrote to him about Obamacare. Photo/Getty Images

She got time with Obama to talk about the letters. Ground rules? “No. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? It could be just that I had formed such a nice trusting relationship with the office. [Obama senior adviser] Eric Schultz is the person I dealt with mostly. Honestly, we’d been talking almost a year about this.” The mills of Potus grind exceeding slow. “It was clear there was going to be no funny business, that my interests were genuinely zeroing in on this world. I wasn’t going to pull a fast one.” So, what was he like? “I was kind of taken aback by his level of sincerity. When you talk to a lot of politicians, which I’ve done plenty of, it gets really boring because you’ve turned on the machine. It wasn’t like that.” His verbal delivery also grinds slow, apparently. “He’s thinking as he’s talking. He’s pulling it out of somewhere,” she muses. Thoughtful, perhaps, to a fault: time was short. “He’s not a sound-bite guy,” she has said. About the most critical thing she writes about him is, “He’s a ponderous man.”

So, there’s his voice in the book, slow, ponderous. For the March 2018 interview at the office he maintains in Washington, the former president wore jeans and propped his feet up on the coffee table. “You don’t realise how lanky he is until you see him in person,” writes Laskas. The office? “Zero razzle-dazzle.” There is, of course, a framed letter. It’s from cancer survivor Natoma Canfield: “I need your health reform bill to help me!!! I simply can no longer afford to pay for my healthcare costs!!” Obama insisted the letters he read were not just from happy campers. “This is not useful to me if all I’m getting are, you know, happy birthday wishes,” he tells Laskas. “I can tell you from sitting in that mailroom, it wasn’t only people who talk like us who got through,” she says.

Still, he must have got a lot of, well, racist crap. “If it was just loony-tunes crap, I feel like they just wouldn’t even have wasted his time or their time even reading. If you’re just a racist and shouting mean things, you’re not engaging as a citizen.”

Greeting school pupils on a Washington visit after one of their parents wrote to him. Photo/Getty Images

Citizens engaged in diverse ways. Laskas shows the former president a photograph of an “Obama pie” made by one of the letter writers, clearly a good likeness. “That’s excellent,” says Obama. “Thanks for the ears there.” His favourite letters were from those who violently disagreed. “So, okay, you want to call me an idiot. Well, I want you to know there’s a person at the other end of this thing who’s listening to you, and here’s why, actually, I did what I did,” he says, demonstrating the political art – brutally undervalued these days – of being charming, disarming.

The letters are about more than warm fuzzies. “Oh my gosh, yes,” says Laskas. “Not a lot of warm fuzzy, except for maybe the kid mail.” The work could be gruelling. “A journalist can only be a tourist. You can dip in, but you have that protection because you don’t live there. I was just in awe of them, the way that they dealt, especially [those] who dealt with what were called the ‘red dots’, those people who were writing it when they were at risk of suicide or harming someone.”

Some letters helped change policy. “The policy stuff that jumps out are things like repealing the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy for gays in the military. You can watch the volume of the mail getting attended to and later the shift in policy and the opening up. It was all there in the mail.”

The letters would sometimes circulate around Obama’s staff. Speech-writer Cody Keenan built a letter from the magnificently named Misty DeMars, who had lost her job, into Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address. “We are the face of the unemployment crisis,” she wrote.

Listening to a 13-year-old who wrote to him about the importance of women’s sport. Photo/Getty Images

The mail becomes a sort of unreeling microcosm of the American psyche. Marjorie “Marg” McKinney wrote to the President about confronting her own racism when she felt fear at seeing a young black man in a hoodie on the street. Obama got into bother telling a similar story about his grandmother: “… she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn’t know … there’s a reaction that’s been bred in our experiences that doesn’t go away and that sometimes comes out in the wrong way, and that’s just the nature of race in our society,” Obama told a radio host. “‘Typical white person’ – you’re not supposed to say stuff like that,” writes Laskas, “especially not as the first black candidate ever to run for the office as a major party’s candidate. The Clinton campaign pounced. Obama was clearly new at this game.”

When she meets Obama, he raises the story again, “My grandmother, who loved me more than anyone, had an initial reaction like Marg to young black men approaching.” He wasn’t backing away. He was in a position to understand both sides. The Clinton campaign possibly experienced a little karma when, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had her “deplorables” moment.

That was then. How does Laskas feel about Trump? “Every day tops the day before. That’s the thing. I think people are exhausted by it.” Cue the apology you get from many US citizens these days: “I’m not alone in that it feels a little bit embarrassing to be an American right now. Sorry, guys, we’re not all like that.”

Would she interview Trump? “I’d never say no to anybody, but it wouldn’t be top of my list. I imagine it being hard to do anything but something that’s just comic and satirical. I don’t know if that’s a real contribution to what we’ve got going on. I’m always surprised when people are discussing what he actually says. It’s all style. It’s all show.”

With Will Smith at the premiere of Concussion. Photo/Getty Images

In her book, Laskas takes the footnote to history that was the previous incumbent’s mail and gives it a certain epic – and ultimately elegiac – sweep. “It’s time to think back on a lot of what we used to have not that long ago,” she says. Does she know what’s happening with the mail under the current administration? “I don’t. I’ve made requests and they’ve all been ignored.”

Is raising the ghost of a leader who had the grace to at least appear to have some empathy at this time a quiet form of activism? “The short answer is no.” Though she mentions a conversation she had with the chancellor of her university recently. He said free speech comes with the responsibility to do something, to act. It made Laskas think about where she sits. “There’s a middle slot between free speech and acting. That middle slot is listening. I feel like that’s where I live. If I have a form of activism, that’s it.”

The last election threw down a challenge to that proposition. “Our media is so concentrated on the coasts that we don’t pay attention to what’s going on in the middle. I talked a good game about the importance of listening and I thought that I was good at that.” She – maybe all the media – have had a wake-up call. Her answer might be the mantra of the mail room: “Listen, listen, listen,” she says. “Get better at what you do.”

To Obama, With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair, by Jeanne Marie Laskas (Bloomsbury, $34.99).

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.