Mail call!! I don’t know about you, but I’m really in the mood for a break from all the Trump drama. Yes, it’s really important that we stay vigilant about what Trump & the GOP are up to, but let’s be honest, that can also get kind of soul crushing. So today we’re going to take a Trump hiatus and roll back the clock a bit for some Obama nostalgia. Apologies in advance because it’s going to make you miss Obama that much more.
The subject of today’s post is Obama’s White House mailroom. Some of you may have already heard about this, because there were a few stories about it at the start of Obama’s administration and then again right at the end. But for those who haven’t heard about it, I think it’s a really interesting story that gives a bit of additional insight into how Obama viewed his role as President.
Though I had not heard the details about Obama’s mailroom until his presidency neared it’s end, I had heard him mention often throughout his presidency (as many of you probably did) that every night he read 10 letters sent to him by the American people. The story of his mailroom is about how those 10 letters were chosen from the thousands of letters and emails that arrived at the White House every day.
I first heard this story just a few days after the election, when I listened to a podcast called 99% Invisible that told an account of it. The podcast had actually come out the day before the election, so there was no discussion about the changeover to Trump. But that was running through my mind as a backdrop the entire time I was listening.
The tale of how Obama handled his mail could not have put the contrast between these two men – the outgoing President and the one who was about to arrive – into starker relief. Obama’s empathy – and the empathy of the people he surrounded himself with – infused every aspect of the story. And he was about to replaced by a man whose lack of empathy is one of his most defining qualities. Listening to that podcast was both inspiring and heartbreaking. Here’s just some of the story . . .*
The White House mailroom (officially the Office of Presidential Correspondence, or OPC) didn’t begin with Obama. It started in 1897 with President William McKinley. But even before then – going all the way back to the beginning with George Washington – Presidents received mail from constituents. But Obama was the first President to get his mail practices down to a science. (Most of this description, and quotes except where otherwise noted, come from a NY Times feature article published right before Obama left office).
Because Obama wanted to read his 10 letters every night, his OPC staff came up with their own special system for how their office would run. The staff was made up of 50 staff members, 36 interns, and 300 volunteers who would come and go. Together, they had to sort through anywhere from 10,000 – 40,000 pieces of mail each day and narrow them down to 10 to send over to the President.
The staff, interns & volunteers would read through the mail, and any of them could “nominate” a letter for inclusion in the 10 letters. When nominating a letter, they’d have to code it to indicate the issue it related to such as immigration, taxes or gun violence. Many of the letters came from people feeling desperate because they’d just lost a job or were down to the last of their savings.
There was a special code for “sensitive” letters that dealt with personal trauma or loss. Those letters were handled by one particular staffer who would arrange letters of condolence from the President. And then, most importantly, there was a “red dot” code for emergency letters. These were letters that needed to be handled right away, such as someone saying they wanted to kill themselves or someone else, or seeming to be at risk of some other imminent harm. A particular staffer was also in charge of handling these letters:
“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, O.P.C. offered monthly counseling sessions to anyone who felt the need.
One volunteer who worked in the OPC during both the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations said the biggest difference between the two was the change in tone of the letters. Letters to Bush tended to ask the President for help on behalf of general groups of people, like can you help this group or that group. Letters to Obama were much more personal, people writing to him about their own individual struggles. To her mind, this was because people felt more of a personal connection to the Obamas.
Letters from kids got answered by a special “kids’ team” upstairs. A few days before Obama’s term ended, NPR put out an article describing how the kids’ team was rushing to answer the letters from kids before it was time to leave the White House. Fiona Reeves, who heads the OPC staff, told NPR they saw a big surge in letters from kids right before the end of Obama’s term, mostly kids wanting to say goodbye. Each week a few of the 10 letters Obama gets to read are letters from children.
Often the letters from kids give Obama the chance to offer parental “tough-love” type advice in response. Though he is often optimistic and encouraging as well. According to Reeves, Obama has “relished the father-in-chief role.” Some of the letters from kids haven’t sought advice from Obama but instead have offered him advice, specifically on what to do in his retirement. The suggestions range from advising him to be a basketball coach to asking him to come be the letter writer’s nanny.
Reeves, who had the responsibility of narrowing down the letters to the final 10 each day, spoke to the 99% Invisible Podcast about her experience on the job. She explained that many of the letters begin with “I know no one will read this . . . “ People wrote their letters not really expecting the President to ever see them. But the letters had a big impact on Obama, and on other members of the White House. Shortly into the job, Reeves started a new practice of putting together a “random daily sample” of emails that went out to a distribution of people around the White House. She would also send around a word cloud every day, created from the most common words in that day’s emails. Overall the most common word used in the emails sent to the President was the word “help.”
Like the kids, sometimes the adults also had advice for the President. Reeves told CBS News about one letter the President received:
“One was, ‘I’m retired and I’ve got some advice for you: Ride your bike a lot. Spend some time with your wife. Draw.’ And then it said: ‘Don’t be afraid to day drink,’” Reeves said, laughing. “And I just thought that was pretty good.”
Reeves believes that the letters shaped Obama’s policies and shaped “the humans who worked in the White House.” She thinks the letters will have big impact on the future because of all the young people who helped out in the mailroom, sorting through all of the mail. They will go on to do big things, she said, and reading about experiences from all those different people gave them a broader, deeper perspective to apply to whatever it is that they do.
In selecting the final 10 letters to give to the President, Reeves tried each day to give him letters that were representative of the types of letters that were coming in at the time. If a particular issue was showing up a lot in the mail, she’d make sure to give him several letters on that issue, both pro and con. (And plenty of the letters the President receives were “con”, not just on the issues but on him and the job he was doing). She’d also make sure to give him a range of topics. And on Fridays, she usually liked to end the package with one lighter, happy note.
The reporter for the NY Times story got a chance to talk to the President about the letters he reads:
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.”
Obama responded personally to many of the letters. For other letters he wrote extensive handwritten notes as he’s reading, and then the staff – who knew Obama’s voice so well it was hard to tell it wasn’t him writing – used those notes to type a response on his behalf. Other letters, from people who require some sort of assistance, were sent to the agency or person who could give them the help they needed. But Reeves constantly reminded everyone to keep in mind that they were responding to a person not a letter and that empathy was important.
“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.
After Hillary Clinton lost the election, Reeves and her staff still had to answer letters to the President for 3 more months, until President Obama’s term ended and Trump was inaugurated. They got a lot of mail from traumatized Hillary and/or Obama supporters. And lots from people who were thrilled to see Obama leaving:
“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.
They had to figure out how to respond to those emails while dealing with their own disappointment over the election results. One of the staffers responsible for writing Obama’s reply letters:
“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?’ ”
And then they had to prepare themselves for handing over the office they had poured so much of themselves into. They had to hand it over not knowing what would become of it, and – like the rest of us looking at the start of a new Presidency – they just had to hope for the best and gird themselves for whatever was coming
*To get the real effect of this story, I highly suggest listening to the 99% Invisible Podcast about it (Episode 235 – Ten Letter for the President) or reading the full NY Times article. If you’re not familiar with listening to podcasts, there are a number of apps for iPhone or Android that allow you to download podcasts for listening offline. Or you can simply listen to this episode right here on the 99% Invisible website.