10,000 Letters

Ashley DeLeon is from South Carolina. She writes like your grade two teacher: rounded letters with stripes through the ‘z’, and careful, consistent spacing. It makes the words look almost harmless: Christmas. Glass. Bullet. Last night, Ashley’s dad shot up the house. Guns and ammunition from his time in the Marines were laid out on his bed like a little black dress. She walked barefoot over shattered glass to wrestle him to the ground, preventing him from shooting his family and then himself. And then she lay there, shivering on the front lawn, overwhelmed with the weight of it all.

Ashley doesn’t want anything in particular. There is no policy demand in the letter she sent to President Obama, which ended up in front of the 30 staffers, 500 volunteers and various interns who helped to manage the White House mailroom. Its powerful emergency message saw it filtered into the ‘red dot’ pile, to be replied to within twenty-four hours. The red-dot pile was for people who were a danger to themselves or others.

Every day of his presidency, Obama received about 10,000 letters. And every evening, he read ten. Nicknamed the 10Lads (short for ‘ten letters a day’) they were chosen by the extensive team of mailroom staff for their emotiveness and power. Obama answered some himself, giving notes to his team to help them answer others.

The letters are a picture of an America torn asunder, but also one that works hard to put itself back together. Many were stories of a moment of despair: people who had lost a loved one, particularly a soldier, perhaps from suicide. Sometimes people sent in their bills, their last chances, their mortgage statements. Sometimes they were proud: a man finally admitting to his wife that he was gay, a mother with her teenager’s spotless report card.

And sometimes they couldn’t stop seeing the America Obama had shaped, and continued to shape. “Sir, I was injured in Afghanistan in 2011…I am horrified at the thought of my future,” Patrick Holbrook from Hawaii wrote. “YOU, Sir,” Bethany Kern emphasised, “are the one person that IS supposed to HELP the LITTLE PEOPLE like my family. In my neck of the woods…jobs are few and far between.” “I miss my career and my old hands” said Bobby Ingram. “Thank you for listening to the citizen I am.”

Why write to the President? Volunteers suspected people felt more of a personal connection to Obama than previous presidents. Perhaps it was his relative youth and young children, they mused. Perhaps it was the new direction he represented for the White House: the first black president might bring with him a habit of listening to the people who weren’t usually listened to.

And listen Obama did. In 2009, when Natoma Canfield wrote to the President about her enormous health insurance premiums (“I need your health reform bill to help me!!! I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health care costs!”) he framed it, and it hung between his private study and the Oval Office. Criminal justice issues had always made a heavy showing in hard mail, because it was the last resort channel of communication with those who had the power to change things. Fiona Reeves, the director of the mailroom, decided to include letters from inmates in Obama’s nightly reading. Obama’s 2014 Justice Department program which offered executive relief to federal prisoners serving for nonviolent drug crimes appeared to show he had been reading it. Another issue commonly raised in the letters was the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy around homosexuality. One painful letter was written anonymously because “the person I love can be dishonourably discharged for loving me back.” When Obama repealed the policy and legalised gay marriage, the same person wrote again. “On Aug 3 my husband…will be promoted to senior master sergeant, and I’ll be there to hand him his new shirt with the extra stripes on it.”

Even the order of the letters had power. Reeves, in charge of arranging them, did so carefully, sometimes pointedly: three about the Dakota Access Pipeline in a row, two conflicting experiences of the Affordable Care Act back-to-back. Obama noted that “occasionally, the letter is particularly, uh, pointed at what an idiot I am.” His favourite letters were those that “made a connection”. He recalled stories, from Marines with PTSD to a man writing about his son’s friend, an illegal immigrant. In reading the letters, the line between person and President blurred. They contributed to a President who, when asked what he was proudest of during his time in office, noted that he didn’t feel like he’d lost himself. “I haven’t become cynical, and I haven’t become callused,” he said. “And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.”

Ashley’s letter was one Obama personally responded to. The last line of his message encapsulates what people seem to want from their letters to the President, even if the society he leads remains harsh. “Beneath the pain,” Obama wrote, “your father still loves his daughter, and is surely proud of her.”