Jeanne Marie Laskas
To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair
To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair
Every day, President Obama received ten thousand letters from ordinary American citizens. Every night, he read ten of them before going to bed. Jeanne Marie Laskas interviews President Obama, the letter-writers and White House staff to tell the story of a presidency.
How did you gain the access needed to write the book?
Obama’s White House staff, from senior advisors to interns, were very accommodating. They were proud of the mailroom operation and all that they had built and so when I began reporting on Obama’s practice of reading ten letters a day, they opened the doors to me. I made it clear that this was not a political story – I really just wanted to read the mail!
How did Obama’s approach to letters he received differ from other presidents and what does it tell us about him as a president?
Basic procedures for presidential mail were put in place back during the McKinnley administration at the turn of the 20th century when the Office of Presidential Correspondence was formed. Every president after that formed his own relationship to the mail. Nixon wouldn’t read mail critical of his administration. Reagan liked to read kid mail. The thing that was different under Obama is that he made the pledge to read ten letters every day. He was the first president to make reading constituent mail an explicit priority. He was also the first president to archive it in its entirely. I think that says a lot about him as a president. He wanted to maintain contact with the ordinary citizens. He didn’t want to rely just on polls or charts to understand the mood of the country. He wanted to hear the stories. That speaks to a president who held empathy as a core value. Obama was very explicit about that even in his earliest writings about his political philosophy. You can argue whether or not empathy makes a difference when it comes to world leaders, but Obama certainly held it as a goal for him and the people in his administration.
How did you go about selecting letters to use in the book?
That was hard! There were so many I wanted to use and I didn’t know how I would choose. I sort of took the approach that Fiona Reeves, the director of the Office of Presidential Correspondence, took when she picked the ten letters a day for Obama to read. You’d think it would make sense for her to separate them into categories: health care, immigration, criminal justice etc, and then choose one from each category. But that wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of the mood of the country, she realised. These were people writing, and the president was a person. She was trying to connect the president with people, not issues. I wanted to capture the mood of the country over the past eight years. I organised the letters by date, but gave up on categories. What letter moved me? Made me cry? Or laugh? Or feel something? Those were the keepers.
Did you have the structure of the book – letters interspersed with your own writing – in mind at the outset?
No I didn’t have that structure when I started. I had three elements I knew I wanted: 1. Lots of letters, 2. The behind-the-scenes story of how the mailroom worked, and 3. Some deep dives into the lives of individual letter writers. So how do you weave all that into a coherent whole? In the end, the answer was definitely in the letters. The letters tell the story of the administration over its eight years. Stacking them chronologically told one story. Then zooming into individual characters was a matter of choosing and covering key moments in time, and then the story of the mailroom just kind of fell into place. I’m sort of amazed it all fit together so neatly, frankly. The letters were the key. They’re the drum beat.
Which of the letters and responses that you came across did you find most affecting?
The ones written in moments of desperation, definitely. A father writing shortly after his daughter, a soldier, committed suicide. A young woman writing the day after her father shot up the house in a rage. A woman desperate to find a job. These people turned to the president in their hours of need. That said so much about the kinds of relationship people form with their leaders. Or the kind of relationship that’s possible. That stuff got me every time.
Who is Kolbie Blume and what was her role in the letters process?
Kolbie was a member of “the writing team,” the group in the Office of Presidential Correspondence in charge of answering constituent mail. The goal was that every person who wrote a letter to the president got something in return. These could range from personalised form letters explaining policy, to hand-written letters from Obama himself. Obama obviously did those, but everything else fell on the writing team. Kolbie’s job was particularly intense: often Obama would write notes in the margins of a letter so that the team could respond in his name. Kolbie did those. She actually had to channel the voice of Obama. And here’s the real zinger: she was 23 years old. I loved telling Kolbie’s story in this book!
Are we at risk of being overly nostalgic about the Obama era?
I’ve heard that, but I’m not sure what the danger is. We’re looking back on an administration that ran really well. Maybe we didn’t quite realise it when we had it. So now we see, and now we pine for it. But I think that’s a chance to be optimistic. Like, we had this. It wasn’t that long ago! Which means we can have it again. And that’s what we should be thinking about when we vote. We should demand a certain standard of dignity.
Would anyone write a similar book about Trump’s tweets?
I think “similar” is the key word. I think it would be a really different book!