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Heightened security concerns have created a bubble around modern presidents. As the first black president, governing in the age terrorism, with two wars continuing abroad, President Obama has felt increasingly isolated. In order to stay in touch, he asks the White House mail office to send him a sampling of ten letters a day from ordinary Americans. The Chief of Mail looks for three criteria: a representative sample of issues; originality and a powerful story; half must be positive, half negative. Washington Post staff writer Eli Saslow tracked down ten of these letter writers. He describes what their stories reveal about America today as well as the relationship between a president and the people
- Eli Saslow Staff writer at the Washington Post.
- Natoma Canfield Letter writer
Every day a thin purple folder is delivered to President Obama. Inside are ten letters from people of all ages,
walks of life, and political points of view. The contents often work their way into the president’s speeches and policy decisions. Writer Eli Saslow’s new book takes a look at the White House’s sorting process for the letters; how
President Obama responds; and the power of personal stories in policy.
Saslow refers to the inevitable isolation a U.S. president begins to feel very shortly after taking office as “the bubble.” President Obama became frustrated by the phenomenon very shortly after taking office. “It only takes a few trips with Obama on Air Force One to see that every movement is scripted, every person he talks to has been screened and vetted before they speak with him, and people get nervous before they speak with him, so they’re not very candid and open, Saslow said. On on his second day in office, Obama called the mailroom to say that from every day forward, he would like to see ten unvetted letters that would allow him to get an idea of what is actually on some Americans’ minds.
Some Letters Have a Huge Impact
One of the letters the President used to illustrate a policy point was Natoma Canfield’s letter detailing her struggle to pay her healthcare bills during an illness. After reading Canfield’s letter, Obama visited her hometown and shaped a strong message about healthcare reform using her experience to illustrate a point about skyrocketing costs and patients stuck shouldering huge bills. “This letter ended up being transformative, not only for Obama, but I think also for Natoma,” Saslow said. “It’s a good feeling to know what there is somebody in Washington that was listening,” Canfield said.
An Appreciation of Narrative
Even the letters that aren’t interlaced into policy agendas still inform the president’s thinking. “I think Obama has always had a really major appreciation of narrative. He’s a writer himself. He’s a good writer himself. And I think he understands the power of stories. And I think sometimes the stories in the letters affect him more than policy briefings,” Saslow said. The letters also provide a unvarnished voice that the president doesn’t often have the opportunity to hear – a view that is different from that of most of the people who walk in to the Oval Office to speak to him face-to-face and may become intimidated by the power of the office.
The Pressures of the Presidency
Obama’s aides told Saslow that they sometimes worry the letter-reading may not be very good for the president. Obama told Saslow about the sense of powerlessness he sometimes feels upon reading the letters. Obama said that when he was a community organizer in Chicago, he could often produce some very tangible results that would benefit the people he served. But as president, there are many things he can’t accomplish because the act of governing is so slow, and many letter-writers he knows he can’t do much for. “Sometimes he’s been so moved by letters that he has actually called or written a check because he knows that’s the extent of his power in that situation…which is a pretty astounding admission for somebody who has the most power of all,” Saslow said.
You can read the full transcript here.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Eli Saslow’s “Ten Letters.” Copyright 2011 by Eli Saslow. Excerpted here by kind permission of Random House:
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane Rehm while she's away on vacation, but she will return next week. Every day a thin purple folder is delivered to President Obama. Inside, ten pieces of correspondence from people of all ages, walks of life and political points of view. The contents often work their way into the president's speeches and policy decisions.
MR. STEVE ROBERTS2009 Washington Post staff writer, Eli Saslow, wrote a story for the paper about how the newly elected president intended the letters to provide a link to the world outside the White House bubble. In a new book titled "Ten Letters," he examines how this correspondence helps shape the Obama presidency and transform the lives the letter writers. Eli Saslow joins me in the studio. Welcome.
MR. ELI SASLOWThanks for having me.
ROBERTSNice to have you here on "The Diane Rehm Show." As always, you can join our conversation 1-800-433-8850, or email@example.com is our e-mail address. Now, Eli, talk about this bubble that you mentioned. This president is not the first to talk -- in fact, virtually every president talks about the sense of isolation, and how did this factor into his decision to do this?
SASLOWAbsolutely. The bubble has been a problem, I think, for presidents for a very long time, and for me, I started covering the White House when Obama became president, and just in the first few weeks, seeing the effects of the bubble on him, and it's pretty mind boggling how limited a president's world becomes.
SASLOWIt only takes a few trips with Obama on Air Force One to see that every movement is scripted, every person he talks to has been screened and vetted before they speak with him, and people get nervous before they speak with him, so they're not very candid and open, and I think he felt that frustration pretty immediately. So on his second day in office he called the mail room, and he said, every day from now on I want to see ten unvetted letters that can kind of give me a window beyond this apparatus so that I can see out into the country a little bit.
ROBERTSAnd what did he mean by that? What would -- what did he think he was missing, or what was he seeking through these letters?
SASLOWI think he was missing candidness and honestly -- and stories about what's going on in the country. For something to get to Obama's desk, usually it goes through an unbelievable process. I mean, it goes first to a staff secretary who is getting hundreds of requests for things that Obama should see, and maybe one in a hundred is getting there. It goes through all of his higher advisors who are looking at something before it gets to his desk.
SASLOWAnd by the time something gets there, it's, you know, sort of the realness of it has almost been wrung out. I mean, it's very difficult for these candid things to make their way to him, and I think that he felt isolated. I know he felt isolated, incredibly so. And when I met with him to talk about this, I mean, he said that the loneliness and the isolation of that sort of had been driving him crazy for a long time.
SASLOWHe tried to pull outsiders, regular people, people from around the country, into the White House to talk with him, to tell him about their lives, but that wasn't working for him because they would get nervous, or their criticism would turn to appeasement when suddenly he was in the room, and he really found that basically the one way he could sort of get this unfiltered view of what was going on was through these that oftentimes read like diary entries because people don't necessarily expect he will ever read them.
ROBERTSAnd not just his own education, he then has often turned these letters into stories and narratives and examples to try to reinforce his policy points of view. So it's not a one-way transmission. It's also him utilizing this material.
SASLOWAbsolutely. I mean, oftentimes he will take the letters after he reads them, and he might tell a staff secretary to copy them and distribute to 50 staff members. He might tell his media people that he wants that letter spread out to the media, or oftentimes what he does is he takes these letters, or John Favreau, his head speech writer, takes these letters and uses them to sort of inform his policies and his speeches with stories that bring life to some of these issues.
ROBERTSNow, perhaps the best example of that in your book is woman named Natoma Canfield who wrote to the president about her struggles with her insurance companies and the illness she was going through, and the president used her as a very high visibility example during the fight for healthcare, and we have -- she's featured in your book, and we have her on the phone, and we're delighted...
ROBERTS…Natoma, that you could join us on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
MS. NATOMA CANFIELDThank you.
ROBERTSCould you give our listeners a sense of what motivated you to write to the president?
CANFIELDWell, I knew I was going to fail and not be able to afford my healthcare, and I guess I just wanted it written in somewhere someone. I never dreamed the president himself would read it. But just to let someone else on this planet know the struggle I had and how I -- I failed to do so.
ROBERTSAnd were -- you said you never expected the president to read it, but not only did he read it, but it -- he came to your home town, I mean, he shaped his whole message about healthcare using you as an example. How did you react to that?
CANFIELDWell, it was quite a surprise.
CANFIELDHe had -- his office had called and asked if they could read my letter at the Anthem meeting.
ROBERTSAnthem being your healthcare provider?
ROBERTSInsurance provider, yeah.
CANFIELDAnd so I said, well, of course, and I went on about my business. I went out and, you know, got my cat food and whatnot, and I wasn't prepared for the shock of coming back and finding all these exotic phone messages on my machine from ABC News, NBC News, the local newspaper, all asking for my opinion, which was quite a surprise.
ROBERTSAnd you got a lot of letters yourself, one of -- that Eli writes about this in his book that not only did the president read your letter, but then many people wrote to you.
CANFIELDYes. They showed the letter that I wrote with my return address on it on the different news channels...
CANFIELD...and I got all sorts of letters from people, mostly supportive, you know, saying, you know, that they wished me well, and -- but I answered, you know, anything that had questions.
ROBERTSAnd -- and some even contained money, which was very helpful to you at that point in your life since you were really stressed, right?
ROBERTSWhat did the money that -- the money helped pay for what when -- that you received from these well wishers?
CANFIELDJust bills, you know, because...
CANFIELD...everything goes up in this world. Like everyone else, my electricity went up and, you know, the car insurance goes up.
ROBERTSHow do you feel about the fact that the president himself has said that your story helped galvanize public opinion, and helped him -- he wrote this in a note to you, a second note he wrote to you, that you helped him pass his healthcare bill. How does that make you feel?
CANFIELDVery humbling feeling. It -- it's hard to explain exactly, to put it into words, but it's very humbling.
ROBERTSLet me bring Eli in and -- do you have a question or a comment to Natoma who was so helpful to you in helping you prepare the book?
SASLOWYeah, sure. Hi Natoma, how you doing?
SASLOWI guess the thing that really stood out to me about Natoma's letter, and a lot of these letters is that the letter really was the beginning of story. This letter ended up being transformative, not only for Obama, but I think also for you, Natoma. I mean, this, you know, when Natoma wrote this letter, she was still healthy, and shortly after Obama read this letter, received this letter, she was then diagnosed with leukemia, and her -- really her relationship with Obama and the White House fortified her strength for a really difficult year to come.
SASLOWI mean, you know, he brought Natoma's family to the White House to be there for the bill signing. He stayed in touch with Natoma's sister who introduced him at a major rally, and Natoma, when we spoke a lot about this, and when I was there with you, it seemed like that had really, you know, on the sick days, and the horrible days, and there were so many of them, that you thought about that, and it really, you know, it really fortified you for the fight ahead.
CANFIELDYes, it did. It just uplifted me.
ROBERTSDoes it give you a different view of Washington, and our public leaders that an ordinary woman from Ohio could actually get through and be heard?
CANFIELDYes. It's a very -- a good feeling to know that there is somebody in Washington that was listening.
ROBERTSWell, I know you're still going through some struggles with your health, and we wish you the very best, and we really appreciate your calling into "The Diane Rehm Show" today.
CANFIELDThank you very much.
ROBERTSThank you, Natoma.
SASLOWNice to hear you, Natoma.
ROBERTSYou must have forged relationships with all of these people that you talked to. I mean, you're -- many of these conversations are pretty intense. Many of their problems are very emotional.
SASLOWYeah. Close relationships, because the truth is, I wasn't just talking to them about their problems. I mean, my process was, after I decided I was going to write about a letter, I would go and I would spend a week, two weeks with somebody while they were going through the hard difficult things that they had written to the president about. So for Natoma, that meant being there in her house with her for a week when her immune system was such that she had sort of been barricaded from the outside world.
SASLOWIt was just me and her sister in that house all the time, going to her doctor's appointments, watching her go through chemo, and the truth is, a lot of these letters, it was the same thing. Going and spending time with people while they went through bankruptcy hearings. Being with a woman in Arizona who had written to Obama after they had passed the new immigration bill -- new immigration law wondering was she going to move back to Mexico, or was she gonna stay there, and watching her make that decision.
SASLOWSo the real privilege in writing this book was not only seeing these great, touching letters, but then in being able to spend time with the letter writer and to spend some time with Obama and watch how these stories played out.
ROBERTSAnd how they affected him.
SASLOWAnd how they affected, him, yeah, which was often a pretty profound effect, especially, you know, in Natoma's case. I mean, this is -- this is sort of a letter to the White House that really ended up being -- almost turning into a pen pal relationship, where he wrote her again, and she wrote him again, and they became fairly close for a time.
ROBERTSEli Saslow from the Washington Post. His new book is "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President." You tell us some stories. You can give us a call and join our conversation, 1-800-433-8850. I'm Steve Roberts. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane while she's away on vacation. My guest this hour is Eli Saslow from the Washington Post. He's written a book called "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President." And it's a tale that started at a newspaper article that he wrote for the Post about this daily folder that the president gets with ten letters from ordinary Americans. And Eli has gone back and found ten of the people who wrote to the president and whose letters were read by the president and often triggered a relationship with the president.
ROBERTSAnd one of the things that struck me in reading about this is that this president -- all presidents communicate by telling stories. Ronald Reagan, of course, was a great master at it. You mention that Franklin Roosevelt during the Fireside Chat in some ways triggered the modern era of communicating with the president. But it does strike me that this president, as much as almost anyone, feels the need and feels the compulsion to communicate by telling stories. And that that's one of the reasons why this letter project is so important to him.
SASLOWYeah, absolutely. I mean, I think Obama has always had a really major appreciation of narrative. He's a writer himself. He's a good writer himself. And I think he understands the power of stories. And I think sometimes the stories in the letters affect him more than policy briefings.
SASLOWI mean, one of the things he said to me is that when he receives his, he calls it his homework packet, his nightly briefing book, which is, you know, a phonebook sized packet of briefings and polling numbers. And he reaches first for this purple folder because he knows that it's the one thing that really will hold his attention. And I think he's smart enough to realize if that's true for him, it's also true for the people he's talking to and who are listening to him. And so he weaves these stories into his speeches and into sort of his conversations with lawmakers and the senate and everywhere else as often as he can.
ROBERTSAnd one of the things you mentioned earlier but also struck me in the book that he said something that virtually every president says, which is when people walk into their office in the White House, no matter how much they stand outside and say, we're going to tell the president what we really think, they walk through that door and in the president's words, become tongue tied. And that he values these letters because these are voices that are not intimidated. They're voices that have an authenticity to them that sometimes these personal visits don't have.
SASLOWYeah, I can sympathize with that because when I went into the Oval Office to interview Obama, I maybe became a little bit tongue tied myself...
SASLOW...I'll admit that. And it made me feel better when he said that many people did. But the truth is that the letters are the anecdote to that because they are so real. I mean, having had the privilege of sort of reading over the president's shoulder for a year, these letters are -- I mean, we're talking about a huge collection of smudged ink and misspellings and tattered notebook paper. There are plenty of long thoughtful e-mails too. But really the letters I always looked forward to reading the most were these long handwritten notes that you could tell somebody had just sat down and they had written as if they were writing into their diary.
SASLOWAnd for a lot of people out in the country who are going through really hard things it was sort of a way of writing and sending this to the president meant that they still mattered, that their problems still counted. And they wrote in these really searing, authentic detailed ways about what was happening in their lives.
ROBERTSWell, you could hear that in Natoma's voice...
ROBERTS...you know, when she said, I -- this -- I just wanted someone to recognize what I was going through.
SASLOWYeah, and because of that so Obama, he reads these ten letters every night. He usually writes back to one or two. And the people who receive these handwritten replies are sometimes so taken aback that they don't believe they're real. So one of the other characters in the book, his name's Thomas Ritter, and he's a very staunch Republican from Plano, Texas. And he wrote to Obama because he was upset about the healthcare bill and upset about bailouts and government spending and the way the country was going. And he wrote Obama really a very angry e-mail, dashed it off and about three weeks later received a full page reply and handwritten on, you know, a note card with the presidential seal embossed on it. And he did not believe that it was real.
SASLOWSo for about a week he looked online at handwriting samples, Obama's handwriting. And then he noticed smudge patterns that were consistent with a left-handed writer on the note card. And finally, not until he got a call from the White House asking if he'd received the letter, did he concede that, okay, Obama actually wrote this note.
ROBERTSThat's funny. One of the other things that the president reveals in your interview with him in which he focuses on this project is his sense of powerlessness at times. And he compares the experience of being a community organizer in Chicago when there were very tangible things he could help people accomplish, whether it's getting an apartment or whatever it was. And that even as president there are many things he can't really accomplish. And he uses the word heartbreaking in describing some of these letters because he knows he can't really do very much for them.
SASLOWYeah, some of his aides actually told me that they have worried that this process is not good for him. Because what it means is that every night he reads ten stories, people -- as a journalist, I know that people tend to write to me when something is going wrong or they're upset about something. And it's the same thing with the presidency. People write when they're going through difficult times. And so that means that every single night Obama is reading ten really searing, heartbreaking stories about what's happening.
SASLOWAnd in a lot of cases, he can't do anything about them. The way he put it to me was that the act of governing is so slow, and he's certainly learned that during his time in office. And these people's problems are so immediate that if somebody writes to him and says I'm losing my house next week, there's not much he can do. So sometimes he's been so moved by letters that he said a couple of times he has actually called or written a check because he knows that that's the extent of his power in that situation which, you know, is a pretty astounding admission for somebody who has the most power of all.
ROBERTSIn fact, he even says in your book, I probably shouldn't tell you that I send out a check occasionally.
SASLOWRight, exactly. He makes a pretty good salary, but he probably doesn't want to be sending out ten checks a day.
ROBERTSWe have a number of our listeners who have communicated on Facebook and they have a series of questions about how this actually works. Peggy asks, "Who screens the letters in the criteria?"
SASLOWIt is a massive process. So mail used to be handled in the White House itself before the anthrax scare. And when they decided...
ROBERTSIt was a common first job for a lot of young people to work in the White House in the mail office.
SASLOWExactly, yeah, in the mail office, and it still is. But so now what they've decided to do is they moved it out of the White House to this sort of clandestine office building that's, you know, three or four blocks away. On the ninth floor is this massive mail operation. Every day 20,000 letters and e-mails arrive at this place. There are about 50 staffers and more than 1,000 volunteers who come in and read and sort this mail. And the staffers are -- you know, most of them are in their early 20s, they make $35,000 a year and they go in and their job is to read 400 letters a day.
SASLOWAnd they make such a science of this process. I mean, as soon as they read a letter it's divided into one of about 80 category folders. Those folders change all the time based on what they're receiving in the mail. Right now I'm sure the Occupy Wall Street folder is overflowing. It's a very newsy changing process. So they go into these category folders. They also are divided by are they favorable, are they not favorable. And every day at the end of the day, they make sure that the ten letters they give to Obama reflect the metrics that came in in the mail.
SASLOWSo if last night they got three -- you know, 30 percent of their letters were about occupy Wall Street, he read three letters last night about occupy Wall Street. If seven letters were negative, three letters were positive, that's -- you know, he's seeing that mix, the mix that comes in (unintelligible) .
ROBERTSAnd I bet the mix has changed.
SASLOWOh, the mix has changed tremendously. I mean, he told me that, you know, at first reading the mail was great because it was a lot of these post-inauguration thank you notes and, you know, all of these really inspirational letters. There's still some of those, but there's also a lot more, you know, dear socialist and a lot of these letters that are increasingly angry.
ROBERTSAnd you reflect that in your book too. You chose some of the writers. You mentioned Thomas Ritter in particular, a very harsh critic of the president.
SASLOWYeah, absolutely, because he sees a lot of those letters. And one thing that I was, I guess, slightly surprised about is that in seeing the letters Obama chooses to respond to, he responds most often probably to letters that are sort of well-articulated criticism -- respectful, well-articulated criticism. Those letters are likely to get a response from Obama.
ROBERTSNow one of our listeners, Debbie -- and you started to answer this question. "Does he ever answer them like Ronald Reagan did?" And you said he does.
SASLOWHe does. He does answer them. Ronald Reagan was unique in that he -- Ronald Reagan didn't write as many responses as Obama writes, but what Reagan did is he would take time -- sometimes he would take 45 minutes to write back to a letter. I mean, I went back and read through some of Reagan's responses. Sometimes he would write four pages to somebody. I mean, a kid wrote to him once a sort of funny, joking letter saying that he wanted to apply for emergency funds because his mother had declared his bedroom a disaster area. And he wanted help cleaning up the bedroom.
SASLOWAnd, you know, you can see a lot of presidents just sort of tossing it off or whatever. Reagan wrote a four-page denial of disaster funds explaining that the country had been hit really hard by tornadoes recently. And also he had a big initiative now for, you know, individual action and he thought this was a case where that applied and the kid should clean up his room. So Reagan was pretty funny about his responses.
ROBERTSLillian writes to us, "Does this counterbalance the president's meeting with wealthy contributors at fundraising events that he attends?"
SASLOWI think that it's an attempt to counterbalance that. Whether it's a direct counterbalance I'm not sure. And truthfully some of the letters are also from wealthy people and wealthy donors. I mean, these come from everybody. So he sees in this -- sometimes in a packet of ten letters there might be one from a CEO of a company who's doing very well, and there might be one from somebody who's -- you know, from a fourth grader who's living in a housing project. So they come from everybody.
ROBERTSAnd Liz asked, "What percentage of these letters are from people asking a favor?"
SASLOWI think that probably all of them, in some way, ask a favor because the favor that they want is to be noticed and to have their problems count. So I guess I'd say 100 percent.
ROBERTSAnd finally Patrick writes, "Have any actions or policy changes been linked to a letter or series of letters, which actions, policy changes and which letters?" Course we -- Natoma Canfield, probably the single best example of that, but there are others.
SASLOWYeah, there are a few other examples in the book. One example is a man in Atlanta writes to Obama and -- while the It Gets Better Project was just starting, which was a project where gay Americans made videos to talk about the ways they were bullied growing up and how they persevered. And John, the man in Atlanta, had been bullied to the extent that he had considered committing suicide and had gone through some really, really dark times, and wrote to tell Obama about these dark times and wrote to tell him why it had gotten better.
SASLOWAnd that letter, in addition to a half dozen other letters about this project, convinced Obama and his staff to film an It Gets Better video of his own. Where he made a video and submitted it to this project telling people he himself was bullied, not for being gay obviously, but for being -- for looking different or for speaking funny and the ways in which he'd persevered and how it does get better. So that's one example.
SASLOWAnother letter in the book is from a fourth grader in Kentucky -- Covington, Ky. She attends the worst school in the worst school district in one of the worst states for education. And she wrote to tell Obama about basically this daily disaster and that she went to allegedly get her education. And Obama took a few tips from her letter about what was going on, incorporated them into a major education speech and has started to try to put a few of those things into policy.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You're also listening to Eli Saslow. His book is "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President." I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. And let's go to our callers and there are a number of folks who want to join the conversation. We'll start with Jeff in Alexandria, Va. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JEFFThank you. Thank you for taking my call.
ROBERTSHappy to have you, Jeff.
JEFFI just -- I'm a contractor here in Northern Virginia and, you know, when the economy changed and the construction industry was really out of work, you know, we had too many homes and we were, you know, dying to build more homes, I was trying to get -- I was trying to save the planet one roll of insulation at a time. Because I wanted to redirect that industry, that behemoth from building homes to actually insulating the ones we have. 'Cause as you look at -- agree with global warming or not, it's not finding more energy. It's really just using less.
JEFFAnd so I wanted to redirect. So I wrote some letters -- I wrote a letter and I called in to the agency that would be responsible for that type of program. And one of my quotes was, you know, insulation just isn't sexy. You know, I can sell a bathroom 'cause it's sexy. I can sell a kitchen 'cause it's sexy. But I could twist arms. To sell insulation is like selling life insurance. You know, there's no ooh and ah. And the other -- you know, a few months down the road President Obama was giving a speech at the local Home Depot. And I couldn't get in of course, I wasn't planning on getting in.
JEFFAnd, you know, a couple weeks later there was a big sign up at the Home Depot that says, President Obama said insulation is sexy. And it struck me even if -- you know, even if that -- my message didn't get through, it wasn't my message specifically. I think what struck me is that something got through. I mean, something -- he really tapped into, you know, the essence of, well, regardless of your politics, you know, there's a kernel of sound science here that we should do and -- I think another thing that kinda struck me as you were talking to Mr. Saslow is that, you know, I was reading "The Diary of Abraham Lincoln." And nothing got past that man.
JEFFI mean, he and his -- and the images and the polar opposites kinda struck me as well. You know, President Obama was trying to hold together a union and nothing gets by him. I mean, that really was impressive. And I'm a Republican so I -- but at the same time, you know, he's in a very, very difficult job trying to hold, you know, a country together that's splitting out on geographic lines -- geological lines. And, you know, that's -- it's impressive that he just -- nothing gets by him. You know, the -- and I think it evidenced -- your book is probably testament to that and I'm excited to read it. But I just wanted to pass on that, you know, I was stunned that that message came back through.
ROBERTSJeff, thanks so much for your call. Really appreciate your sharing that story with us. Eli, your reaction.
SASLOWYeah, well, one thing is -- one thing that the Obama White House is insistent about is that everything gets read. It might not be by Obama, but every single letter that comes into that office, somebody's reading it. It might be one of the volunteers who comes in, but every letter gets read. And then the truth is -- I don't know if this letter fell into that category, but the ten letters that are delivered each night to Obama, he responds to one or two. The other eight or nine, most of those people never know the president read their letter. So it's possible that he saw insulation is sexy in the letter and decided he was going to start using that.
ROBERTSOr someone saw it.
SASLOWOr someone saw it.
ROBERTSBy the way, for those of you who are intrigued by Eli's book and might want to write to the president yourself, we have a link on our website wamu.org which will give you some how-to tips about how to write. You know, in your own newspaper, Eli, this weekend there's a major piece by your colleague Scott Wilson describing the president as a loner and someone who doesn't really like people. You're drawing a very different picture of this president in some ways than your colleague did in the paper on Sunday.
SASLOWYeah, I think that's true. But I also -- I think that piece has a lot of truth to it too. Obama, in person, can often come off as very aloof. And, you know, he's not somebody who likes to spend a lot of time working a rope line and shaking hands and hugging people when he hears about their problems. But when he sees these letters and he's alone, it's a more intimate moment and I think then he connects to these people and says he sometimes reads these stories aloud to his wife in bed after he reads the letters. So I think in that window he feels it.
ROBERTSVery interesting. Eli Saslow. His book is "Ten Letters." We'll be back with your calls, so stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts and I'm sitting in today for Diane while she's away on vacation. And my guest this hour is Eli Saslow, correspondent for the Washington Post. He has written a book called, "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President". And Mary writes to us, Eli, what is the best way to get a letter to President Obama, snail mail, email, fax, phone, comment line? We should mention that there is a White House email or website, whitehouse.gov/contact, which gives you that information. We have a link to that listing on our own web page, drshow.org, but in general, how would you answer Mary and other potential letter writers about what to do?
SASLOWI think Obama tends to read more handwritten letters. He believes that they tend to be more heartfelt and that people who take the time to put pen to paper also have taken the time to think a lot about what they're gonna write to him. The emails -- he still reads emails, but they tend to be quicker, more dashed off. Somebody can go log on, send five emails in a day. It takes a lot more effort to send a letter. And I think he reads more letters. So I'd recommend handwriting.
ROBERTSOkay. We have on the line, Haley, from Orange Park, Florida, who, in fact is the subject of one of the ten chapters in Eli's book. So, Haley, what a pleasure to have you on "The Diane Rehm Show." Thanks for calling in.
HALEYYeah, thank you for taking my call.
ROBERTSWhat's on your mind?
HALEYEli, congratulations on your book.
SASLOWOh, thanks, Haley. What a fun surprise to have you call in.
SASLOWHaley wrote a letter that, you know, the actual letter, I think, was maybe the most moving one in the book. Haley can tell his story better than I can probably, but he, for a long time, has had a place that his family has always gone to in Suwannee, Fl. And it -- the -- for awhile, looked like it might be in pretty serious risk with BP oil spill. And he wrote a letter to Obama that really evoked this place in this really special vivid way and talking about what it had meant in his life and what it meant to so many people around him. And after reading that letter and knowing that Obama had read that letter, I felt like I had to go down and see it and spend some time with him.
ROBERTSSo, Haley, what's doing with you today? That place still there? You still go?
HALEYOh, yes. It's still there and as a matter of fact, we've got a big weekend coming up. You know, Eli was part of a big weekend we have three or four times a year. We gather a bunch of men together and we do a lot of fishing and cooking out, standing around the campfire in the evenings and that sort of thing. We've got another one of those coming up here in a couple weeks.
ROBERTSAnd I gather from the chapter, you eat a lot of very unhealthy food, too.
HALEYYes, we do. And it's very, very good, I can tell you that.
SASLOWAs you can tell this was a very arduous work trip for me.
HALEYYou know, I just -- I wanted to make the comment that it's impressive to me that the Obama administration has a staff that actually does what is being done with respect to these ten letters. You know, I’m just a small guy, small fish in a big pond, if you will and the power of the written word is tremendous. And, you know, I was honored that my -- that the staff at the White House took the time to read my letter, number one, but then actually select it to go to President Obama.
HALEYYou know, a couple of the letter writers that have been profiled, their letters, obviously, had a great impact on the administration. I don't know whether mine had a great impact on the administration, but in the reverse, this whole process has had a great impact on me and on my life and on, you know, my family's life and the friends that I surround myself with. So it's been a really neat experience for me, getting to know Eli, spending that long weekend with Eli at a place that --like Eli mentions, you know, I have grown up going to and learning a lot of things about life in general. So it's been a neat experience for me.
ROBERTSAnd how would you say you'll -- you say it's changed your outlook. Tell us how.
HALEYWell, I think it humanized President Obama a lot more for me. I mean, you look at these political figures and you see them on television, whether it's the President Of The United States or the leader of another country or even our senators and congressmen, people who hold these political offices.
HALEYIn a sense, almost feel untouchable. And when something like this happens, you know, I sat down one evening and penned that letter to the president and thought that nothing would ever come of it. And lo and behold, you know, Eli Saslow picked it up and now it's been published in a book that's gonna be all over the country. So that's just a neat experience for me.
ROBERTSWell, Haley, thanks so much for sharing that story with us. We appreciate your calling in.
HALEYYeah, thank you for taking the call.
SASLOWAll right. Talk to you soon.
ROBERTSOne of the letters in the book that is reflective of an attitude of the president and of his wife that doesn't get a lot of attention is the letter from the mother of the soldier in Afghanistan. And you write that of all the letters -- and he says this to you in the interview -- he finds them sometimes the most touching. And not the first president to talk about how deeply moving it is to hear from service people and their families. And, of course, Mrs. Obama has made dealing with military families a major issue. And talk about that dimension of this project.
SASLOWYeah, I think he finds them the most moving. He also said that he finds them the hardest to read. And a lot of times these letters from military families -- oftentimes I read several letters that he was seeing a mother writing about a son she had lost, that she just wanted him to know about. You know, or soldiers who come home and are struggling with PTSD and their relationships are damaged. And these can be pretty gut-wrenching letters. Especially for a relatively new commander-in-chief who's still figuring out, you know, how the echoes of his decisions continue to reverberate in people's lives for years and years to come.
SASLOWSo the letter in the book is from a mother in Richmond, Va., whose son was in Afghanistan. And he was in a very remote area in Afghanistan. And he had not been able to touch base with his family for sometimes weeks, months at a time. And she had finally gotten one phone call from him. And she wrote to Obama to tell him what this was like. And, you know, I think for Obama, that letter was particularly difficult because the story was still unfolding. This guy was still over there. Nobody knew what was gonna happen to him, if he was gonna make it back. And then, if he did make it back, if he was gonna be the same person that he was when he first got sent over there.
SASLOWSo I think that those -- knowing for Obama and knowing that he made the decision and he continues to make the decisions that put people in that place, it's a very direct connection.
ROBERTSEli, let's turn to Claire, in Long Island, N.Y. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Claire.
CLAIREYes. Thank you. Something a little different, I wrote to President Obama, asking him to read a great book called, "Roosevelt's Purge" by Susan Dunn. I believe Obama is facing the same problems that Roosevelt faced, especially opposition from some of the democrats in his own party. Today, they're called blue-dog democrats. And these democrats talk like democrats, but they vote with the republicans. And they've done as much harm as the republicans have by opposing many of President Obama's policies regarding healthcare, regulating Wall Street. And I'm sure some of these blue-dog democrats today will vote against the president's job bill. So I hope that President Obama read my letter and more importantly read "Roosevelt's Purge" by Susan Dunn. Thank you.
ROBERTSThank you, Claire. President get a lot of reading suggestions in these letters?
SASLOWHe not only gets reading selections, but he gets a deluge of books, t-shirts, original art. There's an entire room on this 9th floor that's just for gifts that have been sent. And it is overflowing. And some of the things are incredibly odd. At one point, Michelle Obama had mentioned, you know, a year ago that she had begun to start, like, using a hula hoop. It was sort of like exercise. And the White House received, I think, 216 hula hoops in the next week. So it's a pretty strange thing.
ROBERTSSimian, in Rochester, N.Y. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
ROBERTSInteresting question. Thanks.
SASLOWYeah, absolutely, it's an interesting question. I think, first off, it's important to realize that certainly Obama is not making any policy decisions based solely on these 10 letters. They're a small piece, obviously, of the information that comes into him and the decisions that he makes. I will say, though, that they're certainly has been a lot of criticism from some of Obama's opponents, you know, in this presidential race upcoming and in other people in Washington, that he uses these letters as a tactic and that these people's stories to him, then become a way for him to further his own agenda, which is true.
SASLOWI mean, he does use the letters. He uses them to humanize some of these policies and he certainly, in making speeches, picks letters that he agrees with something that they're saying in order to further what he's working on.
ROBERTSAnd, in fact, at times -- and the Natoma Canfield example was a good one -- when some of his more ardent critics, particularly conservative radio hosts have really lashed out at him and Glen Beck in particular, for using her and other stories like that during the fight over healthcare.
SASLOWYeah, exactly. And the truth is, if you listen to five Obama speeches, I would guarantee you that in one of them he mentions reading the 10 letters every night because he also -- he believes that saying this and that talking about his shows that he is hearing from people in the country. And so some people, I think, are a little tired of hearing about that and, you know, they tend to lash out in those ways.
ROBERTSBut -- and also, as you point out, this is not a partisan issue because other presidents and Ronald Reagan, in particular, did something very similar in terms of using this material to try to humanize and crystallize some of his points of view.
SASLOWOf course, yeah. And George H. W. Bush loved reading letters when he flew. So any time he was on Air Force One, he would ask his staff to bring a pile of 30 or 40 letters that he would sort of sift through during a long flight. All presidents have read the mail. I think it's always been an important feedback mechanism that -- what's changed now is that Obama has made a real science of it and has said, I want this to be a daily part of my routine.
ROBERTSAnd George Bush, the elder, H. W., was also a prolific letter writer. In fact, there's a volume of his letters has been published. And this was a very important part of how he was.
SASLOWYeah, absolutely. I think it's been an important part of who a lot of presidents are. I mean, it's actually funny, looking back at some of the history of presidential mail. Some president's legacies in these really funny ways are tied to letters. Abraham Lincoln decided to grow a beard because he got a letter from a little girl who thought his face would look better with a beard. And, you know, and then Bill Clinton's White House, during the Monica Lewinski scandal, his mail room was overwhelmed with hundreds and hundreds of cigars. I mean, it's like this constant odd reflection of what's going on.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Time for a couple of more quick callers. And let's turn to Charlotte, in Washington, D.C. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Charlotte?
CHARLOTTEYes, I'm here. Good morning, Eli. How are you?
SASLOWGood. How are you?
CHARLOTTEGood. I just wanted to ask you real quick, when you went in with your idea to the president about this project, were they -- was he aware that you may be writing a book?
SASLOWWhen I spoke to the president about the letters? Yeah, at that point, he knew that I was writing a book. And also, you know, before I launched on the book, I also needed to, you know, gain access to the letters. So was able to do that and able to see, basically, everything that Obama saw through the mail over the course of the year and he knew that I was writing about that when we sat down to talk.
CHARLOTTEHow is it that you, you think, that you were able to maybe get clearance for this project?
SASLOWI think it's because like Obama mentions again and again in these speeches, that he reads these 10 letters, the White House believes that showing that he reads this mail shows that he's connected to the people that he governs. So that was hugely advantageous for me because they thought that it was important for me to see all mail that came in. They wanted me to know that he read notes that were highly critical and notes that were positive. So it really ended up being a pretty ideal situation, in that they were willing to share everything.
ROBERTSThank you, Charlotte, for your call. We've got time for maybe one more. And, Jeremy, in Belleville, Ill. Welcome, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JEREMYYes. My daughter wrote Obama a letter when the tsunami happened in Japan, causing widespread destruction. She wanted me to type up letter for her to write and I said, just write it in your hand, tell him how old you are. She's 10 years old. And just tell them that you wanna help and see what, you know, see if he's got any plans for you. And she, very quickly, got a response that said, you know, America needs people who are willing to help. And stay in school and get good grades and, you know, be a future civic leader, basically.
SASLOWYeah, there are -- that's great that she wrote it in her own hand. I think one of the things that I enjoyed most about reading the letters and that I think Obama enjoys most, too, is, you know, you learn so much about somebody just from the way they write. And I think having her write it in her own hand, instead of having you type it up, that probably made the -- made that letter much more enjoyable for him.
ROBERTSThank you, Jeremy. Do you think that the fact that the president also has daughters about the same age as Jeremy's, does he seem particularly responsive to letters from children?
SASLOWHe does. Yeah, he does. And also, the White House gets a lot of letters from children.
ROBERTSI bet they do.
SASLOWYou know, it's -- I think sometimes they're school projects, kids are supposed to write a letter to the president. So he does respond to a lot. And, you know, one letter in the book is from a young high school girl in Brooklyn who writes to Obama because it's gonna give her extra credit for an assignment. And she writes about dealing with domestic violence in her life. And her mother's, you know, horrific, underpaid job situation. And Obama writes back. And it then leads her to go out looking for her own job and trying to help support her mother.
ROBERTSWhat did you learn about this president from this experience that you didn't know before?
SASLOWI think what I learned about the president is that he is so tied to these letters. I mean, he's getting 10 of these every day and he's reading 10. And it's, you know, I think that this is -- it's his one direct connection left to the people that he governs. And it's really striking in a lot of ways that sort of that connection has been reduced to this. But it's -- it also means that these letters have incredible power over him. And I also -- I learned a lot about the country. I mean, what these -- what everybody who writes a letter to Obama shares in common is they still have hope.
SASLOWNo matter how bleak or hard the circumstances of their life, they still took the time to put pen to paper and believe that somehow they could be heard, they could counted. And that's -- I think that's sort of the underlying inspiration.
ROBERTSGood way to end. Eli Saslow, his book is “Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President”. I'm Steve Roberts sitting in today for Diane. She's on vacation, will be back next week. Thanks for spending an hour with us this morning.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Aaron Stamper. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we are on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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