 Tim Adams en­joys Barack Obama’s pres­i­den­tial let­ter­writ­ing

The ex-pres­i­dent’s habit of re­ply­ing to let­ters sent by or­di­nary cit­i­zens re­minds us of what his coun­try now lacks, writes Tim Adams

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To Obama With Love, Joy, Hate and De­spair

Jeanne Marie Laskas

Blooms­bury, £20, pp397

In the first week of his pres­i­dency, Barack Obama re­ceived about 250,000 let­ters from or­di­nary Amer­i­cans. Over the course of the fol­low­ing eight years, the num­ber set­tled at roughly 10,000 a day. Most of his cor­re­spon­dents had heard that he was in the habit, from his days as se­na­tor, and on the cam­paign trail, of try­ing to re­ply to let­ter writ­ers with a hand­writ­ten note. Ob­vi­ously, the change in scale and re­spon­si­bil­ity meant that task was im­pos­si­ble to ful­fil com­pre­hen­sively; in­stead, Obama com­mit­ted him­self to an­swer­ing 10 let­ters each day. These were se­lected by a small and ded­i­cated group of read­ers in a spe­cially con­vened mail room; they called them­selves “Team Lit­tle Peo­ple”, and they op­er­ated with a kind of mes­sianic de­vo­tion to the task of sift­ing and sort­ing, putting for­ward a range of let­ters – both sup­port­ive and an­tag­o­nis­tic – that ap­peared to come most closely from the heart.

Jeanne Marie Laskas first gained ac­cess to the White House’s epis­to­lary army for an ar­ti­cle in the New York Times – an ar­ti­cle that Obama de­scribed as the “sin­gle favourite story of my pres­i­dency”. Laskas ex­pands it to book length here with sin­gu­lar chap­ters about some of the in­di­vid­u­als Obama chose to cor­re­spond with, as well as co­pi­ous re­pro­duc­tions of the let­ters in­volved. It makes a mov­ing and in­evitably nos­tal­gic or even ele­giac read, redo­lent of the hu­man grace and states­man­ship of the Obama pres­i­dency, qual­i­ties so bru­tally ab­sent in the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Obama liked to save the pur­ple folder in which the 10 se­lected let­ters ap­peared un­til the end of his work­ing day, af­ter hav­ing had din­ner with his fam­ily and read brief­ing pa­pers and se­cu­rity re­ports. Hav­ing used the let­ters while campaigning to shape the story he was telling on the stump, to “ori­ent him­self”, in power he came to see them as a valu­able re­minder of ser­vice. “It was a way for me to, ev­ery day, re­mem­ber that what I was do­ing was not about me,” he tells the author in one of a cou­ple of long in­ter­views. “It wasn’t about the Wash­ing­ton cal­cu­lus … It was about the peo­ple who were out there liv­ing their lives, who were ei­ther look­ing for some help or an­gry about how I was screwing some­thing up.”

The let­ters came from mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and the par­ents of those who had been vic­tims of gun crime. They came from school­child­ren ask­ing the pres­i­dent to as­sess their home­work and sin­gle mums try­ing to pay the rent. They came from mil­lion­aires and bankrupts, from pro­fes­sors and prison in­mates. Some had a di­rect po­etry or heart­felt can­dour, like that from Bobby In­gram, of Ox­ford, Mis­sis­sippi, who de­scribed how he missed the worker’s cal­luses on his hands af­ter los­ing the job he’d had for 23 years as a land sur­veyor: “I kneel nights and clutch new hands to­gether, pray­ing we can all re­cover what seems lost.” Oth­ers, like that from Ronn Ohl, a Tea Party con­ser­va­tive from Wash­ing­ton DC, came with sev­eral para­graphs of pointed crit­i­cism of Obama’s per­ceived lib­er­al­ism, be­fore con­fess­ing a grudg­ing epiphany over the pres­i­dent’s Dream Act, his proposal of amnesty for the chil­dren of il­le­gal im­mi­grants, an ini­tia­tive that had en­abled a young His­panic man known to the let­ter writer to be­come a pro­duc­tive cit­i­zen.

There are let­ters of hard­ships and ill­nesses over­come, and those that tell of long lives with no happy end­ing, sto­ries of mod­ern Amer­ica in a side of hand­writ­ten foolscap. Quite a few are pow­er­fully mov­ing in their hope, as well as their des­per­a­tion. Some, most of which never reached the pres­i­dent, were given a “red dot” by the mail-room team. These were con­sid­ered emer­gen­cies: let­ters from peo­ple who ex­pressed a de­sire to kill them­selves or some­one else. About 200 a day were red-dot­ted, their senders im­me­di­ately con­tacted.

Some­times, Obama con­fesses, he felt that he was de­vot­ing more time and ef­fort and at­ten­tion to his latenight replies than the task re­quired; he did so, he ex­plains, “be­cause he re­ally wanted peo­ple to know that this isn’t just the com­ments on the in­ter­net. That’s not the func­tion of this. The func­tion is: ‘We’re go­ing to en­gage’”. The tone and cour­tesy of that en­gage­ment – the pres­i­dent clearly made sure he read be­tween the lines of the cho­sen let­ters, and found ways to es­tab­lish care­ful em­pa­thy – stands as a bea­con of humble lead­er­ship, as does the ded­i­ca­tion that Obama in­spired in the mail-room team that made the cor­re­spon­dence pos­si­ble.

There will be those, of course, who read or re­spond to the idea of Laskas’s beau­ti­fully re­searched and writ­ten book with the ar­gu­ment that the 44th pres­i­dent was all about this vaunted com­pas­sion, about al­ways hav­ing the right words, but not al­ways hav­ing the right deeds. There are plenty of ways to counter that ar­gu­ment, but one is that writ­ing a let­ter is it­self a deed, an ac­tion, re­quir­ing a de­gree of ded­i­ca­tion and thought, a ca­pac­ity to lis­ten, in the way that fir­ing off an ex­clam­a­tory tweet never is.

To or­der To Obama With Love, Joy, Hate and De­spair for £14.49 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Obama’s care­ful em­pa­thy stands as a bea­con of humble lead­er­ship

Obama at his coun­try re­treat, Camp David, in Oc­to­ber 2012. Getty Images

A re­ply from Obama to a voter. From To Obama With Love.

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