By MARTY LEVINE
When Jeanne Marie Laskas asked President Barack Obama why he penned handwritten answers to 10 letters from the public every day during his administration, “he was really thoughtful about it,” she says.
His reply addressed “what empathy was for, in the life of a president. Being ‘nice’ is not the point at all. ‘We are going to engage in conversations,’ ” Obama told her. And he wanted to tell Americans: “You are the reason we are here.”
Laskas, English department faculty member, wrote “To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope” (released Sept. 18 by Random House) from her months inside the White House correspondence office before and through the 2016 presidential election. It includes a selection of the 10,000 letters Obama received each day, interviews with ordinary Americans who wrote to the president, portraits of the staff who helped Obama respond to the massive amount of correspondence, and a retrospective from Obama himself.
Laskas is the author of eight books, including “Concussion,” the basis for the 2015 film about Dr. Bennet Omalu (2004, master of public health at Graduate School of Public Health) and his fight with the NFL about long-term effects of brain injuries.
“I had no idea that people wrote to the president,” says Laskas, who originally wrote a New York Times Magazine article on the mailroom under Obama. “Who writes to the president? Believe me it wasn’t roses and rainbows that people were writing about. The most common emotion was desperation.”
Writing to the president was often seen as a last resort by people facing uncertain or unprecedented life circumstances. Those who received responses reacted “in the most surprising ways,” she says.
“First of all, no one expects anyone will read their letter. They never expected to get a response back of any kind. And when it’s a handwritten response from the president …”
The mailroom became a “listening machine,” she adds, exploring “the role of empathy in politics.”
More often than not, of course, letter writers got a form reply from Obama’s staff, but those toiling in the mailroom aimed to append brief personal notes to even these missives, Laskas says.
The public’s correspondence with the White House is usually lost to history, she laments; if presidential libraries preserve and display any letters at all, they’re from celebrities.
“Presidents have interacted with mail since the beginning of time, in one way or another,” she says, with the White House mailroom being particularly swamped starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, following his fireside chats broadcast on radio. But Obama’s approach “was unlike any president had done before him,” she says.
Is Donald Trump continuing the practice? Laskas doesn’t know; an attempt to interview one veteran of the correspondence office who had begun the job for George W. Bush and was continuing it to the present day was cancelled without explanation.
But Laskas suspects Trump communicates mostly in 280-character bursts on Twitter now, to everyone and no one.
“It’s not that long ago that a kind of listening was going on,” she says. “Maybe that’s something that we should expect (from a president).
Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.