Dear President Obama

I wonder how many readers of this book will know what it’s like to be in receipt of thousands of letters? To read them, sort them, think about them: to address the feelings of strangers? I do. My parents answered all the fan mail for the Muppets. When The Muppet Show was highly popular all the letters from its adoring fans landed in our apartment. As a kid I earned my pocket money opening envelopes and sorting letters into piles, from “Can I meet Kermit?” to “Jim Henson, the episode with Alice Cooper means you’re going to hell.”

The writers also told stories about their lives: about joy and sorrow, because they believed in the show’s characters and in the empathy of their creators. Every letter received an answer.

Is writing to a green felt frog the same as writing to the president of the US? Not the same, but similar. You put pen to paper but sense that a real reply is unlikely. Still you write. Because you have hope.

Barack Obama ran on hope. It was the slogan of his first presidential campaign, in 2008. Empathy was his watchword; Jeanne Marie Laskas quotes his book, The Audacity of Hope. Empathy, Obama wrote, “is at the heart of my moral code . . . not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes.” That ideal is what Laskas hopes to portray in To Obama, an account of how the “10 LADs” were chosen — 10 letters a day selected from the thousands delivered to the White House mailroom.

Citizens have always written to presidents, though with varying degrees of passion: famously, Franklin Roosevelt got ten times the amount of mail received by his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. But Obama was “the first president to put such a deliberate focus on constituent correspondence”, Laskas writes. Her book is a selection of that correspondence, larded with the president’s responses (some handwritten, some typed) and a look at how the mailroom functioned. The book began as an article in The New York Times Magazine, and the background pieces on individual letter writers retain the feel of a certain kind of well-intentioned American magazine journalism. An example is when Laskas ventriloquises Marnie Hazleton: “She wore a tan jacket and a loose-fitting tangerine blouse. Did she look OK? How about the necklace?”

Hazleton believed in the president before most of her friends did; she became a teacher and was inspired when she heard President Obama call teachers “nation builders”. But she struggled; lost her job; and nearly gave up. Then she wrote to the president. “I’m rooting for you,” he wrote back. Hazleton was inspired — and now she’s got her PhD and is superintendent of the school district which, not so many years before, had laid her off.

This story of hope and possibility, of honest work and open communication, is emblematic of what the Obama presidency was meant to stand for. There are no letters here about drone strikes or Guantánamo Bay, though there are certainly ones that aren’t fan letters. Obama — or, in the case of the typed letters, Kolbie Blume, the young woman charged with channelling his voice — replies respectfully, forthrightly.

Do we learn anything from his replies? Not really. It’s all boilerplate: “I’m inspired by the strength and perspective you possess at such a young age” and a dozen varieties of “I’m rooting for you”. But it would be wrong to expect more. It is rather Obama’s willingness to read the 10 LADs that meant he was, at least, trying to listen.

Who’s listening now? After the 2016 election Trump’s staff secretary met Fiona Reeves, the woman who ran Obama’s mailroom, who told him about the LADs. She was told that someone would get back to her for more information. “No one did.”

To Obama. With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair, by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Bloomsbury, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$28, 401 pages

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Source : https://www.ft.com/content/46775bac-bb62-11e8-8dfd-2f1cbc7ee27c

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