'Ten Letters': What Americans Tell Obama

The White House receives some 20,000 letters and emails a day, and occasionally citizens are surprised by a personal response to their missives. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow, who writes about this correspondence in his book Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President.

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JOHN SANTOS: Dear Mr. President: I'm an avid supporter, donor, activist...

AUDIE CORNISH, host: The White House receives some 20,000 letters and emails a day. So what happens to that blizzard of envelopes and the torrent of gigabytes? Believe it or not, they really are read by staff. Fifty full-time mail analysts, 25 interns and 1,500 volunteers pore through each message in a secret location near the White House. And each day, staffers choose 10 letters to be personally read by President Obama.

John Santos wrote about the issue of gays and bullying.

SANTOS: I've written many times, and I don't know who reads these letters. I hope someone does. But I just wanted you to know that I applaud you for sending the message that it truly does get better...

CORNISH: Eleven-year-old Na'Dreya Lattimore wrote to the president, worried about American education.

NA'DREYA LATTIMORE: Sometimes I think if you're really smart you get punished. The reason I think this is because there are kids in the class that are bad and the teacher has to stay on them for disrupting the class...

CORNISH: Thomas Ritter wanted to express how he felt about President Obama's effort to pass a health care bill.

THOMAS RITTER: I hope that you will at least consider that if Congress has to try every strategy possible to pass a bill that it clearly has the majority to pass and still can't pass with bipartisan support, maybe we should pause and reflect. Do the right thing, not the political thing. Suggest a bill that all Americans can support. Thomas J. Ritter, citizen of the U.S.

CORNISH: Eli Saslow brings these stories together in a new book called "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President." Saslow is a writer for The Washington Post who has covered the Obama White House. And he's in our Washington studios.

Eli Saslow, welcome to the program.

ELI SASLOW: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: We just heard the voice from one of the letter writers featured in the book, Thomas Ritter. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?

SASLOW: Sure. Thomas is a pretty staunch conservative. He lives in Plano, Texas. And he had watched Obama be elected. And at first, he tried to be a little bit optimistic about it, although he was always pretty skeptical about Obama. But especially during sort of during the first year of Obama's presidency - as he watched bailouts happen, and then as he watched the health care reform process - he really became enraged.

And one night, he was sitting there watching Fox News, just after the health care bill passed, and he really just felt like the country was going in the wrong direction and he'd had enough. And he decided it was his moment to stand up. He wrote an email that night, a long email to Obama, that was really - it's not something that he put a lot of forethought into. It was just pure passion and honestly a lot of anger.

CORNISH: And this one did get a response.

SASLOW: It did. Yeah, it got a response. And the response really shocked Thomas.

CORNISH: And we should read some of that response, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHUFFLING PAPERS)

SASLOW: Yeah, let me dig for it.

(Reading) Dear Mr. Ritter: I received your letter and I appreciate your concerns about the toxic political environment right now. I do have to challenge you, though, on the notion that any citizen that disagrees with me has been targeted and ridiculed; or that I have made fun of tea baggers. I think a fair reading is that I've gone out of my way to listen to legitimate criticism, and to defend strongly the right of everyone to speak their mind, including those who routinely call me a socialist or worse.

I sincerely believe that the Health Care Reform Bill was the right thing to do for the country. It certainly wasn't the smart political thing. And I hope that in the months to come, you will keep an open mind and evaluate it based not on the political attacks, but on what it does or doesn't do to improve people's lives. Sincerely, Barack Obama.

CORNISH: Did that letter do anything to change the opinions of Thomas Ritter?

SASLOW: It did, for a short time. I think it made him respect Obama tremendously, the fact that somehow this letter that was very critical had made its way to Obama's desk, and that Obama had taken the time to respond. And, you know, Obama's response is sort of the lesson of this process in itself; the idea that everybody should be heard, everybody should be listened to. And that this sort of civil discourse is the way good decisions get made.

And so I think, Thomas, for a while, tried to be much more polite in the way that he addressed political topics. When he was talking with friends, he was more quick to defend Obama or to at least defend that his intentions were good.

But as time as gone on, a couple of years down the road, Obama has made many more decisions that have angered Thomas. I think he still respects him tremendously, but I think that he disagrees with the way a lot of things are going.

CORNISH: We also heard the voice of letter writer John Santos. And his story is interesting 'cause he didn't quite get a reply back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SASLOW: Right, yeah. It was a different kind of reply in that one. And sometimes that's the way these letters work. John's letter, like a lot of these letters, was almost like a diary entry. I mean it was incredibly honest and candid, in part, because he thought nobody would probably ever read it. I mean you send a letter to the president and it's sort of like putting a prayer in an envelope. I mean the odds of having somebody read and respond to that seem remarkably remote.

And so people are so candid, and the letters can be so real and heartbreaking. And John wrote as the It Gets Better project was just beginning, this project of a bunch of gay Americans talking about sort of the way they were bullied growing up. And John had been bullied to the extent in Hawaii that he contemplated suicide and spent a lot of time growing up figuring out how he was going to kill himself.

SANTOS: (reading) Life was bad then, but it slowly got better. I attended a wonderful Catholic liberal arts university in California and learned there that God doesn't make junk. And whether gay, straight...

SASLOW: But his life improved in all these really remarkable ways. And now he's a major AIDS activist in Atlanta. And he wrote Obama about his experience. And in that letter, in addition to, you know, maybe a half dozen other It Gets Better letters that I read, ended up convincing the president and his staff that it would be worth it for him to film one of these It Gets Better videos of his own.

President BARACK OBAMA: As a nation, we're founded on the belief that all of us are equal and each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness, to make the most of our talents, to speak our minds, to not fit in. Most of all, to be true to ourselves. That's the freedom that enriches all of us. That's what America's all about. And every day it gets better.

CORNISH: You also argue that each president's legacy was shaped in part by his relationship to the mail. What did you mean by that?

SASLOW: Well, you can sort of see this interesting reflection of a lot of presidencies through how they handled all this mail. And FDR, who really crafted this new relationship with the American people during the fireside chats, got totally overwhelmed with mail, to the point where it became a fire hazard and he had to hire a separate staff to deal with this fire hazard that accumulated in the White House. And then as the years went on, you know, Richard Nixon at one point in his presidency became got very weary of receiving so much criticism. And he told his mail staff to only send him letters that affirmed his position and agreed with what he thought because he couldn't deal with the criticism anymore at that point. So, it's sort of this interesting window into how presidents dealt with the public and how they were thinking at different times.

CORNISH: What was your access? 'Cause I'm sure a lot of people hearing this might think, well, of course, you know, they showed him the letters that they wanted him to see.

SASLOW: Yeah, it's an interesting question. Luckily for me, I think Obama and the White House believe that all letters are letters that I should see. Because what they believe is in their interest to show is he receives and listens to letters of all kind. So, they were very open in giving me access to letters. I read, you know, hundreds of letters over the course of this time and saw plenty that were extremely negative, plenty that were positive and most that just were about people's lives. And in the end, the real access in this book and these stories is based with those people and their lives and the issues that they're going through. And so the access from the White House was great, in that I got to see these letters and I had this real privilege of reading basically over the president's shoulder for a year. But the real access was then asking these people who had written to the president about their problems to say, hey, can I come out and spend a week with you, two weeks with you, while you are dealing with these problems you wrote to the president about? And so that meant I was with people as they were going to their bankruptcy hearings or as a woman in Arizona was deciding whether or not she was going to move back to Mexico in the wake of a new immigration law. And really those were the people and, you know, were pretty heroic in letting me just tag along in these really difficult circumstances sometimes and write about what they were going through and what they were talking to Obama about.

CORNISH: Eli Saslow, we appreciate you for bringing their stories.

SASLOW: Oh, please. Thank you. It was my privilege. I appreciate them for letting me bring their stories and I appreciate you for having me here.

CORNISH: Eli Saslow's book is called "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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