Americans write Obama — and here's what happens next

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Got a plan to fix the economy or crush al Qaida? A setback that's left you desperate for help? The perfect name for the future First Dog?

Thousands of Americans a day are e-mailing, faxing, calling, or taking pen to paper to write to President Obama and his family.

Some — such as the South Carolina girl whose letter about her school's sorry conditions earned her a seat with First Lady Michelle Obama for the president's address to Congress — have a plugged-in teacher or someone in their community who can get a letter into the right hands fast. Members of Congress have their own line in to the White House. Personal friends of a president typically send their correspondence through a special secretary.

For everyone else, there's the White House Office of Correspondence. If you write it, someone there will read it, probably within days.

You might get back a form letter with the president's automated signature. You might get a more individualized response, with some specific advice or answer you're seeking, courtesy of administration officials. Or, while the odds are probably less than 1 percent, your letter just might be among the dozens selected each week for the president to read and respond to himself.

The White House declined requests to make the special assistant to the president and director of presidential correspondent, Mike Kelleher, available for an interview or to share any letters received to date.

Past directors of the office under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton said in their experience, any given week could yield 10,000-100,000 pieces of correspondence.

Dan Burkhardt, who directed President Clinton's correspondence office for most of Clinton's second term, said he's spoken with Kelleher since the start of the new administration.

Kelleher had many questions, he said, including how to know which mail to pick out for the president to read. Said Burkhardt, "That's an instinct you develop over time." Another question, prompted by some of the more heartwrenching correspondence: "How do you help these people?"

The Office of Correspondence historically has been the largest office in the White House, with a paid staff of about 50-125, depending on the president, and hundreds of trained volunteers, some who've been around for decades. Obama has 49.

The office typically has divisions to deal with mail, e-mail and fax analysis; incoming gifts; the phone comment line; requests for special-occasion messages and proclamations; and interactions with agencies on policy issues.

With input from high-level advisers, office staff also builds a letter library that eventually includes hundreds of form letters that reflect the administration's policy stances. Traditionally, there's a separate team that handles correspondence with students. The first lady also has her own correspondence director.

Past directors say reading the mail was a privilege that gave them intimate and sweeping insights into the ever-changing American story.

"You really get to feel the fabric of America," said Marguerite Murer Tortorello, who ran the office from 2004-06 under President Bush. "People will write to the president about anything and everything."

One woman wrote to Bush after her Marine son was killed in Iraq to tell the president that her son had been proud to serve. Bush mentioned the Marine in his 2005 State of the Union Address and read from the letter.

Others sent prayers, or asked the president to pray for a neighbor or a friend. Some sent toys for the dogs, or books for Laura Bush.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many Americans sent patriotic-themed gifts and mail. Scrutiny of the mail also tightened after the attacks. Some gifts — such as food — won't make it through.

Tortorello remembers a letter from an elementary-school boy, who wrote President Bush before the 2004 election to invite him to come to his hometown and see a professional football game with him and share nachos. The correspondence office prepared a legal letter explaining that presidents can't accept gifts of money or tickets. Bush also wanted to send the boy a thank-you note. The correspondence staff called the boy's parents to say two letters were on the way.

"They didn't even know the little boy had written the letter to the president!" Tortorello said. "He had gotten into the dad's desk and got the ticket and went online and got the address. We Fed-Exed the ticket back so they could use it."

Then there are the letters from critics.

"The people who were the angriest and most upset were the ones we tried to reach out to first," Tortorello said. "You can't change every person's mind but hopefully they'll respect that you took the time to respond back."

Anne Higgins oversaw the correspondence office during part of the Nixon and Ford administrations and all of President Reagan's.

On her first day in the Reagan administration, she got a call from Nixon. He was calling to tell her to make sure to pass on letters to Reagan just as she had for him.

She had a special box where staff put the letters to be forwarded to the president each week. "We tried to balance the issues, so we had pro- and con- on either side."

One of Higgins staff, who later became a monk, opened a letter from a man who was struggling financially, Higgins recalled. "He got a letter from a man who hadn't had a steak in, it must have been 20 years." The correspondence office employee looked up the number of a butcher near the man's house, and sent the butcher money from his own pocket for the butcher to send over a steak for the man.

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