Why is all presidential stationery light green?

David Stinson, Silver Spring

This is what happens when we make an inference from an incomplete data set. Upon questioning, David -- an acquaintance of mine -- confessed that he has letters written by two presidents: Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. They are on a paper of a distinctive light green hue. Thus, he assumed, all presidents use this color for their correspondence.

It is clear that David has not received a letter from the current occupant of the White House.

"President George W. Bush uses a color called buff for all his correspondence," said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius. "It's an off-white or cream."

The distinctive light green color is officially known as "azure" and was favored by Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, among others. Ken wouldn't comment on why President Bush switched colors, but Answer Man doesn't think it's a stretch to suggest that perhaps the president wanted to distance himself from the guy who had the job before him. (America isn't just divided into red states and blue states, but buff states and azure states.)

The presidential correspondence arm of any administration is quite a machine, buried under a near-blizzard of incoming mail and creating a similar blizzard of outgoing mail. Ken said Bush's office sends out an average of 20,000 letters a month.

Tim Blessing, a professor at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., made a study of presidential missives. "The volume of mail a president receives borders on the unbelievable," he said in an e-mail. Tim said mail from the public falls into several different categories, from specific complaints about the government to the ravings of lunatics. The vast majority, he said, "is simply people blowing off steam."

Those are the sorts of letter that Jack R. Shock, who spent a year in Clinton's first term as director of presidential letters and messages, might file under the category of "kitchen table mail." These are letters that people jot down at the spur of the moment from their kitchen table.

No matter the subject, Jack's office tried to respond to every letter. That doesn't mean that the president actually signs the letters. How could he? With thousands coming in every day, he'd be doing nothing else.

Jack said kitchen table mail would get a form letter that included a computer-generated signature. More important letters would be signed by an autopen, a drafting table-like instrument that renders an exact likeness of the president's John Hancock. ("Only certain directors in the White House had autopen approval," Jack said, "and our signatures had to be registered with the FBI and Secret Service to guard against forgery.")

Presidents do actually sign some letters, maybe a few dozen each day. Presidents don't have time to compose most of their letters, either. Tim said some of Abraham Lincoln's most-quoted letters were the work of his two secretaries.

Jack Shock said VIP mail -- from governors, religious leaders, foreign dignitaries and such -- was handled separately. He had a team of six writers knowledgeable about different aspects of administration policy. In drafting the "president's" responses, they tried not to stray too far from approved language, knowing that the more they tried to freelance, the longer it would take to get the letter approved.

"The approval process was vital but also maddening," said Jack. "Drafting a thank-you letter to the Queen of England is one thing, but drafting [an] official administration response is quite another."

Tim estimates that 99.9 percent of the incoming mail never gets near the Oval Office. But it is useful for gauging the mood of the public, and in every administration, representative samples are routinely skimmed off and delivered to the big guy. Tim said that as early as Eisenhower's presidency, such mail was X-rayed, and that starting with Reagan, it went through stringent testing for chemical and biological agents.

The White House does not comment on security matters and so wouldn't say how Bush's mail is tested. Nor would officials there comment on a practice employed by earlier presidents: telling certain friends and family to put a unique numeric code on their envelopes so the letters wouldn't get lost in the maelstrom (or mailstrom, yuk-yuk).

Presidential letters are sent flat, not folded, since recipients often like to frame them and don't want to be looking at an unsightly crease. Many of them, you can bet, are displayed in homes or offices, where, depending on the color scheme of the walls and the color preferences of the president, they may or may not clash with their surroundings.

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