Presidents of the United States inevitably live at a remove from the citizens they govern. Their personal needs are deftly catered to: A band pipes up when they enter a room; a handsomely appointed 747 is at their disposal. The demands of security, scheduling, politics and image-maintenance, not to mention the steady pelting with crises large and small, conspire to insulate the Oval Office, muffling voices from outside. All presidents feel this distance from the public and, to a greater or lesser degree, seek to bridge it.
One evening, as President Ronald Reagan was settling into the red and white chintz upholtered armchair in his private second- floor office in the White House family quarters, he happened to catch a local news story about a young single mother, out of funds and about to lose her apartment. Moved by her plight, he promptly went to his desk and wrote her a personal check for an amount sufficient to keep the landlord and creditors at bay. A few days later, from the same perch, he saw her turn up on the news again, proudly displaying his check, which she had framed and hung on her living room wall. Exasperated, he returned to his desk and wrote out another check, this time enclosing a note urging her to cash it.
Not all efforts to reach across the presidential barrier involve the transfer of funds. As Eli Saslow reveals in “Ten Letters,” our current president practices a time-honored tradition of answering a few letters culled by aides (but in Obama’s case apparently “unvetted”) from among the thousands arriving regularly at the White House. A Washington Post reporter who’s no stranger to the president’s house, Saslow has a flair for details: He describes the relentless demands on Obama, his graying hair, his furtive cigarette breaks, the purple folders containing the messages of hope and desperation from assorted Americans which are delivered six days a week to the upstairs quarters or couriered to wherever the president might land. Some tidbits — a weary president reading aloud to his wife in bed — suggest either sterling access or exertions above and beyond the call.
But for the purposes of his book, Saslow spends relatively little time cuddled up with Obama. His real subjects are the letter writers themselves. Many of their concerns are familiar to anyone who has not been under anesthesia for the past decade or so: medical bills, bankruptcy, joblessness. Others might strike some readers as more exotic: A middle-aged man reflects on the bullying he endured as a gay teenager; a young woman’s Mexican heritage has exposed her to the racially charged edge of the immigration fight; a mother thanks the president on behalf of her son, a Marine Corps lieutenant serving in Afghanistan. Taken together, the sentiments are a catalogue of hopes, fears and frustrations.
Saslow has a feel for the tender spots in these people’s stories and a former sportswriter’s good sense to keep things moving along. If the details of these varied strangers’ lives sometimes fail to captivate, the plainspokenness, decency and human dignity they display leave a lasting impression. Unforeseen calamity mixed with unshakable responsibility and the constant threat of losing one’s job and home — the travails of 27–year-old Jennifer Cline seem dauntingly presidential in scope. Saslow appears to have spent real time with Jennifer and the other letter writers, and it shows in the immediacy of his writing.
Woven throughout the letter writers’ personal stories are accounts of the policy fights and presidential decisions with which they glancingly intersect. The reporting here, as you might expect, breaks no new ground but nevertheless provides a useful context and a pointed reminder that the action — and inaction — in the nation’s capital creates real consequences in the lives of people who are all but invisible to their elected leaders.
I must admit that the president’s replies are a disappointment. It would be unfair to expect too much from Obama, a very busy fellow who can commit only a tiny fraction of his time to this exercise. Still, what’s the point of the exercise when all you can muster for a mother whose son is risking his life for your Afghan nation-building policy are two lines and a scrawled signature? If there is an awkward empty space in “Ten Letters,” it is the unsatisfying contribution of the scribbler-in-chief.
Nevertheless, to folks who have little and are camped out in their parent’s double-wide trailer with a second baby on the way and few prospects on the horizon, a letter from the president of the United States, however brief, can provide a huge boost — sometimes in ways neither sender nor recipient could have foreseen.
Saslow saves a zinger for last: As Cline struggled to shape her life — her husband’s successful bankruptcy counted as good news — she clung to her letter from President Obama as a symbol of hope. “I know times are tough,” it reads, “but knowing there are folks out there like you and your husband give me confidence that things will keep getting better.” Jen, on track to become a registered nurse, set her sights on a modest house but couldn’t come up with the down payment. In the book’s final twist, she and her husband made the painful decision to sell Obama’s letter, thereby raising the necessary cash.
The Stories Americans Tell Their President
By Eli Saslow
Doubleday. 287 pp. $25.95