For almost 15 years I have traveled the country typing postcards to the president. I set up a vintage manual typewriter in a public place and invite passersby to step right up and speak their minds. Dressed in my grandmother’s sleek silk suit, circa 1960, I play the role of “Secretary to the People,” typing each word they say onto 4-by-6-inch cards in the real Courier font. The people dictating the postcards take the originals — stamped and addressed to the White House — and mail them themselves. I keep carbon copies for my archive.
This public art project, “I Wish to Say,” began in San Francisco in February 2004 with the presidential primary season just underway. The still-recent 9/11 attacks shadowed everything. The whole world seemed angry at the wars the United States launched in response. “I Wish to Say” was a way to understand and amplify the voices of ordinary people not often heard in the media cacophony. At the very moment Mark Zuckerberg was hatching Facebook in his dorm room, and a social-networking generation was born, I offered a small platform. I certainly did not know I would be typing thousands of postcards in more than 100 performances across the United States in the years that followed. But people responded strongly to the first two shows, so I found ways to keep typing — in a laundromat in the Navajo Nation, on Skid Row in Los Angeles, from Wall Street to Harlem in New York, on the Las Vegas Strip.
Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have each drawn the ire, respect, censure, affection and best wishes of the postcard writers, to varying degrees. But I have noticed something else. Three significant changes in the public response to this project under the Trump presidency stand out: Critics increasingly refuse to engage at all; there has been a shift in the tone of address; and there is a heightened intensity in the emotional responses among some recent participants.
That said, without date stamps, it might be hard to know which president is the addressee. Concerns recur. “Since you stole office,” begins a postcard signed Komfort from Berkeley, Calif. “May the forces of the universe succeed in getting you out of office because we are too evolved to put up with these lies,” said Laura from Oakland. “Please start acting like a world leader instead of a dictator,” said Merrit from San Francisco. “In 12 short months you have turned the entire world from friend to foe. Even in high school, it’s hard to become unpopular that fast,” said April from San Francisco. These messages are addressed to President Trump, right? No, these are among the first postcards to President George W. Bush.
“He doesn’t read,” or “He won’t listen to me,” are common responses when I invite people to participate now. At a show last year in Oakland, where in 2004 people lined up to dictate their messages, it was hard to draw postcard writers. Even supporters seem more likely to decline. Does this new reluctance to comment reflect a kind of loss of faith in the democratic process, in government, in speech? To me it does, but maybe tweeting @realDonaldTrump is just a more direct way to express oneself to this commander in chief.
Those who do engage employ bolder forms of address. Many of the harshest critics back in 2004 addressed Bush as “Mr. President,” with an occasional “George” or “Dubya” thrown in. In the Trump era, the salutations are more colorful and irreverent: “Dear Mr. Cheeto Face,” “Turd Goblin,” “Dear White House Occupants,” “Dear Mr. Bogus President,” “To a kind-of President.” And the most troubling: “Dear Sexual Assaulter in Chief.”
The most concerning development of late is the intensity of emotions. During a show on Sept. 27 at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., a student waited in line for some time before making her way to my desk. “How are you doing?” I asked? She told me she was nervous and then shared a poignant story about her immigrant experience. “Your presidency has instilled fear in my community and has left me with a need to voice my ideas,” Carolina, fighting back tears, said as I typed her words to President Trump. “The remarks you have made have left me isolated in the only place I call home.” And on the day Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh, a student named Cate dictated these words in her postcard to Trump: “When my sister was 15, she was sexually assaulted and chose not to report that. Just remember that there are many different reasons that people choose not to report sexual assault.”
Messages are both of their time and timeless. Immigration concerned participants when the project started, as it does now, although the postcards then tended to be of the “let us in” rather than the “throw them out” variety. “Can you adopt me? And give me my Green Card as soon as possible? I love you,” read a card in 2007 addressed “Bon jour, Mr. President.”
President Barack Obama drew his share of critics. “I want you to know me and my family are victims of your false promises,” Bertha from San Diego wrote in 2010. “My father came during the bracero program in 1942. He brought my brother.” Bertha continued: “66 years later, America deported my brother. He’s 70 years old and has never lived in Mexico before. His wife lives here, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. All his brothers and sisters live here. You deported my brother into a war zone of cartels. He is living in fear and shock, alone without his family.”
Issues concerning rights also recur — gay rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights. “Put your hands where my womb would be to feel where you’ve waged war,” Mallory from Providence, R.I., wrote to President George W. Bush. “I’m scared as a woman of this world that my ability to create and nurture life is in jeopardy.” While transgender rights are a common theme today, back in September 2008 that was an exception: “My name is Ash and I’m a guy,” said Asher of Wichita. “That sounds like a strange way to start a letter because you’re not here so you can’t hear my voice, which is a low alto on a good day. But I’m used to explaining myself. I don’t mind that, but I’m not often allowed to. My driver’s license has an F on it. My passport has an F on it. And I can’t change that without surgery I can’t afford.”
The messages vary in length, from a single word or two to some that fill an entire postcard with no room to spare. Spacing is uneven, margins don’t always line up, and I add bright red rubber-stamp messages such as “urgent,” “important” or “final notice.” Some postcards during election seasons address hoped-for presidents. “Dear Hillary” began one — in 2007, not 2016. Whether to include a return address is up to each participant. I have never heard from the White House.
This postcard was dictated by Alicia in San Francisco at the premiere of “I Wish to Say,” but it might have been addressed to any president in any year: “You hold us in the palm of your hand like a fragile egg! Take care!”