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Feature: What Americans Wrote to Obama

Blume was working on a letter to a man who was angry about being profiled by the police in his community. She showed me some of Obama’s handwritten comments in the margins. He had underlined sentences and added exclamation points; the words he wrote were sparse, but Blume understood the code. “See?” she said. “You can break down the sections of his thoughts: I’m mad, too. My administration can’t intervene. But this is what we are doing. No one should have to fear being profiled. And then he ends with, This is what you need to do.”

She’d been at this for two years, and by now she had it down. “It took me awhile,” she said. “It’s so easy to think linearly, like, O.K., here’s a person who wrote about climate change, let’s just plunk in some language about climate change here.” Reeves kept tossing those letters back to her, saying, “No.” This was a person she was writing to. And the president was a person.

“And I vividly remember, almost like an epiphany,” she told me. “It was like, one day I just got it.” Every letter coming from the president was ultimately a variation on the same theme, she realized. “It’s: ‘Look, I hear you. You exist. I’m listening, and your voice matters.’ ” There was something surprising about all of this, the idea of the president in the role of a nation’s therapist.

I reached out to some of the people who sent letters to President Obama and asked them why they decided to write. “Well, I never thought he’d read it,” was the most common refrain, followed by: “I was desperate.”

“My mom, my brother and I were cleaning up the glass,” Ashley DeLeon, who is from Jacksonville, N.C., told me, relaying the story about the night in 2014 when she decided to write to the president. It was Christmas. “All the remnants of the fish tank and everything that my father had shot up,” she was saying. “And he shot the flag that was awarded to him when he retired and all of his medals and everything — all the memorabilia associated with the Marine Corps, he shot first. And that to me spoke more than anything. And so we cleaned up as much as we could, and then I went upstairs and I wrote the letter. And — yeah, I wrote it that night.”

Dear Mr. President,

My father was a United States Marine for 22 years before retiring as a master sergeant. As part of the infantry, he deployed on six occasions. Each deployment, my father came back less and less like himself. [ … ] But after he retired, my father was forgotten. [ … ] He no longer had the brotherhood of fellow Marines; no one thanked him for his service; no one called to check on his well-being. He was diagnosed with severe PTSD and was medically disabled.

So he drank. And drank. [ … ] He would drink all night, come back at 6 a.m., sleep all day and repeat the cycle.

I am a junior at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. [ … ] Every day I would look in the mirror and see the remnants of him in my facial features. But the man that I resembled so much, the man who constituted half of me, wasn’t one that I knew any longer.

Christmas Eve was a rainy day in Jacksonville, N.C., Mr. President. I was taking a shower upstairs when I heard the first two shots. I knew it was him. As I jumped out of the shower and ran down the stairs in nothing but a towel I could see my father pacing in the living room with a shotgun in his hand and tears in his eyes. He yelled at me, his little girl: “Get the f*** out of my house! GET OUT! And in that moment I knew that I had two choices: to run and leave my little brother upstairs and my dad with a loaded weapon. Or to stay. I chose the latter. You see, I chose to stay in that room and fight over that gun because I knew that my dad was still in there somewhere. He had to be. As I struggled with my father, he shot. And shot. The small girl who grew up waving the American flag at her daddy’s homecomings yelled NOOOO from the bottom of her gut. Glass shattered. The dogs barked. [ … ]

I didn’t care if I died, Mr. President. I’m 21 years old, and I would sacrifice myself without a second thought to save the man who raised me from taking his own life. Because when his country turned their back on him, I was still there. The light has long been gone from his eyes, but he is still my father. I am still his little girl. [ … ]

I’m writing to ask you for your help. Not for my family, Mr. President. My family died that night. I’m asking you to help the others. The little girls and boys who have yet to see their mothers’ and fathers’ souls die away. They need help. Get them help. Don’t forget about them. They need you. Just like Sasha and Malia need you. They do.

With hope,
Ashley DeLeon
Jacksonville, N.C.

DeLeon’s letter ended up in a pile just like all the others in the O.P.C. hard-mail room. A staff member read it and wrote, “red dot.” He took it across the hall to Lacey Higley. “This is the first time that I read something and I needed to take a walk,” he told her. “We need to make sure someone else sees this. We need to make sure this goes somewhere.” Higley scanned the letter, forwarded the scan to the V.A.’s crisis unit. Then she took the letter to Reeves. “The president needs to see this,” she said. Reeves included DeLeon’s letter in that day’s 10LADs.

DeLeon’s letter didn’t come back in the next batch marked “Back from the OVAL.” It didn’t come back in the batch after that either. Some letters the president stewed over. Some letters he answered in his own hand, on a white card marked, “The White House.”

Ashley —

I was so moved by your letter. As a father, I can only imagine how heartbreaking the situation must be, and I’m inspired by the strength and perspective you possess at such a young age.

I am asking the V.A. to reach out to your family to provide any support that you need. And please know that beneath the pain, your father still loves his daughter, and is surely proud of her.

Sincerely,
Barack Obama

Ashley told me she was shocked when she got a letter back from the president. She said she was grateful. But that didn’t mean she got her dad back. He later crashed his motorcycle into an S.U.V. “He had two gallon-size freezer bags full of medication at the time that he died,” she said.

Higley told me she kept DeLeon’s letter hanging over her desk. It was the letter that helped shape in her a sense of purpose. “It was one of those moments where you just kind of realize the importance of what you’re doing,” she said. “It led me on a new path. Like, helping people and helping families like Ashley’s is something I want to do.”

When people in the West Wing talked about “the letter underground,” this is part of what they meant. This whole thing was just supposed to be about the president getting 10 letters a day, but the mail grew into something else; letters informed policy proposals and speeches — Obama referred to DeLeon’s letter when he signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law — and they affected people personally. Reeves was the chief driver of the letter underground. Why should the president be the only one reading 10LADs, she reasoned a few years ago. “I started spamming people,” she told me. Constituent letters began popping into the inboxes of top aides and speechwriters and advisers. Why not? It caught on. Recently, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, asked why she wasn’t on the list for the 10LADs, so Reeves added her.

“I’m a big hustler of the mail,” Reeves said. “My whole team, we are Kool-Aid drinkers for these letter writers.” And I suppose that was the surprising point. The Kool-Aid wasn’t something Obama was serving. The Kool-Aid was the mail.

This was the message Reeves was preaching, and Blume was preaching, and this was the message you were bombarded with in the hard-mail room: Individual voices matter. Empathy was the name of the game. If that was the code of the mailroom, well, maybe it worked to sway the minds of lawmakers, and maybe it didn’t, but there was a certain degree of sorrow attached to the thought that an experiment like that had to end.

It was raining on the morning after the election, and I arrived at the White House gates early. No one at the main O.P.C. office on the fourth floor was in yet except for Reeves, who was shuffling through papers while I sat on the other side of her desk. “Well,” she said, looking up. Her face held the vague puffiness of a morning after little sleep.

“Well,” she started again, raising her chin. She was having trouble making eye contact. The sky outside her window was a flat, steely gray. I could hear the distant whir of a printer revving up. There was a wet umbrella at my feet.

“Well, your hair looks great,” she said, “Um.”

I told her no, her hair did. “Oh, it’s just. … ” She shook her head to make a swish. We discussed my bangs. Hair talk, even for someone as poised as Reeves, is a refuge.

Email was expected to fire in at an unprecedented rate the day after the election, and over in the email room, A staff member stood up to address the packed room of about 50 people — all hands on deck — who were becoming confused about what to do. “We’re seeing a lot of people in meltdown mode,” he said, referring to the letter writers. He was a young, slightly pear-shaped guy with jet black hair. The first task, he told everyone, was to simply read. As a matter of routine, each email was coded according to the same scheme as the hard mail, with the prewritten policy-response letters ready to go. But that day staff members were forced to come up with new codes in order to categorize the flow: “election pro,” “election con” and “legacy.”

“So ‘election pro’ is like, ‘Donald Trump is the best, and this is a great day for America,’ ” he told the group. People leaned their heads away from the rows of screens to listen, and others looked up from laptops jammed into corners. There were tissues. People were crying. McMuffins had been brought in, along with doughnuts, juice, Power Bars.

“And then ‘election con’ is going to be like, ‘I’m scared,’ ” he went on. He was standing in the middle of the room, and you could tell he was not used to having to make his voice carry. “So, like, ‘I don’t know what to do, I have a disability, I’m in an L.G.B.T. family, I don’t know what’s going on anymore.’ That’s ‘election con.’ ”

“Then ‘legacy’ is gonna be, ‘You know, I was really disappointed about last night, your family is amazing, I think you did great things’ — that’s ‘legacy.’ Some of these things will be a little vague, and I know it’s going to be hard, but feel free to ask questions as we’re going through this, and let’s try to make sure you’re being as specific as possible.”

“What about people talking about election recounts and fraud and rigging?” one intern asked.

“Election fraud? Just close those out — ”

“What about people writing before the results were out?” another asked. “Like people writing in to say, ‘I’m looking forward to President Clinton,’ but it’s clearly obvious that that’s … not.”

“Yeah. We can close those. We can close those out.”

“What if they’re saying, ‘I’m nervous about the election, I don’t know what I’ll do’?”

“Election con.”

“Do we need to call up the military?”

Election con.

“My wife is undocumented, I have three children, I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

“I’m disabled, I have seizures, will I still have health care.”

“Is he going to void my marriage? Am I going to still be with the person I love?”

Con. Con. Con.

The writing team would have to figure out a response to the election email later that day. What, exactly, should Obama say to all these people?

At the end of the day, Reeves had to pick the 10LADs from the email that came flying in, and Kyle Herman, on the writing team, had to compose the response to America in meltdown mode.

“I haven’t gotten very far,” he told me in his office, sitting in front of a blank screen.

He had been up all night, at his parents’ house in Ohio, where he’d been knocking on doors to get out the vote, and then he flew back to work, and he had never expected to have to write a letter like this.

“Personally, the worst thing is that it feels like a rebuke of the connection we’re trying to make between the president and the people,” he said. “Like, if our responsibility in this office is to connect the president to the people, I’m asking myself, ‘Did we fail?’ ”

He looked at me, expecting something.

“And I don’t understand it, because he’s read more mail than any president in history, he seems more connected to the people than any president in history.”

I felt compelled to remind him that Obama wasn’t running for re-election. Clinton was the one who lost.

“The bargaining stage of grief,” he mumbled.

I could hear Bae outside in the hall, laughing and joking with some other staff members; the discrepancy was palpable. Bae was the kind of person you would want at your mother’s funeral. She told me she had tried to cheer Herman up. “I said, ‘Kyle, isn’t it so cool?’ ” she said. “I think we have a real opportunity to home in on the president’s message. But more than that, like, this is friggin’ America. Which is like, what an opportunity. Like, what an honor. You know what I mean? Like, Woo! What an honor! Like, what? I lived my life!”

She told me that the team had handed over all the transition materials — pages and pages explaining O.P.C. procedures — to Trump’s transition team. Reeves told them she would be available for in-person briefings. She wanted to explain everything, how they built the systems they built, and why.

“It’s like, the Obama administration did all this to hear people’s stories,” Bae said. “How could they possibly not meet us and grow it further?”

Like everyone else in O.P.C., Bae would be leaving once the new administration took over. That, of course, was always the plan. And the letters had set them on a new course. Bae was applying for graduate programs, where she considered studying kidnapping negotiations. Blume was looking for a Ph.D. program in children’s literature. Higley will forge a career path in mental health and suicide prevention. Reeves said she wanted to focus on being married for a while.

I stopped by Reeves’s office to see how she was coming with the 10LADs. She was already on the couch with the finalists on her lap. “I had some rice pudding,” she said, managing a smile. The emails had been printed, and she was flipping through the pages considering the sequence. “I think it will hit him like it hit us, a pile of voices that don’t follow a tight narrative.” She spoke quietly as she sorted, mostly to herself. “People concerned for others,” she said, holding a few out. “People concerned for themselves,” she said about another group, and when she was finished she sat up straight.

“O.K., so this is the first one,” she said, showing it to me. The writer was cheering Trump’s victory. He recommended a fire into which Obama could put all of his executive orders and, together with the rest of the ruinous liberals, watch them burn.

“It’s an introduction, because it sort of feels like the day began,” Reeves said, and I could tell she had no interest in defending her choice.

“And then I like the personal nature of this one for the second,” she said, going through her choices with the satisfaction of an author reading her final draft. “She’s married to someone who voted different from her. But they will continue to be a family. Then this one is incredible. What a guy. Then behind him — this is someone who is in dire financial straits. I felt that was someone whose voice really matters right now.”

She gathered the letters. She checked her phone. She jiggled the lid on the glass water bottle that always accompanied her. “So I’m going to hand them off. And they’ll get scanned and sent around.” On the whiteboard was the countdown: 72 days until the experiment ended, and the new administration decided how to handle the mail.

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