Trigger Warning: PTSD and suicide are mentioned in this post. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
In the summer of 2015, I landed my dream internship– a spot at President Obama’s White House. Specifically, I was an intern in the Office of Presidential Correspondence, also known as OPC, which is sometimes referred to as the “mailroom” of the White House. The OPC was comprised of about 50 staffers, 40 interns, and a rotating cast of about 300 volunteers, most of which were older retirees who had been volunteering in the OPC since the Nixon days. The staff was large for a White House office but that was by necessity; The OPC was responsible for sorting through the 40,000 letters on average that arrived for President Obama every day. The OPC is split into two categories– hard mail and e-mail. If you write a hard letter to the President, it ends up in a room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the daunting, gray, palatial building adjacent to the White House. If you write an e-mail to the President, it ends up being read on PCs in a nondescript satellite office near the White House on Jackson Place, lovingly referred to as “JP” by staffers who called it home. JP was where I spent my time– I was the Foreign Policy intern on the e-mail team, so anytime an American citizen e-mailed President Obama about a matter of foreign policy (in 2015 this usually meant something related to Russia-Ukraine, China, or even Cecil the Lion), it came before my eyes first.
I may be biased, but working in the OPC was special. And in part, it felt that way because President Obama placed an important emphasis on the office, in a way that past presidents did not. Before there was an OPC, President George Washington received five letters a day, which he personally read. Fast forward to President William McKinley, and he was beginning to get overwhelmed by the 100 letters a day he received. This is when the OPC got its roots– McKinley hired a staffer to help him read these letters. After President FDR began his infamous fireside chats, he began receiving 500,000 a week. According to The New York Times,
By the end of his presidency, Nixon refused to read anything bad anyone said about him. Reagan answered dozens of letters on weekends; he would stop by the mailroom from time to time, and he enjoyed reading the kid mail. Clinton wanted to see a representative stack every few weeks. George W. Bush liked to get a pile of 10 already-answered letters on occasion. These, anyway, are the anecdotal memories you find from former staff members. Little hard data exists about constituent mail from previous administrations; historians don’t focus on it, presidential libraries don’t feature it; the vast majority of it has long since been destroyed.
When Obama assumed the presidency, he decided that he wanted to read ten letters a day from the American people, also known as the 10 LADs. At the beginning of Obama’s term in 2008, the country was in turmoil– the great wrecking ball known as the housing crisis had just swept across the country, bin Laden was still at large, and climate change was just beginning to become part of the public lexicon. Some Americans were left without hope that our country could bounce back. In order to pass policy that would help the American people, Obama felt that he actually had to hear from them. In essence, Obama decided to strip away the formal barrier that previously separated presidents from their people. According to President Obama,
‘I, maybe, didn’t understand when I first started the practice how … meaningful it would end up being to me,’ he said. ‘By the time I got to the White House and somebody informed me that we were going to get 40,000-or-whatever-it-was pieces of mail a day,’ he continued, ‘I was trying to figure out how do I in some way duplicate that experience I had during the campaign. And I think this was the idea that struck me as realistic. Ten a day, I figured I could do.’
So while part of my job was to answer every foreign policy e-mail sent to the president (yes, if you write to the president you will get a response!), it was also my job to mark any letters that I felt should be included in that day’s 10 LADs. A letter could be considered for a couple of reasons: 1) If it was well written and expressed a view point that a lot of other letters were expressing, and 2) If it was a very personal, emotional letter, usually in which the writer asked the president for help. These are the letters you never forget, and the letters that make the job a beautiful, hopeful, and sometimes heartbreaking experience. For example, here’s a real letter received by the OPC:
Dear Mr. President,
It’s late in the evening here in Oahu, and the sun will soon be sinking behind the horizon onto the ocean. [ … ] Sir, I was injured in Afghanistan in 2011. [ … ] I wasn’t afraid in Afghanistan, but I am horrified at the thought of my future. I want to serve my country, make a difference and live up to the potential my family sees in me. I am scared, I think, because I have no plan on what employment to pursue. It is something that is extremely difficult to me; and with my family leaving the island soon I am truly lost. Sir, all my life I’ve tried to find what a Good man is, and be that man, but I realize now life is more difficult for some. I’m not sure where I am going, and it is something that I cannot shake. [ … ]
Sincerely, Patrick Holbrook Oahu, Hawaii
President Obama always personally responded to the 10 LADs. Here is his actual response to Patrick Holbrook’s letter:
Thank you for your thoughtful letter, and more importantly for your service and sacrifice. I can tell from your letter you are already a good man; you just need to find the calling that will express that goodness – or it will find you. So trust yourself, and remember that your Commander in Chief didn’t know what he would do with his life till he was in his thirties!
As my former boss, Yena Bae, said, “Everybody has that one letter.” Yena once described her “one letter”:
‘It was from a mother who missed her son,’ she said. She pushed her hair behind her ears. The son had been kidnapped, and the investigation was underway. Bae read the letter a dozen times, stunned by details in it that for reasons of O.P.C. confidentiality she could not reveal to me. ‘Everything was hush-hush.’ She told me she alerted the authorities, then felt helpless because there was nothing more she could do. ‘Nothing.’ Weeks later, she learned that the son had been killed. She came in to the office and sat at her computer and sobbed. ‘What if his mom wrote again?’ She told me the experience changed the direction of her life and her sense of her place in the world.
From time to time, the 10 LADs that truly left an imprint on President Obama’s heart would end up being referenced in one of his speeches. One of these letters also ended up being my “one letter.” I was talking with the other JP interns one day around our computers, bouncing ideas about how we should sort letters we were getting in, when our boss, Yena, asked if we wanted to hear one of the letters that left the biggest impact on the president. We jumped out of our seats and eagerly gathered around her desk as she began to read:
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.
When Yena finished reading, nobody moved for a beat. The entire room went still. It felt like we were in the room with Ashley, her father, and the gun. With the weight of that letter on our minds, we sat back down at our desks, and continued to sort the mail. Ashley’s letter reminded us of the importance of the task before us– although part of the job required you to feel the emotion of the letter writers, you could never let it overwhelm you because there were so many more “Ashelys” out there who needed to hear from the president.
President Obama responded to Ashley’s letter and told her that he was personally reaching out to the VA to get her father some help. The two stayed in touch from time to time, and Ashley later wrote back to let the president know that her father crashed his motorcycle into an SUV. She wrote, “He had two gallon-size freezer bags full of medication at the time that he died.” Obama went on to use Ashley’s story in a speech when he signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law:
I think of the college student who recently wrote me a letter on Christmas Day. This is as tough a letter as I’ve received since I’ve been President. She talked about her father, who’s a retired Marine, and told me about how her dad used to love to hunt and fish, and spend time with her and her little brother. But gripped with post-traumatic stress, he became less and less like himself, and withdrew from the family. And yet, despite these struggles, she wrote, ‘I knew that my dad was still in there somewhere…He is still my father. And I am still his little girl.’ And she was writing, she said, to ask for help – help her father find his way back – ‘not for my family, Mr. President,’ she said. ‘I’m asking you to help the others’ – other families like hers. And she said, ‘Don’t forget about them.’ And that’s really what today is about: Don’t forget. So today we say again – to every person in uniform, to every veteran who has ever served – we thank you for your service.
If you watch the video of this speech, you will see that President Obama choked up when he spoke about Ashley and her letter. But the 10 LADs weren’t always sad or about hugely important policy issues. Sometimes they were aggressive and hateful. As President Obama put it, “Sometimes the letters say, you are an idiot and the worst president ever.” Sometimes they were just fun or cute:
Dear Mr. President,
I think this country needs more spunk. With all the attack, the Zika virus and the wars, this country is a very sad place. Please do something fun. Wear a tie-dye shirt and shorts to something important. Go on a water-skiing trip in the caribbean. Take your family to disney world. Do something fun and outgoing. Also, please say something that will make everyone calm. You do not know how many polotics worries I have. [ … ]
Sincerly, Lily, Age 8
I was in the White House during a truly incredible time– the summer of 2015, during which, Obama had what was called his “best week ever.” This was a special week in June during with the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country and solidified the Affordable Care Act, ensuring healthcare for millions of Americans. I remember standing on the steps of the Supreme Court as the marriage decision was announced, all of the hundreds of people jumping up and down with joy, flags waving across the sky, and even choirs bursting into song. That night, for the first time in history, the White House was lit up with the colors of the rainbow. In the coming days, OPC’s inboxes flooded with letters about the lighting of the White House, from both LGBTQ supporters and detractors.
But even with all of the highs, my moments in the OPC had it’s very low lows. Around the time of Obama’s “best week ever” was the shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine dead. When the day came for the president to give a eulogy for the victims, all of the OPC staffers and interns in JP stopped reading letters and gathered around the television to watch what the president would say. As he launched in to singing Amazing Grace, alone and acapella before the crowd of mourners, we all gasped. By the end, most of us were in tears. We were proud to serve a president like him.
Towards the end of his presidency, two years after the last time I left the OPC office, President Obama reflected upon the impact the 10 LADs had upon him: “I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve … lost myself.” He continued, “I feel as if – even if my skin is thicker from, you know, public criticism,” he said, “and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become … cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.”