Ten Letters for the President

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When you send the letter to the President, it first passes through the Office of Presidential Correspondence. The office was started under President McKinley in 1897 who had been receiving about a hundred letters per day. By the time Herbert Hoover was President, that number had gone up to about 800 letters per day. Today, the President of the United States gets tens of thousands of letters, parcels and emails every day. That President as we produce this story is still Barack Obama.

Letter Excerpts:
“Dear Mr. President…”
“Dear Mr. President…”
“Dear Mr. President…”
“We met once. You came to my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama-”
“I’m writing you today in regards to our relationship with Canada.”

Jacob Brogan:
And if you’re one of those letter writers, you must imagine that the odds of the President actually reading your letter are pretty slim.

Roman Mars:
That’s Jacob Brogan, a writer for Slate.com and host of ‘Working’, a Slate podcast.

Jacob Brogan:
And you’d be right. Those chances are pretty slim.

Fiona Reeves:
People often begin with a reflection on, I know no one will read this. I mean that is a really common open.

Jacob Brogan:
But someone does read your letter or email and sometimes that person is Fiona Reeves, Director of Presidential Correspondence at the White House.

Fiona Reeves:
We are the office that handles all the incoming correspondence from regular people to the President and the White House. So, we’re a group of small offices made up of 45 staffers, 35 interns and about 300 volunteers who come and go.

Jacob Brogan:
Every day, Fiona and this small army of people read through thousands upon thousands of letters addressed to the President.

Roman Mars:
President Obama has requested that 10 letters be passed onto him to read every night and it’s Fiona’s job to decide which 10 it will be.

Fiona Reeves:
The President has asked since day one to read 10 letters from regular people that represent what’s coming in.

Barack Obama:
“These letters I think do more to keep me in touch with what’s happening around the country than just about anything else.”

Roman Mars:
That’s a clip from a 2009 video put out by the White House.

Barack Obama:
“Some of them are funny, some of them are angry. A lot of them are sad or frustrated about their current situation.”

Roman Mars:
Sometimes people reach out about being fired or when they’re down to their last grasp of savings or their concerns about gun violence or climate change.

Barack Obama:
“So, a lot of the stories are heartbreaking. People who work hard, a lot of times they’ll say, I’ve never written to a President before. I’m not looking for a handout. All I want is just a fair shake and it ends up being a powerful motivator for me.”

Fiona Reeves:
You know, it is crazy to think that you are holding this piece of paper that was in a person’s hand when they were reaching out to their government and it is crazy to think that then the President holds those pieces of paper.

Jacob Brogan:
Of course these days, letters don’t always arrive on paper. Fiona and her staff also have to sort through all the emails that come in through the White House’s webform at whitehouse.gov/contact.

Fiona Reeves:
Truth is we’re an email office for the most part, but we have a room that really looks like what you think of as mail at the White House. It’s boxes and boxes of mail and shelves of topics and lists of what’s going to agencies.

Roman Mars:
Fiona works in the Executive Office Building located just west of the White House.

Fiona Reeves:
We are sort of scattered throughout this building in whichever rooms happened to be available. I can tell you we are tightly packed here. We sit very close together.

Roman Mars:
And the staff sitting side by side in the Office of Presidential Correspondence carries on an old tradition of opening, reading and sorting letters for the President.

Fiona Reeves:
I would say our paper processing system cannot be very different than it was a hundred years ago.

Roman Mars:
Before letters arrive at the White House, they go through a screening process, so when the Office of Presidential Correspondence receives them, they’ve already been opened by Secret Service. You know, checking for anthrax or explosives. Paper letters are clipped to the envelopes they arrived in.

Jacob Brogan:
But then it’s up to the staff and interns and volunteers to dig through the letters and emails and figure out which ones to pass up the chain to Fiona.

Jacob Brogan:
How many do you have to read a day?

Fiona Reeves:
It varies depending on the day, but I would say on a general day the number that gets sort of passed to me, it can be from 200-400 emails and letters.

Jacob Brogan:
And you read that many emails and letters every day roughly?

Fiona Reeves:
Every day that the President is in town. He only gets the 10 letters a day when he’s in Washington.

Roman Mars:
Fiona and her team are looking for a range of opinions and styles that express what Americans are thinking about.

Fiona Reeves:
We want to give him mail that is representative of incoming mail that is geographically diverse. We also look for different writing styles and different levels of writing and ways of communicating.

Roman Mars:
The office also puts some thought into where the President is heading in the coming weeks and what issues he’ll be discussing

Fiona Reeves:
To try to maybe make him better equipped to spend time in that community or to discuss an issue that maybe he doesn’t have a personal perspective on sort of a way of giving him more advisors.

Roman Mars:
And the letters don’t just inform and influence the President. Fiona makes sure the entire White House gets a chance to see what people are writing in about.

Fiona Reeves:
Each day, our team does something with the help of volunteers called a random daily sample. So, we look at all the email that just came in and put together a list of topics, for/opposed, and we circulate that list throughout the White House to a pre-broad distribution group to give folks a sense of what the American people are saying that day.

Roman Mars:
They also put together a word cloud that shows the most commonly used terms across all forms of communication.

Fiona Reeves:
The biggest word is ‘help’ because generally when you’re reaching out to your government, you are looking for help with the issue that matters most to you. There are times though, like you can see right now the biggest word is gun, where there’s a conversation that has arisen above every other topic.

Jacob Brogan:
So in that case, Fiona will make sure the President gets a letter about guns.

Fiona Reeves:
But when we do that, we make sure he sees both sides and we think a lot about the order in which things are given to him. You know, how you read something I think affects the way it hits you.

Roman Mars:
And after Fiona chooses the 10 letters, she hands them off to someone who scans them and then hands them to the person who puts together the President’s briefing book.

Fiona Reeves:
So, each night he takes home sort of a homework binder and it has information on what he’ll be doing the next day. Every night includes the 10 constituent letters.

Roman Mars:
Unlike almost everything else that reaches the President, these letters have not been fact-checked or committee reviewed. They’re some of the most direct communication he receives.

Fiona Reeves:
When people are writing a memo to the President, if they are touching on a policy topic, then everyone who has a hand in that or who may have information to add that could add value, kind of takes a look at it and adds their 2 cents. And so by the time the President sees it, it has gone through so many eyes, but our correspondence is really someone sits down at their kitchen table and they send in a piece of their mind and then that is basically two sets of eyes in the White House. It’s this volunteer who thought, hey, the President should read this, and then it’s me saying like, yeah, I agree with that.

Roman Mars:
And because these letters are so direct and unfiltered, a lot of them are pretty intense and deeply personal.

Fiona Reeves:
Our office deals a lot in emotion and empathy because we are absorbing so much of what people hope and fear and what they’re expressing to both the President of the United States, but also Barack Obama and the way they see themselves and Barack Obama. That I think makes our workplace quite an emotional one.

Roman Mars:
A lot of people write about where they’re writing from or what time they’re writing.

Fiona Reeves:
‘I’m staying up late at night because I can’t stop thinking about this.’ That’s the sort of open that transports you immediately into what are they going to say or ‘from my kitchen window I can see these mountains that we call…’, and then you’re like in that person’s kitchen with them.

Fiona Reeves:
We also recently have seen more and more letters that begin with something like, I’ve been meaning to write this for seven years. I think, yeah, as the days dwindled down, we’re getting a lot of under the wire, here’s what I’ve been meaning to tell you.

Fiona Reeves:
There was one letter that went to the President yesterday from a man who wrote that he feels like because of the presence or the pervasive nature of gun violence in the US, despite being a gay man in the United States, felt like he would rather live somewhere that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage than a place where he could be discriminated against at the end of a gun was sort of his angle there. We just gave that the President last night, so I don’t know how that hit him when he read it, but when it hit me, it hit me hard.

Jacob Brogan:
Are there any ever that are funny, that are kind of the other side of things?

Fiona Reeves:
Yeah. We get some funny letters. One that I have with me is from a young woman who was running for class president of her junior class and she wrote in that she wanted some speech writing advice.

Roman Mars:
President Obama actually responded to that letter. His advice keep speeches short.

Fiona Reeves:
And some of them he responds to by hand. Some of them he writes something like, ‘Neil, can you look into this?’ That is sort of to ask someone on his team to take a look at it and on others he writes ‘reply’, but then he writes sort of some drafting guidance.

Jacob Brogan:
The White House has a team of writers who elaborate on the President’s notes and turn them into letters, which they then hand back for the President to sign.

Roman Mars:
And because he’s responded personally to so many letters over the years, the writers often have a really good sense of his voice and often his margin notes are so extensive, he’s practically responding to the letter himself.

Fiona Reeves:
We end up serving as really more of typists than writers.

Jacob Brogan:
When the President does engage with a letter, whether by replying or by extending an invitation to a White House event or to highlight a specific letter in a public way, the White House usually gets in touch with the author. Sometimes Fiona gets to be the one to make that phone call.

Fiona Reeves:
And the truth is we don’t always need to make those phone calls. We make them because they’re really energizing. It’s just so exciting when someone has taken this crazy long shot of you’re writing something to Barack Obama and putting it in a mailbox.

Jacob Brogan:
Do people flip out when you call them?

Fiona Reeves:
Sometimes people flip out. I generally make those phone calls and I sound sort of more serious than I feel when I make them. I say I’m calling from the Correspondence office. I need to confirm your address. When in my heart I’m like, ‘can you believe it?!’

Roman Mars:
Fiona’s excitement is palpable. She’s been a part of this administration a long time and it’s played a huge role in her life. She met her husband while they were sorting Obama’s mail and the job has had a real impact on the White House and the people who work there.

Fiona Reeves:
I think it shapes policies that the White House pursues. I think also it shapes the humans who work here. You can’t help but think about it. When I think about the outputs of our office, one is we have this pretty big team of young people who will go on to do other things and will go on with this much broader perspective and in some cases a very deep and personal perspective on what people who they haven’t necessarily met feel and expect from their government.

Roman Mars:
And Fiona is about to be one of those many people who have passed through the office because her job is ending with the administration.

Jacob Brogan:
And what’s next for you?

Fiona Reeves:
I don’t know. Are you guys hiring? I have no idea. I have truly no idea. I think it’s a funny place to work because the institution has existed for so long, but you begin again every four, eight years. Then when you are getting ready to leave, you feel like you’ve just sort of figured it out and are nailing it.

Roman Mars:
The White House is keeping their ‘contact us’ form open to the last day of the administration, January 19th. Even if you write a letter on January 19th, it can reach Obama. He’ll be receiving 10 letters on his last night in the oval office.

Roman Mars:
A version of this piece originally aired on Slate’s ‘Working’ podcast as part of a series on jobs at the White House produced by Jacob Brogan and Mickey Capper.

  1. Lydia

    He does read letters and write back! This admin is also pretty tech savvy. I sent one through the white house’s facebook account and got a signed letter back. On the eve of this election I’ll just say IMO he’s a decent man and one of our great presidents.

  2. Roger Caine

    I’m sorry but I just can’t see the President elect doing anything even remotely like this.

  3. Ben

    Given the current mood of the nation, we should all consider writing a letter to the President-elect and putting all our letters in the mail together on January 20th at the same time. Whether or not the President-elect reads a single one and regardless of how we each may have voted individually, we can still send a clear message with one voice as the world watches: America still stands for an open, tolerant and inclusive society.

  4. Agustin

    What a great episode of 99PI!!!

    I am really considering sending an old-fashion letter via post office to President Obama. It’s nice to know that the mail sent to him is actually processed in some way and could be read (and answered) by him.

    Also I really would like to get in contact with all the staff of that Presidential Correspondence group who handles the letters to congratulate for their job. Their work should be appreciated more…

    Sadly it seems that the next administration will never do anything like that, and that is the reason why all that crew and staff of that Presidential Correspondence is gonna lose their jobs. It’s so sad.

    1. Daniel O'Rourke

      Still excited, Ben?
      Just curious, can you intelligently express your contentions with the former president without it resorting to just being nasty? Just actually substantively saying something you genuinely feel legitimately irate about?

  5. Daniel Impellizeri

    Roman, Avery, Sharif and everyone else at 99PI, could you do a call-out to create a photo collection of President Obama’s hand-written response letter? That would be amazing to read his own words of correspondence.

  6. Gayle

    I wrote to President Obama through the White House email. My first note to him was to apologize for my State’s elected official’s behavior towards him and that not all residents of my state are immature & uneducated. He replied back via email and told me to avoid being so cynical and to basically keep positive. After my nephew was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, I wrote to the President again about my nephew’s accomplishments and that I took his words from his previous response to me and that I am putting my “positive hope” in my nephew. I again received an email response. This was 2014. A few months ago I had surgery and my pain medication was being held hostage by a giant drug store chain. My insurance only covered generic pain medication yet the surgeon wrote brand name medication. They refused to fill it as generic. Surgeon couldn’t even change it. I ended up going to the ER on the surgeon’s suggestion just to get the pain medication that was originally prescribed. That little visit cost the taxpayers at least 10K because of the crazy drug restrictions even in legitimate circumstances. I contacted the White House (Michelle) this time, and I received a phone call regarding my situation suggesting what I could do. I had already filed complaints with the board of pharmacy. Each State is different by the way. Finally, January 28, I open my mail and there was an envelope from the White House, inside was a signed letter from President Obama addressed to me for no reason at all other than to thank me for the support and to keep positive. I didn’t instigate this letter. It just came. I don’t care if it is “auto” stamped, it was not solicited by me. It came on the instructions of the President of the United States. Thank you President Obama. Those that don’t believe it means anything are just jealous that they didn’t get anything because they haven’t done anything but complain and point fingers. Stand up, be proud and speak the truth. Always.

  7. Robin

    Follow up question — Do you know where Fiona Reeves ended up after the administration left the White House? It was moving to hear her talk about her job and the future.

    1. RG

      Yes, I am really interested in knowing that too ! Could you imagine putting that on your resume XD
      Also i wonder if the current President continued this tradition…somehow, I doubt it.

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