To Obama With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas – review
The story of Barack Obama’s courteous correspondence with ordinary Americans is a reminder of the statesmanship the country now lacks.
In the first week of his presidency, Barack Obama received about 250,000 letters from ordinary Americans. Over the course of the following eight years, the number settled at roughly 10,000 a day. Most of his correspondents had heard that he was in the habit, from his days as senator, and on the campaign trail, of trying to reply to letter writers with a handwritten note. Obviously, the change in scale and responsibility meant that task was impossible to fulfil comprehensively; instead, Obama committed himself to answering 10 letters each day. These were selected by a small and dedicated group of readers in a specially convened mail room; they called themselves “Team Little People”, and they operated with a kind of messianic devotion to the task of sifting and sorting, putting forward a range of letters – both supportive and antagonistic – that appeared to come most closely from the heart.
Jeanne Marie Laskas first gained access to the White House’s epistolary army for an article in the New York Times – an article that Obama described as the “single favourite story of my presidency”. Laskas expands it to book length here with singular chapters about some of the individuals Obama chose to correspond with, as well as copious reproductions of the letters involved. It makes a moving and inevitably nostalgic or even elegiac read, redolent of the human grace and statesmanship of the Obama presidency, qualities so brutally absent in the current administration.
Obama liked to save the purple folder in which the 10 selected letters appeared until the end of his working day, after having had dinner with his family and read two or three hours of briefing papers and security reports. Having used the letters while campaigning to shape the story he was telling on the stump, to “orient himself”, in power he came to see them as a valuable reminder of service. “It was a way for me to, every day, remember that what I was doing was not about me,” he observes here, totells the author, in one of a couple of long interviews. “It wasn’t about the Washington calculus … It was about the people who were out there living their lives, who were either looking for some help or angry about how I was screwing something up.”