Film and Book Reviews

In Obama's White House, mail room was 'engine of democracy'

Book To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas (Random House (US) and Bloomsbury (London), 2018)

By R.C. Dettmann

September 16 2019To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair is a fascinating tableau of the beliefs, views and priorities of a nation at tipping point, as well as an important behind-the-scenes glimpse of leadership in action at the highest level.

Jeanne Marie Laskas, journalist, author, and Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Creativity at Pittsburgh University, sleuths out a little-known corner of the White House – the mail room – and from its narrow confines releases the expansive voice of a nation into our contemporary political landscape: a timely reminder of who the people of the Unites States have been, and a clarion call to consider who they are becoming.

This book is about a running dialogue between the American public and its President, spanning almost a decade (2009-2017), over the two terms that Barack Obama served in office.

Every President has approached the often-overwhelming mail bag in their own style, but Obama was the first to put such deliberate focus on constituent correspondence.  Over his eight years in service to the American people, he committed to reading 10 letters a day, replying to many himself in his own scrawl.

Laskas digs deeper and discovers that Obama also instructed his staff to scan every letter and email received and create a digital word cloud that was then projected daily around the entire government in order to keep the words, hopes and concerns of the people before them as they created policy. This gave the lowly mail centre a sudden new importance as the veritable engine room of democracy for one of the most powerful countries on earth.

So, Laskas asks, who writes to the President?

The answer, it seems, is everyone … the good, the bad, and the ugly; with all the need, threat, and howl for help you might expect. What, then, was considered so valuable that a systematic channel was created for this chaos of voices, with urgent requests and situations re-directed to receive appropriate support, and a steady expression of vibrant diversity found its way directly into the hands of the US leader? How is it that ordinary Americans, writing to their President, sometimes negatively, could come to be described by White House staffers as “a kind of life force around here”, “spiritually uplifting” and a source of inspiration and strength during periods of heavy opposition. What were some of the social outcomes of this conversation?

It is impossible to understand these questions or their answer without experiencing the genuine authenticity and power of the letters themselves.

I admit with shame my assumption that such a broad sample of correspondence (often printed in full throughout the book) would likely prove a chore to read. Instead, the selection the author includes becomes a riveting journey; a testament to both her writing prowess and subject, as she deftly weaves a unity of thought throughout the book’s diverse narrative.

The philosopher farmer, the inmate, the Senator, the grandmother concerned the President is unleashing socialism upon the nation, a child with blunt honesty, the working family hit hard by economic crisis … each writes from a belief that they themselves are integral to an important process, larger than its many parts.

The concept of a self-governing people emerges into our modern consciousness with a certain dignity as if from a bygone era, and yet, there it is, as described in the US Constitution: an expectation held in common that civil government is an extension of the will of the people, tolerated in order to be a force for good, able to improve, and duty bound to deliver better outcomes.

Laskas finds a few letter writers, years later, who agree to a personal interview. Still courageous to tell their heart story, these are a people who remain firm and unrelenting in their conviction of citizenly responsibility to speak up if they have an issue or a question, an opinion, or an idea. They continue to take seriously the importance of their contribution in a governmental system that is “by the people, and for the people”.

More than once, I heard myself sigh with relief, and re-ignited hope: “Oh there you are! This is the America I know.”    

To read, then, from this murkier present, of a world leader responding with the same depth of conviction now seems nothing short of remarkable.

The best books are the ones that surprise and move you. I was deeply moved by this book. Further, I was astonished to find myself becoming curious in a completely unexpected direction.

Who was it that chose 10 letters, out of a vast correspondence received, for the President to read every day? How was such a visionary operating system managed and its transparency ensured? Who was the mastermind at the helm?

Thankfully, the author turns to the lives, motivations and dedication of the staff of the Office of Presidential Correspondence. Laskas is renowned for introducing her readers to those whom they would never have sought out on their own, but who once met, quickly become people we can’t live without. I actually had the surprising pleasure of meeting in this book someone of ordinary stature, fresh out of college at the time (and presently a mother at home with children), whose quiet and formidable genius and brilliant service to country have now ensured her name remains one of the rare few that I will never forget. In fact, from here forward, to think of Obama is to think of Fiona Reeves, like a stalwart figure of Lady Liberty, standing behind him, making it all possible. (Do read, and join me in awe!)

In a somewhat sobering conclusion, although equally as committed, proud and impacted by what had been accomplished together, most of the staff felt it wisest to withhold their names from publication as a new administration entered the White House. Their tension highlights an edge of darkness sweeping our current world as power is increasingly centralised and there is a sense that tyranny looms. Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst political system, with the exception of all others.”

This book is a direct challenge to the criticism that American democracy is primarily philosophical. Contrary to popular opinion, the US was never established as a pure democracy but designed to be a representative one. Laskas, however, also provides an alternative perspective to the discussion of elitism as an inevitable consequence of a Republic. Here, at least, is evidence of one President who led with clear respect for all – from the greatest to the “least of these” – and had the integrity to do what he said he would do: represent the people.

The pundits and academics will no doubt ponder for years the effectiveness, endurance and legacy of the policies that Obama championed, but I am more interested in what may yet come from the lives he personally inspired through his thoughtful, respectful and honest correspondence.

For a migrant Australian, as I am, it is no small matter to be given a moment of re-discovery of one’s own people. Distance, time and current events can morph the loss into incredulous unfamiliarity as a former society shifts in radical ways, with or without you. Perhaps I, as those described in this book, hail from a political era (pre-social media) whose ideals struggle for translation into the present, but, as Obama said recently: “… the rule of law, democracy, competency, and facts. These things aren’t partisan. They also don’t happen automatically. Democracy is a garden that has to be tended.”

Perhaps, also, with deeper insight today into the fragility of democratic forms of government, there remains a pulsing core of committed people around the world who are willing to refine, restore, replant, and work hard to tend our nations with care, striving for that healthy balance of power wherein all citizens can flourish.

Whatever the case, it is with gratitude that I have once again encountered in this record what I continue to value from the land of my ancestors, including that almost lost art: the creation of space for robust discussion and an ability to dialogue through difference.

Thank you, Jeanne Marie Laskas, for shining light on a rare instance of relational democracy in all its mighty particulars. It is an extraordinary read and a beautiful understanding of what can be generated when the “other” is honoured and political leadership responsibly invites the moral accountability and influence of the diverse voice and contribution of its nation’s people.

R.C. Dettmann migrated to Victoria in 1996, transitioning from suburban life in the US to life in rural Australia. With a background in design and professional writing, she is currently raising teenagers and managing a guesthouse on a grazing property in the Central Victoria Highlands. She has studied and cultivated a deep respect for the natural environment, culture, sociology, faith, justice, spiritual retreat, Indigenous Australia, local community, history and media.