Answering President Clinton’s Mail

Originally published in the Clear Lake Courier — February 22, 1995

“I do not think you read your mail personally.  We the people would like to think so though.” That comment represents the hope of many who write to the President of the United States.

Even if President Clinton devoted all his waking hours to answering mail, he could not possibly read the 2000 letters that arrive each day.  Peak mail volume earlier in his administration was 10,000 letters.

Paid political appointees handled the mail of previous Presidents.  This administration turned over the function to the White House Volunteer Office, and increased the number of volunteers.

I joined the mail analysis staff in September, devoting sixteen hours per month to reading letters and entering addresses in the computer.

The White House Mail Room is in the front part of the Old Executive Office building, on the ground floor.  The building is on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue and directly west of the White House.

A beautiful structure with curved marble staircases and tall wooden doors, it was built in the 1870s to house the State, War and Navy Departments.  There is now also a New Executive Office Building, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the old one.To get into the building, I show a picture ID and the guard checks the computer to determine I’m authorized to be there.  I walk through a metal detector and receive a temporary badge. When I turn in the badge at the end of the evening, I’m logged out of the computer.

The volunteer portion of mail analysis involves three steps.  One volunteer opens envelopes, staples the contents in proper order and sorts the letters into major categories. Letters from children, letters for Socks, requests for birthday cards or photographs, and threatening mail are some of the categories that go to other sections.

A second volunteer reads the letters and codes them according to subject. When one letter contains several subjects, the correspondent will either receive an answer that addresses only one of the topics, or will get a general response that doesn’t answer any question.

The President has provided letters expressing his position on a variety of topics, as he obviously cannot write different letters to each person. Volunteers like me verify that the correct responses have been chosen, and we type the addresses into a computer file.  White House employees check our work before printing the letters for signature.

We volunteers also decide which letters to forward directly to the President. The letters I put in his box usually are short, neatly written or typed, pleasing to the eye, one topic, a special message or human interest subject. I don’t know how many letters get all the way to his desk, or what criteria other staff members use.

Letters come on all kinds of paper, from fine stationery to greeting cards to graph paper to sheets of paper torn from notebooks of all sizes. Handwriting ranges from calligraphy to illegibility.  Faxes are common, and Western Union messages appear occasionally.

Concerned citizens send newspaper and magazine articles.  The mail includes original poems and songs, tapes, money, even lottery tickets. One grieving parent sent a picture of a beautiful daughter killed by a drunk driver.  A single mother sent her diary to prove she is struggling to get off welfare.

People discuss their problems and offer advice on how to fix the nation’s problems. Reading a file of letters on immigration, I learned that crime, health care, and welfare problems could all be solved by immigration reform.

The advice gets personal, too:  “When you go jogging, will you please stop wearing shorts.  How about Sweat Pants?”

Opinions of President Clinton range from “I believe history will say you were one of our greatest presidents” to “You are a crook and have no common sense.”

The President receives prayerful support:  “I’m praying for you, even if you’re a Democrat.”  And partisan support:  “We need all the help we can get against the sleazy-vicious-disgusting Republicans.”

As election time approached, opinions about the administration’s accomplishments varied. One man was so impressed, he stated, “I’ve even considered registering to vote.”

Another urged, “Don’t pay attention to the polls.  I don’t believe in them because I have never been asked my opinion or anybody I know, so I don’t know where they get those figures.”

Some messages were not so encouraging:  “We are angry!  Someday, you people in Washington will know how angry!”

Once answered, letters are filed in boxes by date and stored in the building.  Letters not answered (form letters, no return address, threats, etc.) are placed in separate boxes and stored, also. At the end of the administration, all will be sent to the Presidential library.

I volunteered for this job because I thought it would be interesting to find out what the people of this country really think, instead of just reading what is reported in the newspapers.  I also wanted to take advantage of opportunities that will only be available while I live in the Washington D.C. area.

So one night each week I take the Metro (subway) downtown from my office in Crystal City and spend the evening next door to the White House answering the President’s mail.

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