Syracuse University Magazine

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Q & A: Eli Saslow '04

Presidential Correspondence

Eli Saslow went from covering high school sports for The Washington Post a year after graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to covering President Barack Obama a few years later. “At first I was terrified to make the switch from sports to politics, but then I realized they were much more similar than I’d thought,” Saslow says. “It’s really just writing about a different kind of game.” Whether reporting on sports or politics, Saslow has always tried to write more about the people than the game, telling personal stories that illuminate the larger issues at play.

Now a feature writer at the Post, Saslow recently published his first book, Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President (Doubleday). Through the lens of this tiny sampling of correspondence—the White House receives roughly 20,000 letters and e-mails daily—Saslow reveals the lives of people struggling with the meanest issues of our day: poverty, job loss, unaffordable health care, war, bad schools, bankruptcy, bias and bullying, environmental catastrophe—as well as Obama’s frustrations in addressing them. Saslow recently spoke to contributing writer Jim Reilly about the book.

Ten Letters cover 

You write that Obama sees 10 letters, delivered to him at the end of each day in a purple folder tucked into his thick nightly briefing binder. Who picks the 10?

In the mailroom, there’s a staff of 50 full-time mail analysts and 1,500 volunteers who divide what comes in into 75 category folders. The president’s request, on the second day of his presidency, was that he wanted to see an accurate sample. So, say 20 percent of the mail is about Occupy Wall Street; on that day, he will see two letters—one positive, one negative—on that issue. It’s the same for the other issues that predominate on any given day.

How did you pick the letters you wrote about and choose the stories you wanted to tell?

That was by far the hardest part. I knew I wanted to reflect the diversity of what comes to him in that purple folder over the course of the year, so I wanted letters from Republicans and Democrats, maybe a student and a retiree, someone affected by health care reform, a racial and geographic mix. I was also looking for letters that impacted his presidency, those he mentioned in a speech. And I was looking for stories that were continuing to unfold.

What do the letters mean to Obama?

In a way, these letters represent the most intimate connection he has to the American people. He talks about living inside the bubble—a modern president is always so barricaded, so isolated—he feels like these letters are the only real connection he has to people, that they keep him sane. 

You write that Obama sends handwritten responses to one or two letter-writers a day. What do his responses, brief as they are, mean to the recipients?

Sometimes his responses wind up being really transformative. For Na’Dreya Lattimore, the 10-year-old schoolgirl living in a housing project and attending the worst school in Kentucky, his response led to her giving a big speech to all of the teachers in her district. Just by writing back to somebody, the president gives them this power they never had before, and I saw that happen a handful of times.

With Natoma (an Ohio cleaning woman battling cancer without health insurance), that letter had the most impact on both sides. While the president was using her letter and her story to try to pass health care reform, I was in Ohio with Natoma and her sister as she was going to chemo every day. Her name was in crossword puzzles, and she was getting letters of support from across the country. She says that helped keep her alive, that she had something to fight for, that her story counted.

What surprised you?

The thing that surprised me the most was when Obama talked about how these letters can make him feel powerless. The issues are so vast, so confounding, and the act of governing is so slow, that he feels his only recourse to help people sometimes is to send a check. He’s done it a few times. I pushed him for details, and he quickly said he should not have been talking about the checks. But that was really surprising to me, to hear that the most powerful politician in the world sometimes feels that the only way he can help somebody is the same way you or I might if we had the means: Send a check.

What came first, the letters or the issues you wanted to write about?

It was both, sometimes. I knew while the Gulf oil spill was unfolding, I wanted a letter about that. I knew a letter about education was one I definitely wanted in the book. Other times, a letter just surprised me, like the one from the guy in Atlanta who wrote about the It Gets Better project. That hadn’t been on my mind at all, but when I saw that the president was reading a letter a day about this project and gay bullying, I knew it was something to include in the mix.

What kind of access to the president did you have?

Access to the president is incredibly minimal. Even on Air Force One, the press enters through the back of the plane, he enters through the front. You’re stuck in this sort of cubbyhole in the back where, if you crane your head just so, you can see the heads of about 16 Secret Service agents in the president’s compartment, but you don’t see him. Then the media rush off the plane before the president gets off so we can watch him take like six steps down the stairs and disappear into the motorcade.

You got to spend a half hour with the president to talk about the letters; how did that go?

It was good. He was pretty engaged, and he was great talking about what he perceives to be the remoteness of his life and his job. He talked about how he sometimes pines for his days as a community organizer, living back in Chicago and making $20,000 a year, because in that job you are dealing with granular problems in such an up-close way. When you hear from somebody who can’t pay their mortgage or has their heat turned off, you’re right there and can deal with them face to face to help them solve it. That’s the kind of satisfaction his job now rarely allows for.

What did you learn from writing this book?

One thing I learned is how difficult it is to be president of this country, regardless of whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, whatever. These letters are one incredibly small part of what the president does every day. But to read these, 10 after 10 after 10 after 10…I mean, there’s the occasional fan letter, but there’s a lot of “I just lost my job, I just lost my house, my son was just killed in Afghanistan.” And to read that again and again and again, it must be so humbling, and so defeating in some ways. So, one of the things I definitely left with is an appreciation of just how hard that must be, no matter who is in that office.

The other thing, and I guess this is the part that will stick with me most, is that no matter how bleak and grim things got for the people in this book, they still believed that somehow things were going to get better. That maybe, if they took the time to seal this little prayer into an envelope and send it to Washington, the circumstances of their lives might change. They were all really just brave, and spirited, and tough. And I will be rooting for them.