Every evening, President Obama sits down to read ten letters selected from the 20,000 that arrived in the day’s mail. Who are these people, and what are their stories?
In his first book, Washington Post staffer Saslow narrates the stories of a small sample of these correspondents. A Michigan couple faces a multiple array of problems, from skin cancer to the threat of bankruptcy. A top student at a Catholic high school in Philadelphia is inspired by the president to run for class president, and wins; his mother, who can’t find work, worries about how she’ll afford his college. A military wife in Richmond, Va., worries about her husband in Afghanistan and tries to cope with his erratic behavior when he comes home. In Arizona, a young Hispanic woman describes the culture of fear and racism created by an immigration bill. When the president responds to these letters, as he often does, the recipient gets a boost of enthusiasm, and sometimes, national celebrity. When Natoma Canfield, a 50-year-old cleaning woman suffering from cancer, presented a perfect horror story about her maltreatment by her insurance company, the president was so impressed that he cited her case at length while discussing the health-care bill. One of the standout letters came from an amazingly mature 10-year-old girl named Na’Dreya Lattimore, who wrote the president on conditions in her Ohio classroom; the president included parts of it in one of his speeches on education.
Certainly, this is an Obama-centric book in which every chapter shows the president nobly dealing with the larger issues addressed in these letters; only one of the letters is negative, and some of the stories are bland. The best, however, offer an intimate glimpse into the lives of people who are hopeful, and sometimes desperate, to be heard.