New York Times Magazine contributing writer Laskas (English/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Concussion, 2015, etc.) reveals the unknown but very important White House office that plays a large part in the legacy of the Obama administration.
The Office of Presidential Correspondence was first established under President William McKinley, but the volume has increased considerably, particularly during the previous president’s tenure. Early in his career, Obama received vital assistance from “the 101st Senator,” Pete Rouse, who had three decades of experience in Washington, D.C. Rouse became Obama’s Capitol Hill guru, helping him hit the ground running. Then he stayed on for Obama’s time in the White House, modernizing the OPC in the process. “The mail had currency,” writes the author. “Some staff members called it ‘the letter underground.’ Starting in 2010, all mail was scanned and preserved. Starting in 2011, every word of every email factored into the creation of a daily word cloud, its image distributed around the White House so policy makers and staff members alike could get a glimpse at the issues and ideas constituents had on their minds.” Rouse insists it was Obama’s idea to read 10 letters per day, “the ‘10LADs’ as they came to be known.” The organizational process was massive: 50 staff members, more than 30 interns, and some 300 volunteers reading each day’s 10,000-plus letters and coding them according to subject. There were form response letters, but some required individual attention from a federal agency. Some received a red dot, meaning they should be processed in 24 hours. Over the years, the process expanded to some of the administration’s senior staff and even some members of Congress, who became known as “Friends of the Mailroom.” This is a curious collection that readers will find inspiring, depressing, or uplifting depending on their points of view. Regardless, it’s impressive that someone read the letters and replies were sent out, some written by Obama. In a comfortable journalistic narrative, Laskas also provides background on many of the letters.
A good book for those seeking encouragement that someone in Washington might care.