All the President's pen: why Obama's White House letters have that personal touch

Rupert Cornwell@IndyVoices
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:20

It is a tiny but preciously guarded part of the daily routine of the world's most powerful man.

Each evening, back in the family residence after his official work is done, President Barack Obama reads 10 letters and emails, selected by aides out of the mountain of correspondence sent to him in Washington by Americans across the country. And to three or four, he pens a reply in person. One of them was Jennifer Cline.

Every day the White House receives 20,000 letters and emails. They go through a three-stage vetting process. First their physical contents are tested (the 2001 anthrax scare has not been forgotten). Then they are sent to a Washington office where they are filtered, where they are sorted into categories and judged for their topicality.

The most striking are marked "sample" and sent on to the correspondence office in the White House proper. Of them, 10 are selected by an aide to be sent to the President, as the final section of his nightly briefing book.

Ms Cline, 27, is from Michigan and a mother of two young sons. She had written to every President since she was six, when her teacher gave her class the assignment of writing a letter to George HW Bush after his election in 1988. But, she told the Detroit Free Press, she had never received a reply – until now.

As simple statistics indicate, there are countless Americans like her. Usually they will get a form letter in reply, at best. This correspondent's son, for instance, received one after writing to wish Bill Clinton well in 1997, when the then president had knee surgery. "I'm following my doctor's orders and expect to make a quick and full recovery," the reply said. But it was electronically typed and, significantly, the ink used for the signature did not run.

The ink, however, did run on the note that arrived at Ms Cline's home in a large envelope, sent by first-class mail from "The White House," in Washington, DC. Between two pieces of cardboard was a smaller envelope containing a card with ornamental curly edges and bearing an embossed Presidential seal and a handwritten note.

"Jennifer – Thanks for the very kind and inspiring letter," it read. "I know times are tough, but knowing there are folks out there like you and your husband give (sic) me confidence things will keep getting better! Barack Obama."

Her own epistle, sent three weeks earlier, was a chronicle of her recent life. Ms Cline wrote that she and her husband had lost their jobs, and she had to cope with two types of skin cancer, even though she had no health insurance.

In retrospect, it was a natural to make the cut. It touched on two burning domestic issues, healthcare reform and the high unemployment rate.

Ms Cline told Mr Obama how she was back at college on a fully-paid grant, and that her unemployment benefit had been extended: "In just a couple of years we will be in a great spot."

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