Dear Mr. President…
Every night just after dinner, a purple folder is delivered to President Obama in the White House. Inside is what he considers some of his most important reading material: 10 letters from the people he governs—a collection of sloppy handwriting and smudged ink that tells the story of America as it unfolds.
Over the course of a single year, the White House handles more than one million letters. President Obama reads a sampling of 10 every night and usually writes back to one or two. What resulted in the book Ten Letters is a cross section of America reflected each night inside the President’s purple folder. There’s NaDreya Lattimore, a fourth grader who lives in a Kentucky housing project and attends one of the state’s worst schools, who writes the President about her lackluster education and says, frankly, “I could really use your help on this.” There’s Natoma Canfield, who loses her health insurance and then, a month later, is diagnosed with leukemia. There’s Thomas Ritter, a staunch conservative from Plano, Texas, who unloads in a frustrated email only because he assumes no one will ever read it—and then is shocked to receive a two-page response in the President’s sweeping cursive. There’s Stefan Johnson, a teenager from inner-city Philadelphia who remodels himself in the President’s image, becomes class president of his high school, and earns a full scholarship to college.
What these people have in common is that they reached out to the President to share the hard circumstances of their own lives, sealing a prayer into an envelope as a matter of last resort. Each of their letters affected the President, sometimes shaping his speeches or influencing his policy decisions. President Obama’s handwritten replies also changed their lives in profound ways.
Washington Post writer, Eli Saslow spent the last year traveling around the country to meet these people and tell their stories, hoping to discover what their intersections with the President meant for the country, and what it meant for each of them. The letter writers invited Eli into their lives for days or weeks at a time, sharing the most personal details of their backgrounds and introducing him to family and friends. Eli followed along on their job interviews, college orientations, fishing trips, and welfare appointments. In every case, Eli returned home moved by their optimism and perseverance.
Listen to Eli discuss Ten Letters on NPR’s Weekend Edition and The Diane Rehm Show.