As a teenager, I was enthralled by the letters between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams into their last years, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's correspondence with scholar Harold Laski. Many of the letters had a continuity of exchanged thoughts that added up to much more than the sum of their parts.
I have always preferred the ink-and-paper, written letter method of communicating with elected officials. This method proved fruitful in the heyday of consumer and environmental activism during the sixties and seventies when many such letters received media attention and subsequently sparked action.
The letters in Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015 (Seven Stories, 2015) recount missed opportunities by presidents who increasingly are being preoccupied with fundraising trips, avoidable foreign wars and hostilities, and ceremonial photo opportunities interspersed by White House gatherings with sports stars and other celebrities of the moment. Since taking office in 2009, President Obama has attended over 425 fundraisers with the rich all over the country. Sadly, besides draining time away from substantive presidential engagements, these events are antithetical to serious civic and political discourse, and destructive to what Abraham Lincoln called "the public sentiment." They are just fancy auctions between candidates and friendly affluent bidders, whose presence cues the former about what is expected in return. Given how presidents spend their time, it is fair to say that they misspend much of their time with such pursuits.
Imagine the benefits to us all of a president who empowers the people by mobilizing them to form better, self-reliant communities, or who pays close attention to the neglected federal civil service and the improved running of executive departments and agencies.
I harbor the hope that sparing some attention for thoughtful letters would provide presidents with periods of reflection and help them escape from their tightly programmed schedules. Reading serious letters sent by citizens might induce presidents to send out thoughtful responses in the form of public feelers for fresh approaches, recommendations, or timely alerts about important matters. Additionally, reading and responding to these letters would set an example that would encourage others to share their valued thoughts and break down the barrier of communication between the White House (once called the People's House) and the citizenry. How else can citizens ever hope to communicate with their president on anything other than a symbolic level? Inaugurating a new tradition of presidential replies can enrich deliberative democracy by bringing forth otherwise inhibited feedback from people of experience, wisdom and imagination whose voices otherwise aren't heard from.
Rhetoric by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama would have you think that these presidents encourage and support citizens sharing their opinions with their commander-in-chief. However, once delivered to the White House, my letters to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama could not penetrate the multi-layered White House bubble. What happens to them upon arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a mystery. I have no idea if anyone reads them, refers them to other departments and agencies in the executive branch, or puts them in circular files or warehouses for the archives or presidential libraries. With very few exceptions, I received no response from anyone on staff, nor even an acknowledgement of receipt. Many others have had similar experiences, including, at a critical time for our country, the leaders of more than thirteen diverse national organizations with millions of members such as the National Council of Churches and national labor, veteran, women, student and business groups. Each organization independently requested an urgent meeting with the single-minded President Bush shortly before his invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not one received even the courtesy of an acknowledgement (see: https://nader.org/iraq-letters).
Breaking through this communication bubble using other portals is nearly impossible. The bubble controls the quality and quantity of presidential news conferences as well as who is called on among the White House Press Corps, and therefore shapes the resulting news coverage.
This disturbing trend of nonresponse and discourtesy to citizens extends to many cabinet secretaries and agency heads. It is in the self-interest of these federal officials to give the perception of listening to their constituents by, at the very least, acknowledging receipt of their letters and emails. Yet, it seems that like presidents, cabinet secretaries and agency heads largely treat paper letters with indifference. All this spells the degradation of an elementary relationship between the citizens and their elected officials and those agency heads appointed by elected officials.
The lack of any response at all is astonishing, so I sought to find out if this uniformity of indifference was policy. I wrote letters asking Presidents Bush and Obama just about their general policy or guidelines regarding answering letters. No response.
The right to petition your government implies some possibility of learning whether the petition arrived and whether it will receive notice. Our Founding Fathers would not accept the use of the First Amendment that only is "crying in the wilderness."
We are in the Information Age. Never before has there been a greater disparity between sending messages and receiving replies. Consider the matter from the viewpoint of the president. He receives hundreds of thousands of letters a year. Staff and volunteers do not do much more than open, sort and pass along the few designated to receive substantive or form responses from the president and/or staff.
My motivation to test this bubble had two goals. First, I sought a response that would result in action, such as greater presidential attention to global infectious diseases and workplace safety. Second, failing in that objective, I wanted to document this lack of two-way, substantive communication with anyone either in the White House or with appointees from executive departments and agencies.
I did not expect substantive responses to more than a third of these letters, including any replies from departments and agencies in lieu of a response from the Executive Office of the President, but I saw no reason why all of them could not be acknowledged, as apparently does the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada--a practice that I pointed out to President Obama in yet another letter that went unanswered. Other than two letters from First Lady Michelle Obama's staff―one explaining why President Obama could not meet with a proposed large assembly near the White House of national civic, charitable and labor groups and another thanking me for my support of the first lady's nutrition campaigns―and a one page form letter from President Obama in 2010 in response to my letter about the GM bailout, there were no substantive replies to any of my letters.
As for my letters, some signed with colleagues, they covered important ground urging action, inaction or the adoption of new priorities, such as giving a "seat at the table" to labor, consumer, environmental, peace and other civic groups, instead of just the business and war lobbies. I sent letters on pending legislation, aggressive wars and military actions without a basis in law, the violation of civil liberties and due process of law, and convenient facilities enabling consumers to band together. My recurrent missives dealt with the proliferating privileges and immunities of giant corporations engaged in corporate crime waves and escaping because of anemic regulatory enforcement budgets. I chided President Obama when he forgot about specific campaign assurances in 2008 regarding raising the minimum wage, congressional voting rights for the District of Columbia, addressing structural problems of poverty, revising NAFTA, corporate tax reform, and importantly, his repeatedly declared assurance of compliance with our Constitution.
My letters expressed a desire to lift up presidential standards and performances in the general interest of all Americans and their constitutional sovereignty over artificial entities called corporations. Most of my entreaties and criticism probably would have been well received by a majority of the citizenry. But sadly, the White House reporters, or their colleagues, rarely cover such letters, no matter how relevant or unique.
This article is based on the introduction for Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015
For a signed copy of Return to Sender, visit Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington DC.