Have you ever wondered if the president reads any of the letters written to him by citizens? Well, in the June 28 edition of Slate’s Working podcast, Jacob Brogan sits down with the middle-woman between President Obama and that mail: the director of presidential correspondence. Fiona Reeves and her team sift through countless emails and letters each day, but she only picks 10 a day to send to the president. How does she pick them? Does the president ever respond? And what are some of her favorite notes from the past eight years? Keep listening to find out!
And in this episode’s Slate Plus bonus segment, Reeves tells us how social media and email have transformed the art of letter writing.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan, and I write about technology and culture. There’s no workplace that looms larger in Washington, D.C., than the White House. Hundreds of employees work within its walls, but most of us don’t know much about what really goes on there. This season on Working, we’re peeking behind that curtain, talking to some of those who make their way through the White House’s gates each morning. We’ll be speaking with a range of employees, from those who help shape policy, to the people who keep the building running.
For our first episode, we’re talking to Fiona Reeves, the director of presidential correspondence. Every day, Reeves and her staff sort through thousands of letters and emails the president receives from his constituents. She ultimately selects 10 for him to read each night. She talked to us about some of the most memorable letters she’s examined, from the sad, to the funny, to the hopeful.
And in a Slate Plus extra, Reeves tells us how social media and email have informed the art of letter writing.
What is your name and what do you do?
Fiona Reeves: My name is Fiona Reeves. And I’m the director of correspondence here at the White House. We are the office that handles all of the incoming correspondence from regular people to the president and the White House. We process incoming phone calls, incoming letters, and incoming emails. We’re the first administration to respond to email. We are also the first administration to not respond to faxes. The idea of writing to the president has always existed and I would say our paper processing system cannot be very different than it was a hundred years ago. I mean, people sit down and they open a box and they take out letters. And they read them in whatever order they’re stacked in.
Brogan: So there are pictures. Or there’s at least one picture of you online delivering letters to the president. Is that, I assume not, part of your everyday experience?
Reeves: That is not part of my every day experience. That was taken during the government shutdown, which was a time when very few of us were here. Our ordinary process is: I choose the 10 letters a day and hand them off to someone in my office who scans them and shares them with a lot of folks across the White House, who hands them off to someone who puts together the president’s briefing book.
So each night he takes home sort of a homework binder. And it has information on what he’ll be doing the next day. And it every night includes the 10 constituent letters. We put a little cover memo on there that says, “Per your request, here are 10 un-vetted constituent letters.” I mean, they are the least vetted thing that reaches the president. Our correspondence is really like someone sits down at their kitchen table and they send in a piece of their mind. In most cases, one of our volunteers is the first person to read it. Sometimes an intern or a staffer. And they put it in an inbox that I collect every morning. If it’s an email, they check a box in our CRM system, our Constituent Relationship Management system. And it feeds into a queue that I read through.
Brogan: So, the president reads 10 letters a day. How many do you have to read a day?
Reeves: It varies depending on the day. I mean, whenever there are moments of hardship or triumph, or the president connecting with people on a really emotional way we see a major uptick in our incoming. So, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, we read through more mail than usual. But I would say on a general day, the number that get sort of passed to me can be from 200 to 400 emails and letters.
Brogan: And you read that many every day?
Reeves: Every day that the president is in town. Sometimes, like if the president goes away for a week, he only gets the 10 letters a day when he’s in Washington, so it builds up. And on his first day back, I read through a lot more.
Brogan: So, can we take a step back? What’s your day like? When do you arrive?
Reeves: When I walk in, it’s usually about 8:30. Our office kind of kicks into gear at 9:00, but I need a little time alone with my yogurt at the beginning of the day. The first thing I do is I walk into our sort of mailroom, which is what you would think of as mail at the White House. It’s boxes and boxes of mail, and shelves of topics, and lists of what’s going to agencies. So, I walk into that room and pick up a physical stack of letters. And I often in the morning am focused on getting those letters ready for him by early afternoon.
We want to give him mail that is representative of incoming mail that is geographically diverse. We also look for different writing styles and different levels of writing and ways of communicating. After I sort of put those together and hand them off to the next step in the process, my afternoon is generally more focused on some of the writing sides of my work.
Brogan: Can you tell us a little bit about writing letters and responding? How involved are you in that process? And what does that involve?
Reeves: We have a range of writing products that go from the very sort of official, to the very personal. So, some of the letters that we send are for events that maybe the president can’t make it to, but we want to have something to show that he wishes them well. So, it may go in a program book, or be read aloud by a cabinet secretary. On the much more personal end, we work on drafting some of letters that are one-on-one responses from the president to one person.
He reads 10 letters a day, and some of them he responds to by hand. Some of them he writes something like, “Neal, can you look into this?” That is sort of to ask someone on his team to take a look at it. And on others, he writes “reply” but then he writes sort of some drafting guidance. And we get it back to try to take his guidance and turn it into a letter that he’ll be happy signing and won’t send back for reworks.
Brogan: Maybe this is a silly question: Does he read everything that goes out under his name before he signs it?
Reeves: No. He signs all of the letters that we type in response to his 10 letters a day. And he in some cases has asked to weigh in on some of the broad policy letters that are on issues that he’s really deeply invested in. But there are also letters that he doesn’t sign off on. You know, we send greetings for life milestones, Eagle Scouts. A lot of Eagle Scouts.
Brogan: So, does that mean that you and people in your office have to really think about presidential voice?
Reeves: We’re really lucky with the responses to the mail that he reads, both because he can write such extensive drafting guidance on the letters that we sometimes think to ourselves, “Why didn’t you just write these notes on a notecard?” You know, we end up serving as really more of typists than writers. And also because he has responded personally to so many letters over the years, that we often don’t need to wonder what would he say. We know what he has said.
Brogan: What’s the format of the letters that come in? Can you tell us a little bit about some of the ones that you brought in today? Are they written by hand? Are they typed?
Reeves: About 80 percent our incoming correspondence is email. They go to a web form, just like you would if you were complaining to a company, or writing to thank a company, as I’m sure people often do.
So they write in their name and their address information, their phone number, and then they write their message to the president. And it reaches us in something that looks basically like an email inbox.
And then others—and these are the ones that just stick with you in an unforgettable way—come in handwritten. And, you know, it is crazy to think that you are holding this piece of paper that was in a person’s hand when they were reaching out to their government. And it is crazy to think that in so many cases then the president holds those pieces of paper.
And people often begin with a reflection on, “I know no one will read this.” I mean, that is a really common open. We see some Caps Lock in our emails—we definitely see some Caps Lock. We also see some drawings from kids. I mean, you can put anything in an envelope. A lot of people will write about where they’re writing from, or what time they’re writing. You know, “I am staying up late at night because I can’t stop thinking about this,” is a sort of open that transports you immediately into what are they going to say. Or, you know, “From my kitchen window, I can see these mountains,” and then you’re like in that person’s kitchen with them.
We also recently have seen more and more letters—and I hope to see even more, because I really eat them up—that begin with something like, “I’ve been meaning to write this for seven years.” There’s a shift toward these sort of reflective, not always negative, not always positive.
Brogan: Do you see more of that as we’re approaching the end of these two terms?
Reeves: There’s something more like journal writing now. You know, a lot of it, as you can imagine, is thanking the president for the Affordable Care Act. That’s one of the highest trends we see in terms of the thank you note category.
And then there are also letters that are not so much a thank you for helping me modify my mortgage, but more like a reflection on what it meant for them when the president got elected. Or what it felt like for them when they voted. And they just want to sort of connect with him in that way. And we’ve always seen that over the years. And I think we see it particularly at moments where the president kind of sticks his neck out a little bit, or speaks as himself in a way that people connect with.
I think after he spoke in the briefing room about Trayvon Martin, we saw a lot of letters come in where people felt like That’s the Barack Obama I know, and I want Barack Obama to know me. Or sometimes people feel like Barack Obama already knows them. And that’s sort of the approach they’re taking to writing their letter. But I think, yeah, as the days dwindle down, we’re getting a lot of under-the-wire Here’s what I’ve been meaning to tell you.
Brogan: Can you tell us about the process by which a letter gets even opened in the first place?
Reeves: Before letters arrive at the White House, they go through a screening process. So, when we receive them, they’ve already been opened. And the letter is paper clipped to the envelope, so it’s been unfolded by Secret Service before it reaches our team. And they arrive just in sort of plain white boxes on the ground floor of the Executive Office building, and are opened up by our team in that room.
Brogan: Can you say a little bit more about what you’re looking for when you’re trying to settle on which 10 letters the president will look at that evening?
Reeves: My office, I think, sometimes has a little bit of an outsider mentality within the White House. What we are seeing doesn’t always align with what the White House is talking about. Like with equal pay, for example, it’s only the conversation of the week sometimes. In our world, like every day someone’s issue is their issue.
So, we have sort of steady hums that we’ve always seen. Gun violence just never stops as a conversation in the correspondence the president receives. Student loans never stop. So, those are considered on a really regular basis.
And we also put together a word cloud that shows just the size in relation to how many times people have used the term.
Brogan: Can you show us an example of that?
Reeves: So, truly a trend across the years has always been the biggest word is “help,” because, generally, when you’re reaching out to your government, you are looking for help with the issue that matters most to you. There are times, though, like you can see right now, the biggest word is “gun,” where there’s a conversation that has arisen above every other topic. This is not the only time gun has been the biggest word. But other sort of biggest words have been like “Syria” at times, health has been one. And then there are also words that are always present like “family” and “hope” and “work.”
So, we send that around, but we also use it as a reference point for how we choose the 10 letters. So, I know just from glancing at this, we’re going to have to make sure this issue is represented in the—
Brogan: And that issue is?
Reeves: Gun violence, in this case, for today. But when we do that, we make sure he sees both sides. And we think a lot about the order in which things are given to him. You know, how you read something I think affects the way it hits you. That is a challenge for our team, I think. You know, whenever we welcome new interns we make sure they know that the goal is not to drive their personal agendas; it is to give the president a sense of what people are saying. And, you know, it makes him, of course, a better president to hear from people who are saying, “This is why firearms are important to me,” or whatever the issue is.
Brogan: Do you have the sense that reading these letters shapes policy or projects that the White House pursues?
Reeves: I think it shapes polices that the White House pursues. I think, also, it shapes the humans who work here. You can’t help but think about it. When I think about the outputs of our office, one is we have this pretty big team of young people who will go on to do other things and will go on with this much broader perspective. And in some cases a very deep and personal perspective on what people, who they haven’t necessarily met, feel and expect and from their government and live through.
Brogan: One of the things that shows up on that Word cloud is not just the gun violence issue, but also the word “Orlando” itself. We are just nine or 10 days out from the shooting at, the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. How long does it usually take before you start seeing a tragedy like that in the correspondence from citizens?
Reeves: It’s immediate. But it has a long tail. It goes on for a while, because a lot of people sit down and write a paper letter, so that may reach us three weeks later—because it takes a week to go through the mail, and two weeks to go through the screening to get here. And there are some issues where I think just the thought processing on the part of the people who write to the president, you know, goes on and on.
I think that the strongest example of that was after Newtown. You know, it was more than six months that that remained a really strong trend, but because of our email channel it’s immediate and on the phones as well. They just blow up instantly.
Brogan: Does that long tail kind of complicate understanding kind of the news cycle around these issues?
Reeves: It definitely blurs time for the people who work in my office. You know, for us, long after something is on TV, it is on our minds constantly. Because we’re still getting through everything that everyone has to say about it. And we, because so often paper mail is so heartfelt, we give the president often messages that are not on an issue that came up yesterday, but are on an issue that came up longer ago. And that just is always an issue.
Brogan: Have you ever been especially moved by any of the kind of correspondence that’s passed over your desk?
Reeves: Certainly. Everyone on my team has. All of the mail from parents around gun violence is really striking in the way that people, you know, the sort of beginning of I know no one will read this, and then often a lead in of, “I feel like it’s my responsibility as a parent to write about this,” is an unforgettable issue.
We also have some people who express disappointment in a way that sticks. There was one letter that went to the president yesterday from a man who wrote that he feels like because of the presence or the pervasive nature of gun violence in the U.S., he, despite being a gay man in the United States, felt like he would rather live somewhere that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage than a place where he could be discriminated against at the end of a gun. We just gave that to the president last night, so I don’t know how that hit him when he read it. But when it hit me, it hit me hard.
And then we also, you mention the image of me handing those letters over to the president, and that was during the shutdown. One letter in particular that has always stuck with me is from a guy who, his letter was in that batch that day. I brought it with me and it has a little hole in the corner because it’s tacked up on my corkboard. But it’s a guy named David Carter who wrote in on October 4 in 2013 and he said, “I’m a federal employee. I work for the Social Security Administration. I’m a single parent of two.” And he went on to say, “Due to the shutdown, I am without an income.” And this was a period when we were seeing a lot of correspondence—and when I say we, in this case because of furloughing I was the only person in our office, so it was just me wading my through email and mail.
But a lot of the mail that was coming in was from people saying, you know, “I don’t know how I’m going to get by financially. I need this shutdown to end.” So I thought that this would be another message like that. And he went on to say, “I’m down to my last $50. And from what I hear, there is no end in sight.” But then he really took me by surprise and said, “I am praying and begging you not to back down. Stand tall and don’t give in. I’m willing to lose everything so that all Americans have affordable health care. You have worked with republicans in the past and now is the time to dig in. Thank you for taking a stand. I know that no matter what happens to me and my family, there are so many other families and children out there that need what you’re trying to give them. God bless you.” And then he signed his name. And it was so fortifying, because, you know, we were all feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves that day. Like, Here we are. We have such a limited team. We’re not able to do what we need to do. But then to hear this dad who is down to $50 saying like, “I’ll make it work,” was a pretty fortifying letter that if I ever were to feel sorry for myself, just remind me there’s no room for that.
Brogan: That’s amazing. Are there any ever that are funny, that are kind of the other side of things?
Reeves: Yeah. We get some funny letters. I mean, we get a lot of funny letters, many from kids. We also see some really funny responses from the president to letters. One that I have with me is from a young woman who was running for class president of her junior class. And she wrote in that she wanted some speech writing advice. And she said, “Mr. President, I know you won’t receive this letter in time to give me advice for my election speech, but could you please give me a few tips on public speaking in general. This is a skill that I lack and could really use in my life. And while this may be going out on a limb here, but on the chance that I am elected president of my class, do you have any words of wisdom for me? It would be much appreciated.” She talked a little bit about—
Brogan: This letter is long, too.
Reeves: Yeah! She talked a little bit about a dance at her school and what she was planning to wear. And she mentioned that she lives in a red county. And she said, “Mr. President, I’ve got your back,” which was just such a charming thing to see from someone who can’t even vote.
Brogan: How old was she?
Reeves: Well, she’s a junior in high school. And then the president wrote at some length some speech writing advice for our team to draft around.
Brogan: So these are notes that he scribbled on the letter itself?
Reeves: Mhm. But what I thought was sort of funniest in his list was that he wrote “Make it short” twice. So, I—
Brogan: And repeat your points for oratorical effect.
Reeves: Yeah. So that’s some funny stuff. We’ve seen, there was a young woman who wrote in about her long distance boyfriend saying, “I’ll move to Alaska if you can get the president to sign this G-chat conversation saying I should move to Alaska.” And the president signed the G-chat conversation, “Go Alaska.”
Brogan: What do you mean? Like literally put his—
Reeves: So she printed it out and mailed it in with her letter. And it went to him in his 10 letters one night. And he signed on the line that said sign here. But we don’t have the follow up from her unfortunately on whether her boyfriend then moved to Alaska.
Brogan: That’s a shame. How often do you get follow-ups from these people whose letters he reads?
Reeves: A lot of the follow-up we get is on casework that we process. So, the casework team gets a lot of thank you letters, because people often by the time they reach out.
Brogan: What’s the casework team?
Reeves: So, we have a team that processes people reaching out for help with the federal agencies’ letters. And sometimes people are writing about their mortgage, or about benefits of some nature, and it often feels like it’s a last resort when they reach out to the president. And when people are then contacted with resources that can be helpful to them, it results in a lot of the sort of nice feedback letters that we get.
In addition to getting feedback, we reach out to a good number of letter writers. We reach out to folks when we’re asking for them to come to White House events. Or to highlight their stories. And we also reach out to people when the president writes back by hand to confirm their addresses. And the truth is, we don’t always need to make those phone calls. We make them because they’re really energizing. It’s just so exciting when someone has taken this crazy long shot of, “You’re writing something to Barack Obama and getting it in a mailbox.”
Brogan: Do people flip out when you call them?
Reeves: Sometimes people flip out. I generally make those phone calls and I sound sort of more serious than I feel when I make them. You know, I say, “I’m calling from the Correspondence Office. I need to confirm your address.” When in my heart I’m like, Can you believe it?
Brogan: Especially when you said that so many of the letters have that, “I know no one will read this,” mantra.
Reeves: Yeah. Many people share their reflections on how surprised they are that their government heard them, or that their president heard them.
Brogan: It’s kind of like writing to Santa Claus.
Reeves: It is. Yeah. It’s such an unlikely channel. And sometimes people, when I call them and ask for their address, they sound like they really take in stride, to the point that I get a little confused and sort of restate the reason for the call. But, you know, maybe they’re just people who are very composed on the phone. I’m not sure.
Brogan: So you’ve been with the administration since 2009. Is that right?
Reeves: I started in 2009. And prior to that, I worked on the Obama campaign in-field, so knocking on doors, making phone calls. I started in New Hampshire, and then did sort of a series of states after that, which is something that I think really drives me in my work because when I see an address block, I wonder, Hey, did I ask this person in Wisconsin to vote for this guy? And it really underscores the way I think about what we owe to people.
Brogan: What was your first day at the White House itself like?
Reeves: My first day here at the White House was overwhelming in the sense that we walked in to just a mountain of paper mail. In the first six months of the administration, we didn’t process email yet. We were just sort of digging our way through paper mail. The president’s—
Brogan: Was there already stuff built up before?
Reeves: Yeah. The president’s Senate office had packed up all their mail and moved it to the White House. The president’s transition team had packed up all their mail and moved it to the White House. And then just a lot of people were writing in, projecting their hopes on him. You know, it was a really tough time economically, so there were a lot of letters from people who had this outlook of sort of Thank god you’re here. Here is what I need right this second. And I still have visions of just so much paper all around us, and boxes and boxes lining the hallway. The major themes at that time I think were housing and healthcare. It was just endless.
Brogan: So how has your experience at the White House changed over the course of the last seven or eight years?
Reeves: I think it’s a funny place to work because the institution has existed for so long, but you begin again every four or eight years. And so then when you are getting ready to leave, you feel like you’ve just sort of figured it out and are nailing it. Our organization has tightened in many cases, no thanks to me, but just because of the ideas of the people that I work with. We have much stronger technology than we did at the beginning of the administration, which was not easy to come by. You know, like with anywhere, it feels less overwhelming once you’ve been there for a while.
Brogan: If you were to write a letter to the president yourself, what would you want to say in it?
Reeves: I actually have written a letter to the president. We, as a team, for a retreat we did a couple years ago had everyone on the team write a letter to the president. And some people wrote about policy issues that matter to them. Some people wrote more personal reflections. I wrote to him along the lines of “thanks for letting me be a part of this team.” I had recently interviewed someone for a job to work here who talked about working at the Convention on what would have been a temporary basis, and then taking and passing the New York and California bar, and coming to interview to work in my office for $42,000 a year in an entry-level job reading the mail after having been an intern here.
And I asked her sort of what drives this decision for you. And she said that she felt like the people who were attracted to working for Barack Obama were the people who she wanted to be around. And when she said that I felt like it was a point that I had never known how to articulate, but that was really underneath all of what I feel about my gratitude toward this guy for letting me hang around for so long.
Brogan: And what’s next for you?
Reeves: I don’t know. Are you guys hiring? I have no idea. I have truly no idea. When I started on the Obama campaign in ’07, he wasn’t a likely candidate. I remember my parents, they encouraged me to work for Senator Clinton at the time with the thinking that then I would get to be employed through the general election as well. And I didn’t know that it would be a decade. And I don’t know what the next decade will be.
Brogan: Thank you so much. This was wonderful.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. I’m Jacob Brogan. We’d love to hear your thoughts about the podcast. Our email address is Working@Slate.com. You can listen to all seven seasons at Slate.com/Working. This series, Working at the White House, was produced by Mickey Capper and myself. Thanks also to Efim Shapiro. And special thanks to Rachel Racusen at the White House Press Office. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig and the chief content officer of the Panoply Network is Andy Bowers.
In this Slate Plus segment, Fiona Reeves tell us about how social media and email have informed the art of letter writing.
One of the things so amazing about this is that hardly anyone really writes letters anymore. A lot of what you handle you said are these emails, but there is a real art and a craft to letter writing that we don’t see as much these days. Does that still come through—that commitment to careful, thoughtful writing?
Reeves: It does. And, frankly, in email it does, too. There’s something really special about holding the physical thing that, you know, someone held. But more and more I think that emails convey the really important stuff, too. You know, you don’t get the visual of this person putting pen to paper, but there are two letters that I really think of as ones that have transported me.
And one was a card in sort of perfect cursive describing what she saw in your community in Appalachia. And the other was from someone who just wrote in about his father passing away and shared a little bit about his dad. But he wrote from Maine and included a line that said, “We have the brightest stars here.” And despite that being an email, it’s just such a personal detail to share with the president that it hits him the same way I think people think of when they think of a letter.
Brogan: Has social media changed things? Has it changed the amount or the kind of correspondence?
Reeves: It hasn’t really impacted my office in terms of our incoming. It has impacted us in terms of what we can do for letter writers. So, we share more stories because social media exists as platforms for us. So, we have a Tumblr page for our office and also we often, you know, just post images of letters on Instagram or on Facebook. And it’s easy because the space there is endless, but it is so meaningful to people who wrote in to know the White House thinks your letter is worth sharing.
So we love being able to do that for people and call them. And it’s something we only really started a couple of years ago, and as introvert myself I was initially quite nervous about calling people and saying like, “Hey, can we post your letter on the Internet?” But after the first couple dozen times, when everyone sort of has this reaction like, Someone read my letter and you think it’s worth reading, now I think of as something we’re able to give to letter writers and sort of let folks know we think what you said matters.
In many cases, the people who are writing to the president convey points that are important to the president or to the administration in ways that are kind of more interesting than the ways the White House can talk about it. You know, it gets a little repetitive to say the numbers again and again.