To America, With Love, Signed Barack Obama

NYT too wide-eyed on White House mailman story

The New York Times had a sweet story yesterday about Mike Kelleher, the White House mailman (official title: Director of the White House Office of Correspondence), and his daily task of choosing ten letters—out of the tens of thousands that reach the White House every day—for the president to read. It’s one of those stories, rife with examples, that might make a reader reach for the tissue box, or e-mail it to her mom. It also confirms once again the extreme media savviness of the current White House.

Here’s a snippet that describes Kelleher’s day:

He chooses 10 letters, which are slipped into a purple folder and put in the daily briefing book that is delivered to President Obama at the White House residence. Designed to offer a sampling of what Americans are thinking, the letters are read by the president, and he sometimes answers them by hand, in black ink on azure paper.

Black ink on azure paper… did anyone just shiver a bit with the illicit thrill of knowing what paper the president uses to correspond with the American public? He signs the notes “Barack Obama”—we are told, “with a big looping B and O.” But I don’t have to tell you that, and, really, neither does reporter Ashley Parker, who wrote the story. There are photos of Kelleher sorting through the mail, of Bo the dog’s own mail slot, and of one of Obama’s handwritten responses—with the “B” and the “O” and the azure paper and all.

This is great material, both for those craving details of the president’s day-to-day, and for the president himself, who can only benefit—however superficially—from a paragraph like this:

The White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said Mr. Obama “believes it’s easy in Washington to forget there are real people with real challenges being affected by the debate.” Mr. Emanuel added that he had seen the president turn to policy advisers in meetings and say, “No, no, no. I want to read you a letter that I got. I want you to understand.”

Or this one, where we hear that Obama wrote a woman whose son, a private in the army, had called her about funeral arrangements in the event of his death:

I will do everything in my power to make troops like Matthew my priority… Please tell him ‘thank you for your service’ from his commander in chief!
These sorts of anecdotes are both personally charming and politically useful—and that’s intentional. Obama has multiple hard sells to make to the American public, and he benefits from human portrayals like this one because they bring him emotionally closer to street-level problems. A handwritten note may have little to do directly with stoking public support for his policies, but there’s a sentimental linkage nonetheless. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times had to say about the politically powerful double-duty these stories serve:
…these glimpses into the Obama household are far from spontaneous. Instead, they are part of a careful strategy that has helped bolster the new president’s popularity and political clout — even as he promotes some economic policies, such as bailouts for banks and automakers, that lack broad appeal.

The story about the White House mailman isn’t actually a profile of Mike Kelleher, though it’s billed as one (the accompanying photo slideshow, which shows Kelleher walking through his day, is called “The President’s Mailman”). Kelleher, in my opinion, gets short shrift as the story’s lead character. It’s really a story about how Obama is keeping in touch with the public’s mood, a story that shows us Obama’s humanity. (Obama senior adviser David Axelrod quotes the president as saying, upon reading one from a struggling family, “These letters just tear you up.”)

This is fine. Obama is an empathetic person, and the Times story highlights that. But take the circumstances of this other interview with another White House extra: social secretary Desiree Rogers. From the LAT:

The White House last month welcomed a correspondent from “Extra,” a celebrity TV show, for a sit-down interview with social secretary Desiree Rogers, a close Obama friend. One portion was headlined, “Obama Family: A to Z!”

Rogers assured viewers that the Obamas are “real people.” She said that the first lady “maybe likes food a little bit more” and the president “would be satisfied just to have a salad and a boiled egg.”

Details of the Obamas’ food choices cater more transparently to the press and public’s First-Family-voyeurism impulses, but the two interviews—with Rogers and with Kelleher—have something of the same effect: they help to refine Obama’s public image, which to some extent also helps him to do his job. (Or as the LAT story notes, “Analysts believe that the Obamas’ image management has so far contributed to the president’s standing as he pushes an ambitious agenda.”)

Now, every White House engages in this sort of image management. It doesn’t mean that the mailman story isn’t valid; in fact, it’s heartwarming and rather well written. But readers and reporters ought to recognize that it is as much an example of image building as was the sit-down interview with Desiree Rogers about the “real people” Obamas. It could, in other words, perhaps afford to be a little more aware of being a cog in the White House’s smooth public relations wheel, and a little less wide-eyed about the president’s looped initials. Everything in Washington is done for a political end, and even reporting on the White House mailman needs to make a concession to that fact.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.