At its best this book is a unique retelling of the Obama years, a people’s history that views America’s great political milestones through the impassioned writing of its citizens... Laskas’s writerly style...grates at times and, as with most Obama books, there’s an unhealthy element of hagiography... Yet his essential decency and thoughtfulness, as a leader and a person, radiate from this book... the president is refreshingly not the star of the show. That prize goes to his correspondents, whose loving, joyful, angry and despairing words tell the real story of Obama’s America.
After the grimace-inducing tequila shots of the Trump books, Laskas’s book felt like a warm mug of cocoa. She tells the behind-the-scenes story of Barack Obama’s mail room, once he decided, on entering the White House, that he wanted to read a representative sample of 10 letters each day... She includes a series of the letters, and speaks to Mr Obama himself, after he’s left the White House. That he comes across, in the letters and the interviews, as a dignified, decent human being is no surprise. But the overall effect is incredibly powerful, especially in these polarised times. I found myself weeping at some, and reading others aloud to my friends. The book was balm for the soul – sure, it was warm and fuzzy, but given the harsh reality of Trump’s America, that was something to be welcomed.
In earlier chapters, when diving headlong into the lives of the letter writers, Laskas blends her authorial voice in joyous perspective-bending streams of consciousness reminiscent of Tom Wolfe at his best. But when she is finally face-to-face with Obama, that style necessarily fades. It is with what reads like both awe and frustration that Laskas writes that “his words are precise, and the sentences are… dense. It’s like you could add water to them, and they’d keep expanding.”...Obama is too monolithic for such writerly exuberance. He is too measured – too Obama – to be inhabited that way. He remains remote and out of reach.
It may be trite to say that To Obama is itself a love letter, but that’s how it reads: like a letter to someone long lost. It is steeped in a powerful yearning for a period in time that slips further from us with every passing day. How did we fall so far?
This story of hope and possibility, of honest work and open communication, is emblematic of what the Obama presidency was meant to stand for. There are no letters here about drone strikes or Guantánamo Bay, though there are certainly ones that aren’t fan letters. Obama — or, in the case of the typed letters, Kolbie Blume, the young woman charged with channelling his voice — replies respectfully, forthrightly.Do we learn anything from his replies? Not really. It’s all boilerplate: “I’m inspired by the strength and perspective you possess at such a young age” and a dozen varieties of “I’m rooting for you”. But it would be wrong to expect more. It is rather Obama’s willingness to read the 10 LADs that meant he was, at least, trying to listen.
Laskas’s book is full of lovely details. George Washington, apparently, opened and answered his letters personally; he only got about five a day... By the end of his presidency Nixon refused to read anything negative about himself. Reagan would drop by the mailroom to see what the voters thought. Obama, with his famous self-discipline, set himself the target of reading ten missives a day. The insight into America provided by the letters cleverly selected by Laskas is fascinating. The correspondents seem like erudite, well-intentioned people. There’s a teen in a foster home who writes better than me. There’s a furious conservative who accuses Obama of wrecking the economy and yet refers to him throughout as ‘sir’ and signs off, ‘Thank you for reading my letter.’ God is invoked constantly: a same-sex couple grateful at winning the right to marry are proud to say that they did so in a church. Another couple sends $15 for the president’s re-election campaign because it’s literally all they have. When politicians tell such stories, I always assume they’ve made it up.
Barack Obama says this book is his "single favourite story about my presidency", and it's not hard to see why. To Obama, With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair gives us a glimpse of a secret and incredibly sweet world within his White House, and paints a portrait of a man deeply concerned with his citizens' problems, struggling to do the right thing.
The journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas was given unprecedented access to the White House mailroom, and she describes how 56 staff, 36 interns and a rotating roster of 300 volunteers dealt with the 10,000 items of mail that Obama received every day. Every evening, he asked for a sample set of 10 letters. He would often write back in his distinctive curling hand, or else he would ask one of his nine letter-writers to compose a typed response on his behalf, from his notes in the margins, which he would approve.
There will be those, of course, who read or respond to the idea of Laskas’s beautifully researched and written book with the argument that the 44th president was all about this vaunted compassion, about always having the right words, but not always having the right deeds. There are plenty of ways to counter that argument, but one is that writing a letter is itself a deed, an action, requiring a degree of dedication and thought, a capacity to listen, in the way that firing off an exclamatory tweet never is.