A report by ABC's Jake Tapper on Monday that President Obama is reading a selection of letters from the public each day to get a feel for people's thoughts and problems is heartening. In establishing this means of connection with the feelings, hopes, and problems of "ordinary" Americans, Mr. Obama is adopting a practice that served President Franklin D. Roosevelt well during the Great Depression.
For one of my books, Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man," I read through some 15,000 of the more than 15 million letters from the public that were received by the Roosevelt White House, in order to select nearly 200 for inclusion in the volume.
A look at FDR's experience with letters from the public suggests that President Obama -- and the nation -- may benefit substantially from the adoption of the practice by the new president.
"From his first hours in office," historian William E. Leuchtenburg has written, "Roosevelt gave people a feeling that they could confide in him directly." And confide they did. In the week following FDR's inauguration, 450,000 letters poured into the White House. For years the average remained at 5,000 to 8,000 communications each day. Under Roosevelt the White House staff for answering such letters quickly increased from one person, who had been adequate in past administrations, to fifty.
Letters from the public were very important to Roosevelt, who saw the mail as a way to gauge fluctuations in public sentiment. According to his aide Louis Howe, FDR "always maintained that a personal letter from a farmer or a miner or little shopkeeper or clerk who honestly expresses his conviction, is the most perfect index to the state of the public mind." The president therefore had the mail analyzed on a regular basis and sometimes read a random sampling of letters himself "to renew his sense of contact with raw opinion."
President Obama's motivation in reading a sampling of the letters from the public is essentially the same as Roosevelt's was. Press secretary Robert Gibbs says the new president has asked to see a selection of letters "to help get him outside of the bubble."
President Roosevelt gave many people a feeling that he was their personal friend and protector, that they could tell him things in confidence. The results were clear enough in the letters from the public. "At no time," a New Hampshire woman wrote in 1934, "have the people been so free to write and feel that the President or his wife would be interested to know what each community were doing." An Alabama woman agreed: "Never before have we had leaders in the White House to whom we felt we could go with our problems, for never before have our leaders seemed conscious of the masses," she declared. "The knowledge that my President is trying to uplift 'the forgotten man' has made me bold to write to you."
No other source I have seen provides as powerful and informative a sense of what many Americans were going through in the Depression as the letters do. I am especially glad to learn that President Obama is having letters from children included in the sample he reads each day. Children's letters during the Depression were especially poignant. To cite one example, a 12-year-old boy in Chicago wrote about his father in a 1936 letter to the President. 'All the time he's crying because he can't find work. I told him why are you crying daddy, and daddy said why shouldn't I cry when there is nothing in the house. I feel sorry for him.'"
Many victims of the Depression wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. As one 1938 put it, "centuries back Catholics prayed to the Virgin Mary because they thought she might intercede with a deity who could not take time to hear every petitioner. In some such spirit we turn to you." Among the more common messages in the letters to the first lady were requests for used clothing. "A thought came to me," a Philadelphia woman wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt in 1935, "that you may have a few old discarded dresses among the ones that you have tired of that you would like to get rid of, and do some good at the same time."
The letters to the Roosevelt White House were generally answered promptly, and these interactions were of great service to Roosevelt in maintaining his popularity and the people's sense of contact with him. Many felt that they knew the president personally, Federal Emergency Relief Administration investigator Lorena Hickok reported from New Orleans in 1934. She attributed this in large measure to Roosevelt's radio addresses, in which he spoke to people "in such a friendly, man-to-man fashion." Listeners felt, Hickok said, that FDR was "talking to each one of them, personally." She also mentioned the replies to the letters that people sent to the White House. Many Americans cherished their form letters from the offices of Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt. "And these people take them all very seriously," noted Hickok, "as establishing a personal relation."
Barack Obama is wise to have chosen to follow this precedent of the last president to face an economic disaster similar to that we are now confronting.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College and the author of The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941 (Random House) and Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man" (North Carolina). His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).