[ed. note: see updates from 2/24 and 2/25 at bottom of post]
ABC reports that President Obama is reading ten letters a day from all kinds of people all across the country, “to help him get outside of the bubble,” says press secretary Robert Gibbs. Each day he is handed a purple envelope containing the day’s selection of letters. Sometimes he’ll make copies of a letter to distribute to staff; sometimes he responds with a hand-written note of his own.
Obama reads letters from Americans struggling to keep their homes or looking for work in hard times. Sound familiar? Franklin Roosevelt got letters like these, in economic times we fear we are repeating today. Robert McElvaine has sifted through thousands of letters sent to the Roosevelts during the Depression. He edited a collection of 200 of those letters in a volume that has stayed in print for a generation and for which we published a 25th-anniversary edition last year: Down and Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man.
It seems a little ironic that the New York Times included Down and Out in a round-up of books for vacation reading when the book was first published. But in these days of “staycations” and “forced vacations” it may just be good to be reminded that if you’re struggling, you’re not alone.
Regarding Obama’s daily letter-reading habit, McElvaine says, “That’s exactly what Roosevelt did with the letters. This unfiltered contact with public sentiment can be very valuable to the new president, especially in times that are disturbingly similar to those in the 1930s.”
Letters from children are included in Obama’s regular reading. Sometimes kids can articulate startling truths adults have a hard time saying out loud. Sometimes they understand all too clearly when we’re struggling but don’t want them to know it.
Robert Cohen collected 190 of the letters Eleanor Roosevelt received from children in Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. One kid asks if Mrs. Roosevelt has an old coat to spare for the letter writer’s mother. We are not yet seeing the levels of outright poverty that plagued the 1930s, but the suffering is real. The fear, especially, is real. Lots of people are losing their jobs. Lots of people are losing their homes.
We certainly don’t want to repeat all of the pains of the Great Depression. But perhaps we can learn something from the letters of those who suffered through it. Maybe we can learn how to cope by helping one another. We can learn to remember we’re not alone.
ed. update 2/24: Robert McElvaine, who blogs over at The Huffington Post, has his own post about this. Go check out “Like FDR, Obama Learns from People’s Letters.”