New York Times reporter Ashley Parker, who specializes in soft profiles of Obama's staff, certainly made the president look good in her Monday look at Mike Kelleher, director of the Office of Correspondence at the White House -- he reads letters sent to the White House and passes a fortunate few on to Obama himself.
Parker passed along a couple of tear-jerking anecdotes from the White House PR machine in "Picking Letters, 10 a Day, That Reach the President."
The task of keeping a president in touch with his public is daunting, as Mike Kelleher well knows.
Tens of thousands of letters, e-mail messages and faxes arrive at the White House every day. A few hundred are culled and end up each weekday afternoon on a round wooden table in the office of Mr. Kelleher, the director of the White House Office of Correspondence.
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.
"We pick messages that are compelling, things people say that, when you read it, you get a chill," said Mr. Kelleher, 47. "I send him letters that are uncomfortable messages."
The ritual offers Mr. Obama a way to move beyond the White House bubble, and occasionally leads to moments when his composure cracks, advisers said. "I remember once he was particularly quiet," said Mr. Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, "and I asked him what he was thinking about, and he said, ‘These letters just tear you up.' It was after getting a poignant letter from a struggling family."
Aww! Obama tears up! The Times evidently never did a similar soft story about President George W. Bush's inspiring fan mail in his first few months in office, a Nexis search suggests.
Parker printed another anecdote fed to her by the White House that made an anti-war argument as a bank shot. Cynthia Arnold wrote to Obama concerned about her son being deployed to the Middle East:
"He was calling to ask me who should make his funeral arrangements in the event of his death, his father or me," Mrs. Arnold wrote. "He advised me that it should probably be his father since I could barely make it through the call. He was calling to ask me where he should convalesce in the event of his being injured, there in Texas or at home in Pennsylvania."
Using enlarged type to make sure the president would "be able to read it," she urged him to "please make our troops one of your priorities." A few weeks after she mailed the letter, Mrs. Arnold received a handwritten note from Mr. Obama.
"I will do everything in my power to make troops like Matthew my priority," the president wrote. "Please tell him ‘thank you for your service' from his commander in chief!"
He signed the note "Barack Obama," with a big looping B and O. Mrs. Arnold said she was so overwhelmed that the president had called her son by his first name that she "just burst into tears." She is storing the letter in a safe deposit box until she can have it framed.