New York Times bestselling author Jeanne Marie Laskas, joined by Natasha Ball, Adam Apo, and Marty Gleason, spoke on February 19 about Laskas’s latest work, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate and Despair. The book serves as an archival collection of letters that reached the hands of former-President Barack Obama during his eight-year term. Unbeknownst to most of the general American public, Obama had pledged to read 10 letters from his constituents every day while he was in office—and successfully completed this mission, perusing both remarks of joy and comments of disgust.
At 57th Street Books, Laskas explained that she divided the book into three sections that are interwoven into a fabric of president-constituent intimacy: samples of the letters Obama received, essays explaining why people chose to write to the president, and direct interactions between Laskas and the people of the White House mailroom. In a brief introduction to her book, Laskas makes it clear that in the haywire world of American politics, both the constituents and Obama himself found letter-writing a respite, alleviating the constant stress of modern life.
The talk took a turn after Laskas’s short prelude, with Natasha Ball reading a letter that Obama saw on his first day of presidency in 2008, written by her late father. Ball’s father swore loyalty to Obama “till my dying breath.” Ball spoke to the audience afterward in a heartfelt tone: Her father loved writing letters and found it an outstanding way to express emotions across far distances, joking that her father would even write to the local Walgreens to complain about terrible customer service. One of his recognizable traditions was writing to his grandchild, Ball’s son, on the fourth of every month, with humorous notes such as “Happy three months since your birthday!” She distinctly remembers November 4 of 2008, when her father wrote to his grandchild after Obama’s victory: “Now there is no cap on your dreams.” He saw Obama as a symbol for not just Black pride, but also as a gateway opening a Black child’s future to opportunities older generations could not have dreamed of. With brimming gratitude, Ball’s father had written a concise yet beautiful note to Obama, thanking him for granting hope to the next generation.
Adam Apo shared his story next with a letter that did not make it into To Obama, but made it to Obama nonetheless. Writing when Pope Francis was to visit America in 2015, Apo came out as a gay Catholic man in his letter, admitting that hiding his identity was corrosive to his very being. He thanked Obama for his inclusion of LGBTQ+-friendly considerations in his policies. As a theology teacher at a Catholic academy at the time, Apo felt discriminated against, isolated, and forced to mask himself in the eyes of a wary, judgmental public that could fire him from his job. But as a former intern for a Chicagoan alderman, with experience in reading constituent concerns, he knew that someone was going to read his opinion if he sent this letter to the White House. A few weeks after sending his letter, Apo was invited to the White House to witness Pope Francis’s arrival.
“It was a confluence of my two worlds, and it was like writing to Santa Claus,” Apo remarked. As both a member of the Catholic Church and the LGBTQ+ community, he felt it fitting that he would see Obama and Pope Francis meeting one another. Apo would later leave his job at the Catholic school and found a gay-straight alliance club for queer Catholic students in the community. In Apo’s inspirational anecdote, it is clear that Obama’s political philosophy of empathy works best when a leader listens.
The last speaker, Marty Gleason, read aloud an e-mail he had sent to Obama the night President Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. He had gone “to bed sick to [his] stomach,” and the moment he woke up, he typed this e-mail quickly, apologizing for not combating the structural racism that has been increasingly reappearing in the United States. He promises to do better, to fight for gun control, and to strive toward what he believes in. “I even spell-checked,” Gleason joked. He would later be invited to the White House Holiday Celebration, where he would find out that Obama has an irrational fear of snowmen that the White House staff would mischievously take advantage of.
Laskas’s talk revealed a humble side to Obama that many may not have noticed until he left office. He was a charming, down-to-earth listener who enjoyed reading the opinions of his fellow Americans. The letters reveal the care and effort Obama dedicated to forming a unique personal bond between a president and his people, unlike any other president prior.