Obama's pen pals: When you write to the president he might write you back

(Photo by AP)(Photo by AP)Every night before he goes to sleep, the president of the United States reads 10 letters from the pile of 20,000 sent to him by Americans every day. Sometimes, he writes back. He's even, on occasion, included a check.

"It's not something I should advertise, but it has happened," President Barack Obama told reporter Eli Saslow, author of the new book, "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President."

Saslow has spent a year poring over the presidential mail, sent from Americans weathering the desperate economic climate. There's Natoma Canfield, the cleaning woman battling cancer who can't afford to pay her medical bills.

"I live in the house my mother and father built in 1958 and I am so afraid of the possibility I might lose this family heirloom as a result of being forced to drop my health care insurance."

Then there's Laura Strong, the small-business owner whose son suffers from a rare illness. "I am writing to tell you our family story so that during this time of planning for health care reform my concerns will be considered."

It's hard enough to get a response from the phone company about a bad bill, but when you write to the president you don't assume you'll be hearing back from him directly. But Obama does write back.

"You have such a positive spirit," Obama wrote to Destiny Mathis, a single mother, whose letter to the president described how she lost job after a complicated pregnancy and how she feared she'd lose her home. "Please know that things will get better for you and your family," he added. When things didn't get better and she faced eviction, Mathis put the letter up for auction after it was estimated to be worth $11,000. For Mathis, the president's letter might really make a difference, even if it's in a more practical sense.

"There are times when I'm reading the letters and I feel pained that I can't do more, faster, to make a difference in their lives," Obama admitted in an interview with Saslow.

On rare occasions, Obama's correspondences have been moved from paper to boardrooms. Natoma's letter was read by the president during a meeting on healthcare at the White House and she was again mentioned by the president at a Democratic fundraiser.

Obama isn't the only president with a tendency to take on pen pals. During Reagan's time in the White House, he developed a close writing relationship with 6-year-old Rudy Hines, a Washington D.C. elementary student. What started as a kind of an educational stunt- when Reagan selected the strong writing student out of hundreds at his school to be his pen pal- turned into an incredible friendship.

Throughout Reagan's presidency, from 1984 to 1989, Rudy exchanged hundreds of missives with the world leader, amassing postcards from presidential travels, advice on literature and doodles from the Oval Office.
"There was one incident where he gave me advice [after] I had a falling-out with a friend. He gave me advice on how to reconcile with my friend and the advice did work. So I will always remember and thank him for that," Hines told CBS News in 2007.

Another presidential pen pal is 7-year-old Nicholas Malesh. But he's not writing to the current commander-in-chief. Nicholas became fascinated with former president Jimmy Carter, and wrote asking his age when he first took office. Amazingly, Carter wrote back.

"Thanks for your letter. I was 52 years old when I was elected president. Best wishes, Jimmy Carter."

Sometimes even the simplest questions deserve a response.

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