By DAVID GROSSBERG
—Autograph March 2010
In August 2009 Director of Presidential Correspondence, Mike Kelleher, reported that the White House receives 65,000 letters a week plus thousands of phone calls, faxes and emails. Did you ever stop to wonder who sorts all that mail, how it is routed, and whether your letter stands a chance at actually making it to the president’s desk?
I had a rare opportunity recently to interview Nancy Theis, who served as President George W. Bush’s director of presidential correspondence, to ask questions like these. As I was preparing, I found myself thumbing through a wonderful book, Dear Mr. President, written in 1949 by Ira R.T. Smith. Smith worked in the White House mailroom from the McKinley to Truman administrations, and had a lot of fascinating insights to share and stories to tell. So as I bring you this inside peek inside the modern White House mailroom, I’m tickled to offer it side-by-side with passages from Smith’s book—an amazing glimpse of the changes from the 20th to 21st centuries.
Theis’ entry into presidential service came about through her friendship with Anne Higgins, who served as Ronald Reagan’s correspondence director for both of his terms in office. Theis was in charge of student correspondence during the Reagan’s administration and continued in that role during the term of President George H.W. Bush. She returned after the Clinton administration to head the office for the second President Bush.
Theis was gracious and forthcoming, only avoiding a few questions like how many Autopen machines the White House actually had. The director of presidential correspondence is the gatekeeper of the office of the President of the United States. An awesome responsibility, which Theis fulfilled with a staff of 85 employees and 600 volunteers separated into 13 departments.
Theis described how the mail was sorted: “We had 13 departments. After the mail had been checked for bombs and anthrax it would be opened and sorted. The mail would then go to the mail analysts in the appropriate departments. They would quickly go through it to pull out VIP stuff. Heads of state would go immediately to the West Wing. Mayors, governors, heads of businesses would be sent to other departments. Letters from people in crisis would go to agency liaisons. Invitations would go to scheduling. Businesses who wanted messages from the president would go to the message department. Proclamations to the proclamation department. Children’s letters to the children department. Then finally, the regular adult mail.”
I asked if there were differences in how the administrations she served under handled mail from the general public. “President Reagan would receive his mail Friday afternoons,” Theis said. “He would be given a sample of 30 to 50 letters that would depict that week’s mail. It would be proportional based on negative and positive comments received. He would take the letters over the weekend. Reagan liked his own word choice and his responses were always carefully thought out.”
Theis said that Reagan loved children’s mail in particular and would typically respond with sentences like, “When I was your age I realized how great this country was.”
Reagan was a frequent visitor to the White House mailroom and Theis said it was common for a staffer to hail him and say, “Mr. President, come over and see this.” But after September 11, 2001, the office was permanently moved out of the White House for security reasons, so presidents now don’t have easy access to the day’s mail.
Smith, in Dear Mr. President, describes Calvin Coolidge’s habits regarding the mail:
“He [Coolidge] would walk into my office, look down his sharp nose at me, and say: ‘Good morning. Are there any mails for me?’ Or he often asked in particular if there were ‘mails’ from his father. I would have his personal letters ready and he would carry them off to his office…On mornings when I was late to work I might find him sitting in my chair, with his feet on the desk, reading letters he had sorted out of the mail.”
After events he flew to, President George H.W. Bush would go into the study on Air Force One. He would have a list of the drivers who drove him to the base, the person who introduced him at the event, the lighting person and the head of security, and would write each one a thank you note. Theis described Bush’s writing style as staccato or snappy. He often added postscripts to his notes. Bush was well-known for his very personal style in sending letters.
Smith wrote about President Woodrow Wilson:
“He brought into his office an old-fashioned Hammond typewriter, which had an unorthodox keyboard and made a peculiarly disagreeable tapping noise when he used it. He would walk past a secretary’s desk, notice an unanswered letter or a document, and carry it back to his office. We were likely to find him later sitting at this typewriter pecking away at an answer or a memorandum that should have been handled by the secretary without any reference to the President.”
President George W. Bush reviewed his selected mail daily. Everything would be on his desk at 7 a.m. for him to review. Theis said that he read and remembered everything.
Bush’s top priority was correspondence from those who lost a family member who was a
soldier. The background work on the senders of those letters was intense. “We had to know the dad and mom’s name, sisters, brothers, marital status. Bush would read them carefully and personally signed all of them” said Theis. She added that “his letters were very real and touching.” Whenever Bush would go to a region where these families were located he would meet with them in private, taking as much time as possible. Theis said that there was no press involved in these private meetings.
Ira Smith recalled President William Howard Taft’s administration:
“During the Taft administration we began to improve further the method of handling the presidential mail, especially to reduce the number of original letters that the President had to read…this meant that the President saw a list of perhaps sixty letters written to him…he could quickly run through the list and familiarize himself with the correspondence in a general way, and then he could read in full any letters of particular interest to him.”
David Grossberg: How many autograph requests did the White House receive?
Nancy Theis: This was one of our biggest areas. For most requests the recipient would receive the standard “Thank you for your request. Unfortunately, due to time constraints…” Students or children would receive preprinted photos. If the president [George W. Bush] met someone while travelling or on the street he would actually sign an item for them. Or if some staffer said that “this child is dying.” Serious requests were sent over to the president. We would seriously check out the stories to winnow out the fake hardship stories. We tracked autograph hounds.
What would happen if an important senator or congressman made an autograph request for a constituent?
The president would probably have honored the request. One person handled this. I can remember one time a Bible came to the office that had a Lincoln signature and four other presidents. President Bush signed this item right before his term ended.
Did President [George W.] Bush ever sign baseballs that were mailed to him?
He did sign. The timing of when an item was received was very important. Once in a while President Bush would come to the office. If we knew he was coming we would show him some things. Sometimes he would sign items while there.
Did you ever see the persistence of an autograph requestor pay off?
We had a list. They [autograph hounds] were called “repeat writers.” Sometimes it worked and we said “okay.” Like in the last week of the administration we had one guy who had persisted and we sent him an authentic autograph. I remember one girl during President Reagan’s administration who sent him a nice letter regarding a school project. She requested a real signature from the president. A nice, original letter was sent to her and the girl sent it back to the White House ripped up. She wrote that she was upset that he had not sent an original signature. And it was real!
Ira Smith wrote in his book:
“Other habitual correspondents resorted to all kinds of tricks, such as throwing letters into the President’s automobile as he drove along the street, or enclosing a bribe in a letter with a plea to get it to the President. Occasionally expensive gifts accompanied the letters for the same purpose. Others tried to hand letters to the President’s wife at public affairs, or to deliver them by hand to the front door of the White House. All of them ended up in the same place—the mailroom.”
Is there a special colored stationery that the president exclusively uses to distinguish letters he handles from those of his staff?
During the first week of the new administration you present the president with different types of stationery. The president was the only one that could then use that color.
Do you think that the commanders-in-chief were aware of the value of their signature?
No. Things go very quickly and they don’t stop to think of those things. They are more concerned about getting back to people and answering the mail.
Were any of the calligraphically inscribed photos of the president actually signed by him for their recipient?
Yes. Presidents Reagan and both Bushes would sign many of those photos if they had actually met with that person.
Do you remember President George W. Bush signing White House cards for collectors?
Those were pretty much preprinted. I don’t remember that President Bush had them. I would have them.
Did the president actually sign cabinet-level appointments?
He always signed appointments. It is official and goes through the clerk’s office. Treaties go through a whole team that deals with that. They’re usually signed with a lawyer present and witnessed.
Ira Smith wrote about the travails of the 25th President of the United States:
“I would go into President McKinley’s office and find him sadly eying a huge stack of commissions, including those of junior officers. He would shake his head unhappily, or he might a hum a Methodist tune as if it would give him courage to face the task. ‘Let’s get busy’, he would say after greeting me. I would hand him a commission from the pile, he would sign it, and then I would put it on a table to dry before it was returned to the department for mailing. This was necessary since each commission was made of sheepskin and could not be blotted. The President would hum harder and sign less happily as we worked through the pile, and soon all the desks in the office would be covered and I would start spreading the commissions out on the floor. By the time the first one was dry, the Chief Executive would be surrounded by an ocean of commissions that stopped all traffic and virtually all business. ‘Something ought to be done with this,’ he would complain at intervals. ‘Somebody else ought to be able to sign these.’”
When is the Autopen machine used?
If the president doesn’t sign then the Autopen machine does. The person who uses the machine is sworn in, as it is only used for official business. It’s locked up every night. The signature from the machine is legal and binding. The Autopen takes about two minutes to use, but you do have to put the paper down and then straighten it out. There is a new machine that spits ink out like a jet printer. A really serious pen.
Talking to Theis, I was left with the impression that most White House staff members view the Autopen as an extension of the president. It is not perceived the same way collectors see it: as not an original signature.
Special thanks to Mike Hecht, Skip Hensel, Paul Carr and John Wertman for their assistance with the questions I asked.