America and a Mailroom

During the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970, I volunteered in Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott’s mailroom. My school had gone “on strike” to protest the incursion, and the Pennsylvania Republican was happy for the extra help. Some days later, I was dispatched to the White House mailroom, which was truly under siege. I will never forget the experience.

The political turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, including the invasion of Cambodia, brought an avalanche of angry public opposition. In those days the main outlets for protest were taking to the streets, shutting down public places and writing public officials, which Americans did in the millions.

At the White House, all letters were read and sorted into piles. Volunteers then categorized them and sent some up the chain of command. But not every letter was a complaint or an expression of disapproval. President Nixon also had his supporters. Some writers offered fiery endorsements of the president’s policy, while others penned cards to tell the president he was in their prayers.

Perhaps it was a good thing that people were praying for the Commander-in-Chief, because countless others ascribed the most far-fetched and contemptuous motives to the president’s military action. Many letters I read called the president every expletive imaginable. A number went immediately to the Secret Service. Most shocking of all were a surprisingly large number of envelopes that included not just profane notes, but also everything from burned American flags to human feces and semen.

Even though Watergate was years away, it was a tumultuous time and the nation’s anger was firmly fixed on the president. I felt dizzy from the hatred and was left to wonder who these Americans were. Rather than discuss the serious business of war or withdrawal, many ordinary Americans seemed so intolerant, so unrestrained, so beyond rational debate.

It took me years to get over what I had seen. But eventually I realized that even the ugliest letters in that mailroom had little to do with the invasion or the foreign policy implications of the war itself. Except for the psychologically disturbed, most of the writers were really expressing fear, uncertainty or powerlessness. These people felt alienated from those in elected office, and they responded cynically and bitterly to a system that was apparently unresponsive. Many of them latched on to the president himself, who had in fact inherited the war from his predecessor.

In more recent years, I’ve wondered what the Congressional and White House mailrooms must be like now. While letters are still written, many of the outcries or endorsements are sent by email, including standardized messages generated by PACs or special interest groups. Election time, however, raises the public temperature. A number of histories of the 2008 campaign, for instance, tell us that the Secret Service expressed noteworthy alarm at the uptick in threats, especially after large-scale, aggressive campaign rallies. I presume that this year has been just as extreme.

Last week I gave a lecture on leadership in transformational times at Gettysburg College’s Eisenhower Institute to students from the Lutheran College Washington Semester, a group of undergraduates from a consortium of thirteen Lutheran colleges. Since most of them were political science majors, I asked how many of them would consider running for public office. Not one hand went up. Their chief reasons for rejecting the idea included the violation of personal privacy and the untold amounts of money that must be raised, but the most common response was the toxic political environment. I sensed wistfulness in the way each student described the America they want but don’t feel they actually have. One said: “I want a country with leaders not performers.” Another longed for a nation where its “citizens can look at the people next to them and acknowledge that they too are Americans” with a stake in our country’s future.

It reminded me again of the exasperation I witnessed firsthand in the Senate and White House mailrooms of the 1970s.  I wanted then the same America that these students yearn for today.

The student session underscored for me the importance of dialing back the anger and frustration we all feel—myself included.  Just think about what kind of message the generations in power are sending to those who are younger. The kids are listening. From pundits to politicos, the vacuous or at times aggressive handling of the issues in this campaign has given the rising generation reason to wonder if the United States is ever going to get serious about its future.

The media-saturated environment both feeds and responds to people whose frustration and contempt have come to define our discourse. Our national conversation gets louder and nastier because people feel their voices have not really been heard. This feeling of powerlessness sets in motion a vicious cycle.

Students are being molded by what they see and hear now. I might have wanted to run for elective office myself had it not been for the searing impact of the late 60s and early 70s on my young impressionable mind. If the generations in power now are not better role models, we may lose future leaders before they even give public life a try. In improving America’s long-term outlook it might be that cleaning up our political act, especially in public, is as important as anything we might do in the policy realm.

11 thoughts on “America and a Mailroom

  1. Hi Susan-
    I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs. You lay out excellent pinpointed arguments and also incorporate your own personal experience – which everybody likes to see and relate to.
    Keep up the good work! I’m proud of you.
    – Cheers,
    Greg Kriebel

  2. Excellent and important essay. Thank you.
    In addition to the Facebook impact noted above, technology has also facilitated very partisan TV “entertainment news” that plays on emotions as it competes for a few more viewers. Maybe it’s ironic, but as a capitalist I strongly support much more public funding for the media. Think BBC as well as NPR and C-Span. We need reasonably objective information on important events, policies and proposals not talking heads that stroke our biases in order to improve ad revenue.

  3. Thank you AGAIN Susan…
    This does sum it up…
    “The violation of personal privacy and the untold amounts of money that must be raised, but the most common response was the TOXIC POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT.”
    Sadly, at this very critical time in U.S. history
    THE WHOLE WORLD’S Watching !!!
    Susan…thank you
    You are a shinning Gem in this dark time when Truth is so shrouded …


  5. A sad but very true commentary on our state of affairs. Not only does it deter people from running for office ( perhaps even running away) , but what does it say about the people who do run. The filters that separate the runners for, from the non-runners may be why we have so few statesmen and such divisiveness In both houses on Congress. I recall a bumper sticker that said: if the opposite of pro is con, what if the opposite of progress?

    Bob Hanfling

  6. I would like to encourage the Lutheran Washington Semester students to seek other ways to serve even if they are presently not interested in electoral politics. To that end I would like to cite the example of Professor David J.Olson a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin. He was an expert on Washington State politics and was quoted requently in The Economist, taught thousands of students, supervised many interns and graduate students, was Chair of the University of Washington-University of Bergen Exchange Program ws Founding Director of the Harry Bridges Center of Labor Studies,an expert on the Port Authority, and Chairman of the UW Department of Political Science. He was honored for these contributions by receiving the S. Sterling Munro Public Service Teaching Award, the State Senate Outstanding Educator Award for his internship service. He published an outstanding American Government textbook and other books in addition to journal articles. He was knighted by the King of Norway. When he retired in 2005 the Governor of Washington proclaimed it “David j. Olson Day”. Above all he was accessible to his students and colleagues and was well liked. He passed away on September 15 at age 7l in Seattle.

  7. Very much on the mark. It seems like so many politicians are more concerned with “flying on the big plane” than getting something lasting done.

  8. A read of Adams, Madison, Jefferson, et al, seems to tell me that civility in politics has been fairly constant over the two centuries. Sure, today a David Letterman will ‘joke’ on nationwide television that the 15 year old daughter of a candidate he opposes has had sex with an entire baseball team at once, but, in the old days political differences sometimes went to the sword or to the pistol at dawn.

    So my message to those college kids declining politics for its dearth of civility would be a bit different. I would tell them that real leaders play the hand they’re dealt in the the contact sport of politics. They who pale at the prospect are unsuited to the rigors of the calling and rightly seek less demanding fare.

    But a caution is in order: As Pericles is supposed to have remarked that citizens’ disinterest in politics does not mean that politics will remain disinterested in them, so may someone else less qualified to lead step into politics where the delicate fear to tread.

  9. Another thoughtful commentary. Right on target. Thank you. While the letters you read in that 1970s mailroom were sent directly to the politicians’ offices, many of today’s expressions of disapproval are posted on Facebook and Twitter; typed in the comments fields below online articles; and expressed in many other immediate, public ways. These instantaneous public statements magnify the divisions among us. With Facebook, once political statements are posted, many of the “friends” who see the statements might be people with whom the person might not otherwise discuss politics. But the posts create a political divide among some friends where there might not have been any divide before. Just another example of how the red/blue divide in America seems to be deepening and, most likely, contributing to the distaste for politics that our younger generation feels.

  10. This is a much needed commentary. We have allowed he system to be poisoned by hucksters in the new political-industrial complex, fed by special interest money and stupid Supreme Court decisions. It doesn’t matter if its James Carville or Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers or George Soros. Big business or big labor. It is a cancer in the system. I have two children in their 20’s who would be superb public servants. And while it is true that a voice in the wilderness is better than no voice at all, until we have radical cancer surgery concerning the role of money in politics, we will continue to matter who is elected in November.

  11. Well said, Susan.

    Just as all politics are local, new beginnings must be local as well.
    Those of us who have served in elective office most often started
    out participating in city or village committees where consensus, not
    division was the norm, in the true spirit of volunteerism.

    We must encourage young people today to become involved in the same way so that as our elective bodies provide for our future needs, our commonality, not our differences will provide the basis for future representation.

    Paul J. Hansen
    Park Ridge, IL

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