Anyone who says letter-writing is a lost art has not been on the receiving end of Ralph Nader's correspondence.
In a new book titled "Return to Sender," the consumer advocate collects more than 100 letters he sent Presidents George W. Bush and Obama over the past 15 years. Recalling the exchanges between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as well as Oliver Wendell Holmes and scholar Harold Laski, Nader hopes that "inaugurating a new tradition of presidential replies can enrich deliberative democracy."
Alas, his letters "could not penetrate the multi-layered White House bubble," Nader complains. "With very few exceptions, I received no response from anyone on staff, nor even an acknowledgement of receipt."
Well, it may not be much consolation for him, but I've read Nader's letters. Some feel quite prescient. In a September 2000 letter to then-governor Bush, he warns of U.S. government agencies "increasing their power to conduct surveillance of citizens." In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Nader eviscerates the Bush administration's rationales for war. But plenty of the letters also feel a little rude — they're of the I-look-forward-to-your-thoughts-on-why you're-so-awful variety. And a few are just plain odd, with Nader adopting various perspectives, human and otherwise, to make his points. Below are some of the most memorable passages from Nader's unrequited letters:
Dear President Bush,You have been a weak president, despite your strutting and barking, when it comes to doing the right things for the American people within the Constitution and its rule of law. This trait is now in bold relief over the Israeli government's escalating war crimes pulverizing the defenseless people and country of Lebanon.— July 17, 2006
In a letter to Obama on Syria:
Dear President Obama,Little did your school boy chums in Hawaii know, watching you race up and down the basketball court, how prescient they were when they nicknamed you "Barry O'Bomber."Little did your fellow Harvard Law Review editors, who elected you to lead that venerable journal, ever imagine that you could be a president who chronically violates the Constitution, federal statutes, international treaties and the separation of powers at depths equal to or beyond the George W. Bush regime.Nor would many of the voters who elected you in 2008 have conceived that your foreign policy would rely so much on brute military force. . .— Sept. 6, 2013
In a letter about Bush's "twisted priorities," Nader concludes with this advice:
I recommend that you end your isolation and insulation from the American people on these matters and open your mind to nonrigged town meetings around the country that are not dominated by your orchestrated fawning partisans. The people have a right to access their president with their concerns, complaints and broader inquiries regarding the future of our country and its place in the world. Enough of your mass-media-transmitted soliloquies to the American people.Sincerely, Ralph Nader— Feb. 6, 2005
Nader also mocks Obama's 2008 campaign slogan in a letter sent days before the 2012 recall gubernatorial election in Wisconsin:
Unless you fly to Wisconsin before Tuesday, you'd better HOPE that the polls CHANGE and the good people of Wisconsin turn out Governor Walker. Otherwise, you'll be up against the memories of your abandonment all the way to November that will not be restricted to the boundaries of the Badger State.Sincerely, Ralph Nader— June 1, 2012
In a letter to Bush about his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina — in particular about FEMA trailers in Hope, Ark., that needed to be transported to the Gulf Coast — Nader imagines a lengthy dialogue between Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton:
GWB: Hey Bill, how about you and me hopping on Air Force One pronto and heading down to your old stomping grounds around Hope. Let's show we can break up that bureaucratic logjam and leave Hope with 10,000 fewer trailers. I'm the president, you were the president. You were the Governor of Arkansas. Hometown boy comes home to do good. What a great photo opportunity for bipartisanship?WJC: Not a bad idea, George. But the bureaucracy starts in Washington, D.C., so there will have to be some bureaucracy-busting advance work done to make the visit a success. Then there is the matter of getting floodplain rules waived and all the other state and local rules which Washington has not confronted for months.GWB: Hmm, Bill, you've been doing your homework.WJC: Not really, George, just reading the newspapers.GWB: OK, OK, I get the snide remark. But I've been running a war for freedom. . . . "— March 3, 2006
Perhaps most bizarre, Nader writes a letter to Obama from the point of view of a captured E. coli bacteria, to make the case that the real terrorists are not always human:
Dear President Obama,My name is E.coli O104:H4. I am being detained in a German laboratory in Bavaria, charged with being "a highly virulent strain of bacteria." . . . I cannot help but harm innocent humans, and I am very sad about this. I want to redeem myself, so I am sending this life-saving message straight from my Petri dish to you. . . .Your associates are obsessed with possible bacteriological warfare by your human enemies. Yet you are hardly doing anything on the ongoing silent violence of my indiscriminate brethren.You and your predecessor George W. Bush made many speeches about fighting terrorism by humans. Have you made a major speech about us? . . .You may wonder how tiny bacterial me, probably not even harboring a virus, can send you such a letter. . . . Whatever thehow does it really matter to the need to act now?E-cologically yours,E.coli O104:H4 (for now)— June 3, 2011
Frustrated at the lack of responses, Nader sends letters to the presidents' families, too, hoping they might intercede for him. In a letter to Michelle Obama, he tries to shame her with the slogan of Princeton University, their alma mater:
Dear First Lady Michelle Obama,At the suggestion of some knowledgeable people I am writing you to convey a message to President Obama that was sent to him thrice in the past year without response. . . .So as a Princetonian "in the nation's service," would you please inform him of the above request and please forward his response to me?— May 4, 2012
He likewise reached out to Bush's extended family when the president didn't respond to his letters about Iraq:
Dear President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush,This appeal is to you as the wife and parents of George W. Bush, in the shadow of war, in part because you are the closest people of concern and in part because for months he has declined to meet with any antiwar delegations. . . He is a president who, sadly refuses to listen and exchange with opposing viewpoints.— March 19, 2003
And Nader even wrote letters to both presidents complaining about how they ignore his letters. To Bush:
During your eight years in office, I have written you dozens of letters which have received no reply. . . . The only response ever received was from a staff member of the Office of Special Counsel regarding inquiries as to whether Karl Rove filed the required accounting reports on his political campaign expenses, and his public servant duties in the White House.The question here is generic and simple:Why have you and your far-flung subordinates in the White House and executive branch never responded to any of my letters, save one, between the years 2001 and 2009?— Jan. 17, 2009
And to Obama:
In previous correspondence I have taken note of the remarkably consistent practice by the White House of neither responding (whether by you or your staff) to substantive letters on pending or proposed public policies nor even providing the courtesy of acknowledging receipt. in 2009, I had a phone conversation with Mr. Mike Kelleher, who was in charge of handling letters to the president. He recognized that you did not have any policy about when and if you or the White House staff would respond or even acknowledge the receipt of substantive letters. He said that he would get back to me were such a policy established. He never did.— Oct. 7, 2013
My Washington Post colleague Eli Saslow has written eloquently about the role of citizens' letters in the Obama White House — and how the president chooses to respond. Even if Nader's letters did not make the cut, you can read them in "Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015," published this month by Seven Stories Press.