Remember the last time you wrote a handwritten letter that wasn't a thank you card for your wedding? Probably back in grade school when you had a pen pal from another country, and you both wrote back and forth for several months about school and soccer practice and your dance lessons. Well, Ralph Nader never ditched the art of letter writing, and Nader's new book Return to Sender shows his hundreds of mostly unanswered letters he has written to the White House since 2003. And yes, they are as bizarre as you are imagining.
In Return to Sender, the five-time presidental hopeful Nader states that he hopes his letter-writing would help in “inaugurating a new tradition of presidential replies [to] enrich deliberative democracy.” No such luck. He goes on to say that he "could not penetrate the multi-layered White House bubble" and that "with very few exceptions, I received no response from anyone on staff, nor even an acknowledgement of receipt."
I'm now desperate to know which letters warranted a reply.
Nader began writing letters to President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and even at times to Michelle Obama, back in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq War. He discusses everything from minimum wage to FEMA to torture to the Crimean annexation to much, much, stranger topics. Here's an example of a letter he once sent to President George W. Bush:
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
I swear he once he wrote a letter to Obama from the perspective of e. coli bacteria.
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 the how does it really matter to the need to act now?E-cologically yours,E.coli O104:H4 (for now)— June 3, 2011
I repeat: This is not a drill.
Sometimes Nader takes on the voices of the presidents themselves. For example, there's this letter where Nader imagines a conversation between former President Bill Clinton and Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and FEMA's handling of the disaster, particularly in Hope, Arkansas.
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
When Nader's letters go unanswered by Obama, he reaches out to the First Lady instead.
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
While many of the letters are definitely strange and arguably quite rude, it doesn't mean that Nader sometimes doesn't have a point. For example, before the Iraq War, Nader wrote to Bush slamming his reasoning for going to war. And back in that FEMA stage play? Sure, there's a point there, too. But, yes, OK, they're kind of hilarious.
If you want to read all of the unanswered letters (and the few that do get a reply!) Return to Sender was published April 14 by Seven Stories Press.