Dear Mr. Vice President: Did You Receive My 366 Letters?
On July 31st I mailed my 366th letter to Vice President Pence. I had written to him for a full year plus one day, and that included three weeks’ worth of postcards mailed from England. During my lifetime, I had never completed a sustained effort that wasn’t related to homework, diapers or a job. Why did I do this? I wanted to believe that because of my letters, the president’s acolyte could empathize with those beyond his coalition.
When drafting my daily letter, I occasionally pounded my head gently on my desk, but usually I was ready with a topic. In a year of distressing news, it wasn’t too difficult. The inhumanity at the southern border could have generated a year’s worth of commentary. After seeing a video of the vice president as he stood in front of caged men there, I wrote that I had never seen a politician in front of a group of people with which he refused to make eye contact. Separated by wire a few feet away, it must have taken the vice president a lot of effort to ignore the men as he conversed with his hosts.
Sometimes I wrote about international tragedies that we ignored, such as the horrifying plight of the Rohingya, forced to flee Myanmar. I deplored the posturing of a president who inflated hatred by killing Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. I wrote that the shame of turning our collective back on the Kurds cannot be undone.
My letters expressed incredulity at the disrespect doled out to national treasures such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Director for European Affairs for the United States National Council, and Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
My resolution to write to the vice president filled my head with improbable yet gratifying fantasies.
Scenario #1: Sitting on my front porch, I look up to see a gleaming black car with impenetrable windows. Two doors open simultaneously and two men in black suits emerge to survey the street and scrutinize the front of my house. As they climb the steps, I hurriedly call my friend Diane across the street because she would relish this unique opportunity. In my living room, I am grilled. Do I harbor ill will toward the vice president? Is my husband aware of the letters? Is that a batch of molasses crinkles in the oven?
Often I suggested ideas. Each senator should take a brisk walk daily with a senator from across the aisle, without discussing politics. A senator could also take a solo walk through a D.C. neighborhood. (This idea came from Eleanor Roosevelt, who did walk through D.C. unaccompanied.) Those in the House could follow suit, too. Imagine the response from people on the sidewalks. There would be conversations, questions, astonishment and perhaps gratitude. And why not? While in Washington, D. C., in 1994, I saw President Clinton in a fuchsia T-shirt, jogging with a Secret Service agent near the White House.
When I read that Guatemala, Uruguay and Japan warned their citizens about traveling to the U.S. because of gun violence, I suggested that we convene a conference of officials in the countries with the fewest deaths by firearms. I learned that during World War I, Albert I of Belgium led his men through the Siege of Antwerp and the Battle of Yser. He was the last monarch to accompany his troops into battle. Let’s bring that tradition back, I said.
I wrote about daily events at the school where I worked, including the student without enough English language to write a complete essay but was able to compose a sentence about petting her neighbor’s cat—a cat with “soft feathers,” thereby creating a tactile and beautiful image. I told him about a sixth-grade boy who said, “When Stephen Hawking died, I cried.”
Scenario #2: The vice president visits 3M in early March. He learns where I work and so makes an unscheduled visit to my school. In the front office, he and a Secret Service agent ask where they can find me. They climb the stairs on which Abdi, the high school counselor, pauses to greet the vice president. They enter the room where I am at work with two brothers; we are reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. The boys recognize the vice president, who asks about their plans. One hopes to be a nurse and the other plans to be a police officer. Downstairs at the school entrance, there is clapping as the vice president descends. He shakes many hands and encourages the students to value their education.
I gave him credit when credit was due. Governor Walz of Minnesota said the vice president had “shown a collaborative mindset” regarding the pandemic and The Guardian gave “early plaudits for his cool head.” I praised him for stressing the importance of local decision-making in regard to school openings. I noted the gratitude of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.
I cited lessons from the Work Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and showered praise on the USPS I referenced Chef Jose Andres of Michelin and World Central Kitchen fame for “America Eats Now” a program for hungry people and out-of-work restaurateurs alike.
After my emotional visit to the site of George Floyd’s death, I wrote of the vice president’s refusal to say “Black Lives Matter” while the words “Baby Lives Matter” appeared on a Trump campaign website.
Many times I simply sent the words of those who inspired—whether a man of the cloth or a public figure, author or poet, politician or Superman (Christopher Reeve). Martin Luther King offered so much guidance: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” For direction, I also looked to Thomas Merton, Mr. Rogers, Mary Oliver, Thurgood Marshall, Eleanor Roosevelt, Malcolm X and George Washington, who said, “Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of everyone.” Frederick Douglas, Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, Emily Dickinson, Pope Benedict, Dag Hammarskjold, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver and Greta Thunberg found their way into letters.
Once I asked if the president is a role model for the vice president’s children.
Scenario #3: Flipping through the mail, here it is, from the Office of the Vice President. I open the envelope with a paring knife, wishing that I had a fancy sterling letter opener embossed with a kitten’s head for this occasion. The last line, just above the vice president’s signature with what appears to be a fountain pen: “In whatever capacity I choose to serve our country next year, I would be honored to engage you as my speech writer.”
Needless to say, my fantasies were just that. I didn’t count on a response and one never came.
I wrote to the vice president because although this country is rife with flaws and inequities and cruelty—it is a country that has promised hope and opportunity.
I wanted him to take a stand again the rage that emanates from the White House.
I wanted to believe that an avowed Christian would shake hands with those desperate men detained at the border if he had another chance. I want to believe that I would, too.
Ultimately, I wrote to him to remind him of his humanity and to remind myself of mine.
Every time I dropped a letter in a mailbox, I felt relief and satisfaction, as if I had a voice.
No response arrived—no smiling head shot with a stamped signature and good wishes. Did I expect a reply? Not really.
I tucked my final letter in an envelope and attached a postage stamp (from the USPS “Wild Orchid” series). It ended: “Writing to you has encouraged me to amplify my voice.”
The postscript in my mind: “I wish that you had been willing to listen. Just once.”