When President Barack Obama visited Idaho two years ago Saturday, he singled out Boise teenager Bella Williams as the person responsible for luring him to the Gem State.
In spring 2014, Bella, then 12, wrote to Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, telling them she admired them as a “happy, healthy family.” She invited the first family to come to Idaho, where she told the president she could teach him to ski or snowboard with her.
In his speech at Boise State University, Obama — who later met with Bella backstage — said he wasn’t ready to tackle the slopes of Bogus Basin.
“As someone who was born in Hawaii, where there is not a lot of snow, let me put it this way: You do not want to see me ski. At least the Secret Service does not want to see me ski,” he said.
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That was typical Obama, said Garrett Lamm, a Boise native who spent the last three years working at the White House. The president’s reaction to Bella’s letter, Lamm said, exemplified his concern for people and his desire to connect with ordinary Americans.
“The president loves to meet with these people and talk to them. Whenever he traveled he would find letter writers to continue sharing their stories. It was a very intimate thing for him,” Lamm said.
Every day, Obama received 10 letters that he read, then noted in the margins how his staff should reply. Sometimes, he penned handwritten replies himself.
Lamm, 27, spent nearly two years at the Office of Presidential Correspondence — first as an intern and then a staff member — reading a portion of the 10,000 daily letters and emails that came into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
50 staff members at the Office of Presidential Correspondence
3 dozen interns
300 rotating volunteers
For the past year, Lamm then worked as a policy adviser at the National Economic Council, which also operates out of the White House. The office had a team of two dozen policy experts that advised the president and coordinated economic policy for him.
Lamm attended North Junior High and graduated from Boise High School in 2007. He then traveled to Strasbourg, France, to study at the Gymnase Jean Sturm — a private, Protestant-founded school — as part of a yearlong youth exchange paid for through a scholarship from the Rotary Club of Boise.
He later attended the University of Idaho in Moscow, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in international studies, political science and French.
Lamm spent four months back in France in 2010, working as an intern at the U.S. consulate in Strasbourg. He spent another four months interning for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
In fall 2014, he went to work in the Office of Presidential Correspondence.
Who writes the president?
“These letters are typically compelling and a mix of both praise and criticism,” Lamm said. “My job as a presidential writer was to write policy letter replies back to citizens. It was important to make sure the president’s responses were accurate and responsive to the incoming letters so people understood that they were heard by the president and his White House staff.”
Another letter from an Idahoan that stood out was written by an inmate, who complained about the food served in prison.
Previous presidents ignored inmate mail, Lamm said, a point also noted by the New York Times in a recent profile of the office. The best prisoners then could hope was for their letter to be forwarded to the Justice Department, without any response from the president. Obama, Lamm said, wanted to hear from everyone, including those who criticized or felt the government wasn’t working for them.
“I really valued the fact that he was the type of person that would make sure even the smallest voice got heard at the highest levels of government and really cared about the people,” Lamm said. “Every person has a story and that story is valuable.”
And Lamm said he felt intense pride in his home state whenever a letter from Idaho made it to the president.
“Whether it was a 90-year-old woman in Coeur d’Alene who told the president he looked too tired when he went on TV, to (Bella) who told the president he should come visit and she would teach him to ski, to the Idaho inmate who wrote to share his experience in a correctional institution,” Lamm said. “I made sure to always look at those and they put a smile on my face and reminded me of where I came from.”
Many people who wrote to the president weren’t sure anyone would see their words. Often, letters were gut-wrenching, with people laying out their problems and desperately seeking help. Those deemed an emergency — someone threatening to kill themselves or whose life seemed otherwise to be in danger — were given immediate attention.
“I came to the conclusion that writing a letter to the president and sticking it in the mailbox is a declaration of faith in our system,” Lamm said. “Even though they write ‘I know you’re not going to read this,’ they still wrote it and still put it in the mailbox. That’s such a huge responsibility on our end because we want to make sure they know they were heard and that their hopes and dreams and trials and sufferings mattered — and mattered at the highest level of government.”
Taking lessons to the next job
Lamm cleared out his desk last week. This week, he started his next job with The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, founded by Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who hosted world leaders and politicians from both parties at their estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Lamm will help the group open a Washington, D.C., office to engage national and foreign leaders there.
Over Christmas break, Lamm — a Democrat who cast his first presidential vote for Obama in 2008, when he was 19 — returned to Idaho and sought out friends who voted for Trump.
“Growing up, political affiliations didn’t divide us. I spent so much time talking with my very, very close friends who voted for the next president,” Lamm said. “I wanted to be engaged, I wanted to know what I had missed and what we could do better and what their hopes were and why they were disillusioned by politics and what they hoped for from the next president.”
That didn’t surprise his father, Scott Lamm.
“Garrett has always been a thinker but also very socially adaptable,” Scott Lamm said. “He can come into a room and take the other side of any conversation. He engages people and has always been a special guy.”
Garrett Lamm said his teachers at Boise High School and the University of Idaho instilled in him values to respect other people’s opinions and to seek out the views of people he might not agree with.
“I don’t know if that’s Idahoan or Western, but I definitely saw that as something valuable that I learned growing up,” he said.
In that way, Lamm said he considers Obama an honorary Idahoan.
“Though he might have disagreed with people, it was never something that got in the way with him connecting with people,” Lamm said.