The calls come in all day and night. They come from all over the country, and from all kinds of people, and they've all dialed the wrong number. They think they've dialed the White House; instead they've dialed the office of “White House Chronicle,” a television program produced in Washington.
I've answered some of those calls, and they've given me an idea of public thinking.
Some callers, of course, are not in their right mind. They are usually the dead-of-night callers, oblivious to times of day and zones, who say they need to speak with the president urgently.
A recent caller from North Dakota, left a discombobulated voicemail message about her uncle, the gunning down of members of her family, and her “real need”to get in touch with the FBI. She was a caller with a soft voice and a real need for mental health care.
Then there are the daytime callers, mostly concerned citizens, who want to give President Obama a piece of their mind. I give many of them the White House switchboard and comment line numbers.
In mid-April, I spoke with a woman from Southern California who was mad as hell that the Senate had rejected a bipartisan plan to expand background checks for gun buyers, crippling the president's campaign to curb gun violence after the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“The president needs to know about what my friend, a mother who lost her child in a shooting, is doing to stop gun violence in California. She is a really remarkable woman,” she told me.
Last week, I answered a call from David in New Orleans. He said, quite certainly, “I've finally reached you.” When I tried to tell him he hadn't reached the White House, he said, “Can I just ask you something?” I replied, “Sure.”
He said he was a former inmate and while he was incarcerated, he wrote lots of letters to the president. “But he never answered any of them. How long do I have to wait to get an answer? All I want is a pardon.” I told him that the White House gets thousands of letters a day, and he might have quite a wait. But I didn't want to tell him that “Obama has the stingiest pardon record of any modern president,” which San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders wrote on May 21.
This week, I hung up on a screamer for the first time. An agitated man from Brainerd, Minn., called about his school-skipping,19-year-old daughter.
“I'm not her guardian,” he said. “She lives with her mother, but her mother doesn't care if she goes to school. I say she has to go to school. What do you think?” I said I thought it's a family matter.
Then he started screaming, “So you're the White House, and you don't care about education! You don't care about my daughter! Do I have to go to the Supreme Court now?”
I cut him off. I didn't know whether he was a crazy or a concerned parent at the end of his tether, like a lot of parents these days.
Here's what I think: Citizens both on and off their rockers should exercise their free-speech rights. But please call the White House switchboard operators — described by the late chief switchboard operator Mary Crowe Burns, who answered the phones for seven presidents, as "part diplomat, part psychologist and part security guard” — at 202-456-1414. Operators are standing by.