When Americans Write the President, Anne Higgins Gets the Mail to the Chief

updated 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/16/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

As director of the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence, Anne Higgins has seen a lot of strange mail pass across her desk. Perhaps the most unusual of all was the package sent by Barnaby Dexter Bullard of Loudonville, N.Y. As President Reagan lay wounded from the assassination attempt in 1981, Barnaby, then 10, packed a pet fish in a sealed plastic bag and posted it to the White House. Somehow, the get-well fish survived the U.S. mails and today swims contentedly in its new home, a tank bearing the Presidential seal, in Higgins' office. It's known as the "First Fish."

With the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the Beirut bombing and the invasion of Grenada, mail to the White House has nearly doubled in recent months and that means even tougher choices for Higgins, 44, who is in charge of handling the daily stream and deciding which epistolary gems will make it to her boss's desk. "It's hard weeding them down," she says, "but you try to select a letter that's representative of the mail coming in. I tell my staff, if you're reading a letter and you say to yourself, 'Gee, I wish the President could see this,' then that's the letter we want to have go to him." Every Friday Higgins sends a folder containing about 30 such letters to the Oval Office. When the President boards his helicopter for Camp David on the weekends, he carries the folder with him, returning his handwritten replies on yellow legal paper for typing by Monday; the Reagan originals go to the National Archives.

Missives to the White House are currently coming in at the rate of 12,000 to 30,000 a day, all of which are fluoroscoped (anything suspicious goes to the Secret Service) and then sorted. Any mail bearing a numerical code known only to close friends and relatives of the First Couple goes straight to Reagan or Nancy. Higgins' 28 readers scan 5,000 or more other letters a day (the present backlog is 125,000 pieces), most of which will get a form reply. If a letter suggests that the writer knows the President personally, it goes to him only after being checked against "the first-name file," which lists some 15,000 people Reagan has met. Of the rest, the staff typically refers about 10 a day to Higgins for selection. "The sample," she says, "contains critical as well as positive letters. He'll answer them all. To someone who disagrees, he'll write, 'Now, I don't think you really know me.' "

Reagan especially enjoys mail with accounts of heroic acts—he has been known to telephone the subjects and talk for as long as half an hour—and letters from children, some 4,000 of which arrive daily when school is in session. "My teacher told me you were 70 years old," wrote one youngster, "but I don't believe it. But if you are, you must use an awful lot of Oil of Olay." Begged a girl from Kentucky: "—another thing, Mr. President, please give me permission to cross Tyler Street. My mother won't let me." Another Kentucky sprout had a basic question: "I was wondering, outside of taking the blame for everything that goes wrong in this country, what is your main function?" A few kids aren't so cute. "You can warn the children of America," says Higgins, "that if they write nasty, dirty letters to the White House, they're going to get their teacher called." Adults who write threatening letters will get the Secret Service called, although Higgins says the number of those is "very small."

People also send things: cassette recordings of family sing-alongs, videotapes and countless photos of weddings, babies or couples spiffed up for costume parties. If a picture goes to Reagan with a letter, he tends to keep it. "He holds on to things like that," says Higgins. "I think he stuffs them in his pocket." Lately, she notes with droll resignation, "we've begun getting wedding announcements for 'John and Paul,' wanting the President to congratulate them." He doesn't.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Higgins attended Fordham University and secretarial school in Manhattan before spotting an intriguing job notice: Richard Nixon was looking for help in his Manhattan office. She got the job and circumspectly switched her registration from Democrat to Republican. In 1969 she went to the Nixon White House, where she rose to director of correspondence and continued under President Ford. (Her husband, George, retired from the FBI in 1973 and now works in public affairs at the Agency for International Development.) An ardent foe of abortion, Higgins worked for the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life during the Carter years, returning to her post after Reagan's election.

"It's not like we really know each other at all," Higgins says of her work with the Chief, "but it feels like we're friends." She sees writing the President as "a way that people let off steam. We're keeping America psychologically sound by being here." Of course, disgruntled correspondents don't always appreciate her role, especially when she replies on the President's behalf. "I was right about someone opening your mail," one woman wrote back to Reagan. "Her name is Anne Higgins."

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