- Washington Post
The President Who Took His Christmas Card List to a Whole Other Level
13:29 JST, December 27, 2023
In the 1980s, when the calendar turned from April to May, Dot Burghard would take out the envelopes and blue pens and start a process that would last seven months or longer.
Burghard, a volunteer at the Office of the Vice President in Houston, spent her summers and falls addressing envelopes for a massive undertaking: George H.W. Bush’s Christmas card list. The operation, which had around 30,000 recipients at its peak, required a start date two seasons before the holidays. And when December rolled around, Burghard was joined by a room of volunteers – all women – turning the office into a miniature Hallmark factory.
Many politicians reach out to top donors and allies around the holidays, but Bush – as vice president and president – took the practice to another level. The process lasted nearly all year, ending as late as February or March, when letters returned to sender were investigated and rectified.
“The Christmas card list included everybody from their hairdresser and the waiter at their favorite restaurant to Queen Elizabeth,” said Jean Becker, the president’s longtime chief of staff. “And everybody in between. They all got the same card.”
The operation started as a way for Bush and his young family to keep in touch with everyone they left behind in Connecticut when he graduated from Yale in 1948 and they moved to Texas to get into the oil business. The family’s thinking was that a friend is a friend, and they had no interest in losing any of them. The card list grew in conjunction with their ever-growing circle.
Barbara Bush organized the list with file cards so nobody would slip through the cracks. She kept the cards in a wooden library card catalogue that contained as many as 16 drawers. (Memories differ on the exact number.)
Gregg Petersmeyer, a family friend, encountered the cabinet for the first time while visiting the Bushes in China in 1975, when the future president was serving as the U.S. liaison – the de facto ambassador before full diplomatic relations began in 1979 – under Gerald Ford. Barbara Bush told him it was for their friends they sent Christmas cards to, he explained in the 2020 book “Pearls of Wisdom,” which was posthumously credited to Barbara Bush but contained memories from people in her inner circle.
“I had seen them in every school or public library ever visited, but never in a house and certainly not as a piece of home furniture,” Petersmeyer said in the book. “Yet there it was in the main hallway of their living quarters, right between the living room and dining room.”
According to Richard Ben Cramer’s book on the 1988 election, “What It Takes,” the list numbered about 5,000 when Petersmeyer inspected the cabinet on the top floor of the U.S. compound in Peking. Petersmeyer, who later served in Bush’s White House as assistant to the president and founding director of the White House Office of National Service, was skeptical of her answer, given the volume of cards he saw in just one drawer.
“But who are all these people?” he pressed.
“Friends of ours – former neighbors, campaign supporters, people George knows from business, our mailmen.”
Still not convinced, Petersmeyer pressed, “So not real friends?”
“No,” Barbara replied. “Friends just like you!”
Petersmeyer got the message.
The cabinet followed the Bushes around the world as the list grew to include people from all 50 states and several countries. But in 1979, Bush’s first run for president threatened to interrupt the operation.
The Bushes were on the campaign trail, and the list continued to expand, with no one at home to send the letters. So Barbara turned the enterprise over to a group of volunteers in Houston. Some of them would go on to help with this endeavor for the rest of the couple’s lives, taking one of three roles: stamp, seal or stuff.
Barbara passed through Houston as often as she could, to make sure the cards were done right – the addresses had to be handwritten with blue felt-tip pens to give them a homely feel. The cards for their closest friends were pulled out of the pile and brought to George Bush for personal inscriptions and signatures.
“It was like an assembly line,” Becker said.
When Bush became vice president under Ronald Reagan in 1981, he gained a vice-presidential Christmas card budget from the Republican National Committee and a Houston branch office to handle the bulk of the operation. At this point, Bush’s Christmas card list included all U.S. ambassadors overseas and every governor and member of Congress, as well as campaign contributors, foreign dignitaries and more.
In the late 1980s, when the list was at its longest, the cabinet was retired in favor of a digital list.
During Bush’s presidency, his Christmas cards tended to include a picture of the White House in wintertime along with a family photo, while his post-presidential cards included more photos of kids and grandkids. In Bush’s post-White House years, staffers told Becker in the summer not to come back from Walker’s Point, the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, without a family photo to be used for that year’s card.
It’s hard to say exactly how Bush’s operation compared with those of other presidents. There’s not much in the way of data or studies on presidential correspondence. But we do know how many letters some presidents received.
George Washington read his own mail, which was only a handful of letters a day. By the time William McKinley was president in the late 19th century, he was getting more than 100. It became too much, so he hired someone to help, establishing what became the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats caused the White House to receive half a million letters a week. Barack Obama famously read 10 letters a day. In 2021, under Joe Biden, the office of presidential correspondence started its own account on Twitter, now known as X.
Tom Collamore, a longtime family friend who ran Bush’s letter-writing operation when he was vice president, said he thinks the volume of Bush’s correspondence was “unprecedented in the modern presidency.”
“He was indefatigable about it,” said Collamore, who now works for the George and Barbara Bush Foundation. “He never lost energy for seeing it, responding to it, feeling it and understanding what people were trying to tell him.”
In a typical administration, Callamore said, the staff would vet the incoming mail and share a tiny fraction with the president. But Bush and his staff “erred on the side of giving him a large slice of incoming personal correspondence to see because he got energy from it. It fueled him. He loved to read the letters, he loved to take his note cards out of the briefcase and dash off a quick hand-written reply.”
According to Ben Cramer, in Bush’s mind, he never lost a friend. Collamore recalled a trip to New York during Bush’s vice presidency in which Bush stayed in the Waldorf Astoria, where he had previously stayed in the early 1970s, when he was ambassador to the United Nations under Richard M. Nixon. Collamore watched Bush greet the doorman and elevator operator like old friends, nearly 10 years after he last saw them.
“I’m certain they were on the Christmas card list,” Collamore said.
On the night Bush was elected president in 1988, Collamore recalled the president-elect asking his friend to stop by the staff office in Houston and visit the Christmas card volunteers.
According to Linda Casey, Bush’s longtime personal assistant, the president ordered the volunteers to send a card to anyone who mailed one to the family, even if they weren’t on the list. And some recipients demanded extra attention. If a card had the code ‘CC’ under the stamp, it meant it was someone from Barbara Bush’s original Christmas card list. If the letter came back undelivered, that person had to be found.
Bush’s Christmas card list shrank to around 3,000 people in his post-presidency, Becker said, but it retained a wide reach. She recalled him once asking to contact Dan Rostenkowski, a former House member who was in prison for mail fraud. Bush had befriended him years earlier and told Becker, “I just want to tell him he’s still my friend.” Rostenkowski wound up on the Christmas card list – from prison.
Bush used Christmas cards for more than just personal connection. He later served as chairman of the board for the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. One holiday season, the Bushes teamed up with pediatric patients to make Christmas cards as a fundraiser for the hospital.
When Bush turned 80 in 2004, Becker, who was in charge of throwing his birthday party, used the Christmas card list as a guide for invitations – and realized she’d need a huge venue. Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, Bush’s longtime friend and card recipient, offered Minute Maid Park, the team’s stadium.
Bush took him up on his offer. The stadium was one of the only places in Houston big enough to accommodate such a long list.
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