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A letter from the president — or the auto-pen?

Who writes condolence letters, who signs them, who gets them?

Susan Reimer

11:29 AM EDT, September 5, 2012

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During the Republican National Convention in Tampa, a website called Gateway Pundit posted photographs of letters of condolence sent by President Barack Obama to the families of Navy SEALs killed in a horrendous combat crash last year as proof that an auto-pen was used to reproduce the president's signature on form letters of sympathy.

Some family members expressed hurt and dismay that their loss would be acknowledged in assembly line fashion, and Donald Trump tweeted that the president must be too busy playing golf.

In response, White House press secretary Jay Carney said "The president signs every such letter personally," but a veterans group responded by saying they were going to find a hand-writing expert to prove the president's insensitivity.

Faithful readers of this column know that my son is a member of the military, and they also know that if I said any more about this, he would stop taking my calls.

But let me say that I would rather have nothing at all from the president or the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the commandant of the Marine Corps than a form letter signed by an automatic pen.

After all, we have lost "only" about 2,110 service members in battle since the Twin Towers fell, compared to the 291,000 we lost in World War II or the 58,000 we lost in battle in Vietnam, and that doesn't seem like a lot of work for anybody, let alone the two presidents who made the decisions to send them to combat.

In any event, this seems like a good time to take a look back at such letters of sympathy to the families of our combat dead: who wrote them, who or what signed them and who gets them.

It was about this time last year that President Obama changed the policy, inherited from previous administrations, of not sending letters of condolence to families of service members who committed suicide during deployment.

"They didn't die because they were weak," the president said, in changing the policy.

Letters from the president do not go, however, to those who die in training accidents or who commit suicide here at home after their deployments, a distinction their families resent.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was criticized for auto-signing his letters of condolence and defended himself by saying that he wanted to get the letters to the families in a timely fashion, but he promised to sign them himself from then on.

His successor, Robert Gates, took the names of the fallen home with him at night and wrote personal letters to each family, alone, in his study and often crying, he said. It was a burden he did not believe he would ever be able to put down, even after he left the post.

The White House said President George W. Bush "put pen to paper," signing every letter to every family, but the Pentagon said the same thing about Secretary Rumsfeld, and that wasn't true. It was noted in press reports at the time that President Bush's staff made an effort to find out if the fallen soldier used his given name or nickname.

President Nixon wrote a personal letter to a 10-year-old boy from Essex, Md., in 1970 after the boy wrote him asking if he thought his beloved older brother, killed in Vietnam, was in heaven. President Nixon wrote back, assuring him that he was indeed in heaven, but, more important, he was alive in the child's heart and in his spirit.

We don't know if he actually composed that letter, just as history is still uncertain whether President Abraham Lincoln actually composed and signed the famous Bixby letter to the woman who — Mr. Lincoln had been told — lost five sons in the Civil War.

It is often compared with the Gettysburg Address as one of the finest short compositions in American history, but it may have in fact been written by Mr. Lincoln's private secretary, John Hay, who could not only mimic the president's style, but his handwriting. (In fact, Mrs. Lydia Bixby lost only two sons and was a confederate sympathizer.)

The bereaved often write back when presidents write to them. Louise Webster wrote to President Kennedy, and his "lovely wife," thanking them for their letter upon the death of her son, David. It brought courage "to a mother who is still finding it difficult to visualize life without my oldest son," she wrote.

President Harry Truman got two bitter letters from grieving parents of soldiers killed in Korea, including one that returned the son's Purple Heart, and he is said to have kept the letters in the top drawer of his desk until he died.

Since the American Revolution, the United States has lost 651,000 service men and women in battle. That would be a lot of letter-writing.

The fact that we lose so few in modern wars does nothing to lessen the grief of those left behind. It would be difficult to compose a personal letter acknowledging the singularity of each one of those lives, and I can imagine such a task would take the starch out of any president in the midst of conducting a war.

But every president ought to sign every one of those letters and feel, if for just a moment, the devastating power of his office.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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