WASHINGTON -- They are the White House's invisible army, the thousands of volunteers who sort through mountains of mail, answer phone calls from angry, sometimes desperate citizens and perform dozens of other anonymous tasks behind the scenes.
More than 2,000 volunteers are now on the permanent "action list," up from only a few hundred during the Bush administration. Thousands more have volunteered on an occasional basis.
But not everyone applauds their selfless services. Recently laid-off White House workers are griping that this growing army of volunteers has taken away their old jobs.
About 20 career employees from the White House's correspondence unit were let go in February in the administration's effort to reduce the size of the White House staff. And some of them are furious.
"It's disgusting," says one former employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Here are paid government employees that are losing their jobs to volunteers. . . . I'm angry because they have untrained volunteers doing a job it took other people years to learn how to do well."
Shirley M. Green, a political appointee who directed the correspondence unit under George Bush, allows that the current volunteers "are wonderful, willing people." But she adds, "I have heard that with the turnover, an awful lot of the professionalism that the department used to have has suffered."
Marsha Scott, Ms. Green's successor as director of correspondence, denies that the new volunteers have taken over the career workers' jobs. "When an administration changes, you serve at the pleasure of the president," she says. "We did not replace workers with volunteers."
Ms. Scott adds, "Maybe we lost institutional knowledge of TTC George Bush, but we have brought in the knowledge of President Clinton. We still have many of the old staffers, and we're doing an exceptional job."
The extra volunteers are being recruited in part to cope with the record surge of mail that has greeted the new administration. Since January, the White House has received 3.5 million letters, more than the total for last year.
"Filing, taking messages, hand-addressing letters, processing comments are all part of their work," says Ms. Scott.
Mail for Socks
Most of the letters are for the president and the first lady, of course. But the volunteers spend a surprising amount of time plucking out missives for young Chelsea Clinton and even Socks, the Clinton family cat.
Although most of the unpaid workers hear about the positions by word of mouth, Ms. Scott says the Clinton team is trying to reach out to a broad range of people, recruiting volunteers from church groups and veterans' homes.
Huddled close together at desks in the Old Executive Office Building, the workers painstakingly sort the mail and address the hundreds of thousands of greeting cards the president and the first lady mail out each year. Nearby, several dozen others staff the White House's comment line, (202) 456-1111.
Signs posted on the walls instruct them to never, never argue with callers, no matter how scathing the criticism of the president -- and some of it's been pretty scathing lately.
"You just want to argue sometimes, but you don't," says Mildred McMahon, a Crofton, Md., resident who's been volunteering since the Carter administration. "The calls that come in are for the president, and we don't speak for him."
"Some people are angry, but they do feel better after telling someone how they feel," adds Susie O'Toole, a native of Columbia, Md., who works as a nurse in Washington and staffs the comment line one day a week. "It's their way of touching the government."
Emmet V. Mittlebeeler, a retired professor of government, says he's received a bit of an education since he started sorting through the mail three months ago. "I've noticed that if anything goes wrong, people look to the president," Mr. Mittlebeeler says. "He is expected to be responsible for everything."
In some ways, the White House has taken on a more expansive role in its correspondence with the public than in the past, volunteers say. The volunteers are now on the lookout for so-called "hardship cases" -- situations where people turn to the highest authority in the land as a last resort.
"People turn to us because they have nowhere else to go," says Ms. O'Toole. "Maybe because I'm a nurse, it touches me a little more when they call."
A volunteer recently took a call from a clinically depressed woman who was threatening suicide. After the call was referred to the White House's Office of Agency Liaison, workers there contacted a local hospital, where she was able to get treatment.
"We've never been as pro-active as we are now," says Ms. Scott. "Although we are not a social service agency, what we can often do is break through the red tape."
For workers like Mr. Mittlebeeler and Ms. McMahon, volunteering is a chance to channel extra energy or to feel they have a stake in the government they elect. For others, however, volunteering began with a much more tangible, if hopeless, goal -- getting a paying job at the White House.
Gordon Sillars, a 37-year-old, unemployed graduate of business school, hoped at one point to get a paid position. Now, after working unpaid for over six months, he realistically says, "I have no hope of getting a job there -- and haven't had any for several months. Getting a job was always a long shot. The jobs are few, and the job seekers are many."