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Mounds of mail to first family: "Dear Bill and Hillary'

Some love him. Some hate him. But everyone seems to want to write him.

President Clinton and his family _ including their cat, Socks _ have received more mail than any first family during the first five months: 3.5-million pieces, more than the Bushes received all of last year.

It started with people sending him hundreds of coupons for McDonald's Big Macs (which the White House donated to charity). Then came enough jogging shorts, caps and tennis shoes to outfit a track team. After that it was recipes for how to lose weight.

Then came the medals. Scores of them. Gay soldiers and Vietnam veterans sent them to the president, with poignant notes, telling him that if anyone in uniform gives him any grief, to wear these for protection.

Finally came the medical bills, addressed to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hundreds of bills with "can-you-believe-how-much-this-cost?" notes appended to them and "can-you-do-something-about-it?" appeals.

Mountains of mail, rivers of it, cascading into the basement of the Old Executive Office Building, billowing out of mail bins, piling up in corners, testify to an unusual relationship between a president and his constituency and reveal some of the tides of hope and fear lapping against this White House.

"The volume has gone up with every president, but with this president it has gone through the roof _ literally through the roof," said Lillie Bell, director of White House Mail Analysis, who has answered mail for presidents for 24 years.

"The thing I notice most, though, is the tone," she said. "In the old days, people who wrote the president wrote to him as a figure way up above them. But most people write to this president the way you would write a friend. . . . They just write, "Dear Bill and Hillary.' "

That is both a blessing and curse for Clinton. For while the mail certainly highlights just how approachable Americans feel their new president is, it also underscores how much they do not see him as the usual regal-like commander-in-chief.

Clinton has tried to stay on his side of that fine line between commander-in-chief and first pal, but his constituents are crossing over. One recent letter begins: "Dear Bill, I was thinking about you at breakfast this morning."

While the mail usually is divided for and against the president on any issue, and huge volumes of it are generated by interest groups, the authentic notes echo with a deep sense that people believe the president personally will do something about their concerns.

Another sense that comes across is that many Americans believe the country is at a watershed moment and that whether they like the president or not, many believe he cannot be allowed to fail. Even the young ones feel it.

One letter went like this: "Dear President Bill Clinton, I'm only 9 years old, and my granny said you want me to pay the National Debt. I don't have a job yet, but I'll get one soon. If the Reagans spent all that money and they are rich, why me? $4,000,000,000,000.0. If I get older and I don't want to pay it and Reagan has died, how do I call the peolice? I love America."

Marsha Scott, director of presidential correspondence, has a staff of 103 to help sort and answer the mail, along with 65 summer interns and about 200 volunteers a day. The president is given a sample of pro and con mail every Friday and a breakdown of his support, issue by issue. Clinton answers some letters himself. Mail to Socks is responded to with a White House postcard with a paw print.

Much of Mrs. Clinton's mail is the result of what she has come to symbolize: for women, a mother trying to balance family and job; for men, someone trying to tackle the health-care crisis.

A favorite letter making the mail room rounds is from a boy who wrote: "Dear Hilliry Clinton, I think your position is very import. I want to be first man when I grow up. I hope you do a good job."

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