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They send greetings, answer phones and respond to letters addressed to Mr. President or just plain Bill.

They answer queries about recipes, care of pet iguanas, recommended curfew hours, and whether the president knows the Power Rangers. Sometimes they even handle crises. Some have had their jobs for years. They are of diverse political persuasions. Most are senior citizens. All work for free.And, told not to discuss what they do in this city famous for leaks, White House volunteers remain proudly mum.

Clare Gillian, for example, sits in the Comment Office of the Executive Office Building with headphones on, poised to listen to comments from callers.

She gives her age as "over 65" and has been working here for three years. She says she loves her work, "because you get to talk to people from all walks of life, from Hawaii to Australia."

And what do all these people have to say?

That, of course, is confidential. So, too, is what she replies, except that it's her job to listen politely and pass it along.

"Sometimes," she says a little wickedly, "you get tempted to answer back, but you cannot."

That policy was violated at least once in recent memory, after President Clinton's first State of the Union message. The president himself bolted into the office and picked up some phones.

One startled woman hung up and told her brother she'd just been conversing with the president. The woman's brother accused her of drinking. So she called the White House again, and the Comment Office confirmed her story.

For the most part, however, things are orderly and quiet where the volunteers, 1,500 in all, gather to work. On any given day there are about 200 of them, answering 2,000-some phone calls, working in various offices, sending birthday greetings or answering letters.

Volunteers can't quote or talk specifically about the letters. But a paraphrase of a recent one from a youthful letter-writer goes something like this:

Dear Mr. President:

I want to build a trout pond, and all I'm missing is the hole. Could you please drop two 500-pound bombs?

P.S. Please call before dropping them.

There have been volunteers at least since Kennedy's presidency, and perhaps back to Eisenhower's, but it's uncertain when the volunteer program got started, says White House spokesperson Pat Lewis. That's because "access was easier back then." Now records are rigorously kept, and volunteers have to pass a security clearance and sign a contract that includes not speaking to the press.

So why go through all that?

"Well, it beats staying home and running the vacuum cleaner," says Maxine Phillips, looking up from a file of letters.

But there are perks, too, such as invitations to the Easter egg roll or Christmas party, the chance to witness history in the making on the South Lawn, and the chance to make new friends.

"There's a certain aura to it," says volunteer Lorraine Berlin, "and a great camaraderie between the young staff and interns and old volunteers. One intern was doing research on World War II, and there were many widows and veterans there who had information."

The Office of Student Correspondence, where volunteers sit beneath a poster of First Cat Socks or children's pictures of the presidents, is one of the busiest. The Clintons feel particularly strongly that all kids' letters should receive an answer, because Chelsea once wrote to President Reagan and ran to the mailbox every day waiting for a reply.

Chelsea herself is a favorite subject for corresponding children - as is Socks - but mail to them is handled separately.

The letters handled by this office are to the president, expressing kids' hopes, worries, admiration, thoughts - and even advice.

Their concerns, says Pat Lewis, have, like adults', changed over the years. They write about the homeless, war, guns, AIDS, Bosnia, saving whales and the rain forest. The environment is on their minds a lot.

The letters usually receive one of many standard replies, including a picture of Socks, a favorite recipe, or an illustrated booklet called "The White House."

In cases of hardship, or when a child is perceived to be in trouble, letters are referred to staff members who contact social service agencies where the child lives.

To see first-hand what the volunteers encounter, there is a book: "Dear Mr. President," published by Workman Press in 1993. It was compiled by Stuart Hample, who got permission from a group of school children to publish their letters.

In one letter, Erica asks: "Do you like Vice President Al Gore or do you just hang out with him because you have to?"

In another, Walter advises the president to consult Chelsea if he has problems about kids, "because she is a kid and they know stuff that grownups are too stupid to understand."