How to govern from two places at once? With the swipe of an autopen

  • Larry Downing / Reuters / Corbis

    Barack Obama's autopen does not sleep. So, unlike the President, who was roused from a hotel bed recently at 5:45 a.m. in a French resort town to approve a last-minute extension of the Patriot Act, the machine never missed a wink. As the minutes ticked toward midnight on May 26 in Washington, Obama wrote a document authorizing an immediate phone call from the hotel hallway to the White House, where, in an undisclosed room in the building next door, the contraption whirred into motion. Pen touched legislation, and history was made: a robot signed a bill into law.

    As a legal matter, this extraordinary act was not so controversial. Common law has long held that what matters in signing is intent, not the manual dexterity or personal attention of the signer. Just as wax seals held the power of law in 17th century Britain, U.S. banks accept rubber stamps on checks, even if they're imprinted by a subordinate. In 2005 the Bush Administration drafted a 29-page opinion laying out the legal case for the untested idea of legislative autopen signatures. In contrast to a number of other opinions from the Bush years, Obama's attorneys agreed completely.

    What was remarkable, however, about the President's transatlantic scribble was its violation of the first rule of autopens: you do not talk about the autopen. "It really kind of messes with the myth," explains Automated Signature Technology's Lindsay De Shazo, the son of Robert De Shazo Jr., who first sold the autopen in the U.S. in 1944 and held a monopoly on the business, selling thousands of the things until his death 50 years later.

    The third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, was the first to use a machine to record his signature. His device, a pantograph, held a pen that matched the movements of Jefferson's hand on a duplicate piece of paper. The first President to use a machine to sign a document in his absence was Dwight Eisenhower, who employed De Shazo's device when he ran Columbia University in 1949. It looked like a small table with mechanical arms, which followed a mold made from the signature that could be repeated at great speed with just about any type of pen. By the time John Kennedy took office, the autopen had made it into the White House as a time-saving way of handling routine correspondence.

    Stephen Koschal, an autograph dealer in Florida who has written three books on presidential autopen signatures, began collecting copies decades ago, amassing a giant file that he has used to identify, among other curiosities, 26 different autopen signatures employed by Richard Nixon, including three that used just his initials. Ronald Reagan created at least 22 autopen versions of his name, including Dutch and Ron for more personal correspondence. "The White House doesn't like people talking about the autopen," Koschal confirms. But for dealers like him, the autopen matters a great deal: a handwritten signature can easily fetch 10 times more at auction than an automated one.

    In fact, it has long been the habit of official Washington to speak of the autopen only as a matter of last resort. Reagan's Housing Secretary, Samuel Pierce, blamed his agency's corrupt funding decisions on the assistant who controlled Pierce's autopen. Vice President Dan Quayle invoked the autopen to explain his signature below a request that a convicted campaign contributor be sent to nicer prison. "There is evidently some letter," pleaded Quayle, "that went out with my name attached to it." For a time, even the attorneys for Ken Lay, the former chairman of Enron, tried to argue that their client could not be held responsible for crimes committed with the Lay autopen.

    The Obama White House, in this case, had no choice but to talk about the autopen, though aides were at pains to say as little as possible. Even after the device was used to extend the FBI's roving-wiretap authority, among other provisions of the law, Obama advisers declined to disclose the make or model of pen that was employed or to make it available for photographs.

    The code of the autopen, in other words, persists.