Minutes before midnight, after a landslide House vote of 250-153, President Obama signed legislation backing a four-year extension on the controversial USA PATRIOT Act. (Did you know that’s an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism? Now you do.) Yay, habeas corpus denials, warrantless searches and carte blanche wiretapping! Four more years! Four more years!
Because the president was in France, he was required to sign it using an autopen machine: that rare and wonderful device favoured by politicians, sports stars and celebrities, that can mechanically reproduce the act of signing one’s autograph. (See one in action here!)
Since first being patented in the U.S. in 1804 by English inventor John Isaac Hawkins, the autopen has scribbled its way into American history — and infamy — over and over again.
- 1945: Harry Truman is thought to have been the first sitting president to use the autopen with any regularity. You can find examples, like this autopen-signed thank-you note, for sale on eBay.
- 1961: President Kennedy uses the autopen for nearly any signature that wasn’t of significance. To learn more, check out Charles Hamilton’s 1965 book, The Robot That Helped to Make a President, the “most in-depth reference guide for the different proxy signatures produced by the autopen machines used by President John F. Kennedy.”
- 1988: Vice President Dan Quayle is confronted by ABC’s Sam Donaldson about a letter he sent to a judge asking for GOP fundraiser Stephen Goot, convicted on racketeering charges in his role in fixing DUIs, to be moved to a cushier prison. Quayle pleaded the “autopen defence,” saying a staffer must have signed it without his knowledge. It’s the second time he uses that excuse.
- 1996: In his 2004 book My Life, Bill Clinton recalls: “In 1996, the children of one of my father’s sisters came for the first time to our annual family Christmas party at the White House and brought me a gift: the condolence letter my aunt had received from her congressman, the great Sam Rayburn, after my father died. It’s just a short form letter and appears to have been signed with the autopen of the day, but I hugged that letter with all the glee of a six-year-old boy getting his first train set from Santa Claus.”
- 2004: Then defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld finds himself at the centre of a White House PR nightmare, when it comes out that he’d used an autopen to sign his name to condolence letters sent to relatives of soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. At first denying it, Rumsfeld then admitted, “While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter.”