Opinion

Straight talk about the autopen

My eye-opening experience in John McCain's office.

By

Recently, feeling a twinge of guilt over my support for Barack Obama, I went to our garage, pulled out a dusty box labeled "College Stuff" and found the reason for my mixed feelings: a yellowed letter dated Dec. 15, 1987, written "with pleasure" by John McCain, my boss at the time.

Printed on embossed Senate letterhead, it looked official. And it said nice things about me, like "Kelly works well with others, and she is a dedicated, reliable individual." It said I'd gained valuable experience and hoped I would be "carefully considered" for my next position.

For a moment, I beamed with pride. Senator McCain's a presidential nominee, after all, and I respect the man. I was tempted to show off the letter, but then I remembered it wasn't worth the price of the paper it was printed on.

True, I'd toiled for McCain in my 20s. I typed letters to constituents, mostly, assuring them the senator was "looking into" their matters. I handed these off to senior staffers and forgot about them. I guess I assumed McCain sat down at his desk with a pen once a week, loosened his tie and worked his way through piles of correspondence. At 21, what did I know?

On my last day, I asked for a reference. A staffer we'll call Bill told me to step into his office. Bill asked what I wanted the senator to say about me. "Well, I've never met him," I said. "No problem," Bill said. He pulled out a form file, pecked at his typewriter, then escorted me to a drafting table fitted with robotic extensions. This, he told me, was the autopen.

Bill positioned my letter along the contraption's template and touched a button. Mesmerized, I watched the mechanized arm rotate its pen and trace a sure path of preprogrammed arcs and flourishes. Graceful, swift, and precise, it was all mine for the asking – John McCain's John Hancock. Regal in medium-point, cobalt blue ink, it memorialized my employment, sang my praises, and hoped for my future. A precise reproduction, down to the paper's still-wet pen tracks, it could have fooled anyone, perhaps even McCain himself. Bill handed the letter over and wished me well.

I left disappointed with the diluted significance of my reference. Had all those letters I'd drafted for the senator fallen to the autopen? What about the "signed" photo Ronald Reagan sent to Grandma Delia on her 100th birthday, the one she framed and hung in her bedroom? All phonies? Call me naive and idealistic, but the experience marked the beginning of about two decades of political apathy.

Autopens have a singular, sinister purpose, after all: to pass off the impersonal and counterfeit as genuine and personalized. The autopen fools the public while relieving the important and powerful of the burdens attendant on being important and powerful. Besides, the propensity for abuse is plain. Look at the families of soldiers who got autopen death notices from Donald Rumsfeld. And remember that defense Ken Lay floated to avoid bank fraud charges, the one claiming "the autopen did it"?

To me, autopens symbolize much of what's wrong in Washington, a world in which deception can seem a cultural norm. Sure, even Thomas Jefferson used an early version of the technology. But the machine he called the "polygraph" only made one copy at a time, and the third president was straightforward about using the device, which he called "the finest invention of the present age."

Is my support for Obama predicated on the hope that he might play it straight with his signature? Not entirely – signature machines are standard protocol in Washington. But I'm encouraged that his campaign website concedes he "cannot sign items requesting his autograph due to demands on his time." Fair enough.

Still, if my old boss does become president, don't think I won't be proud. And don't think I won't be tempted to wield my second-rate reference for every possible advantage. Times are tough, after all.

Kelly Valen is an attorney and writer living in Piedmont, Calif. She is working on a book about women's relationships. ©2008 Los Angeles Times.

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