A History Of The Presidential Signing Pen

When President Obama sat down to sign the health care bill into law, he warned: "This is gonna take a little while" — because the president used 22 pens to affix his signature to that one document, jotting down one tiny portion of a letter at a time. The president then began handing those pens out as souvenirs — many of them to legislators who helped steer the bill through. Melissa Block talks to Jim Kratsas, of the Gerald R. Ford Museum, about the tradition of giving away presidential signing pens.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

One footnote to the bill's signing today - or a hand note, I guess. When President Obama sat down to sign the health-care bill into law, he warned...

President BARACK OBAMA: This is going to take a little while.

BLOCK: This is going to take a little while, because the president used 22 pens to affix his signature to that one document, jotting down one, tiny portion of a letter at a time. The president then began handing those pens out as souvenirs, many of them to legislators who helped steer the bill through.

Jim Kratsas joins us now to fill us in on the history of presidential pens. He's deputy director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And Mr. Kratsas, how far back does this tradition go?

Mr. JIM KRATSAS (Deputy Director, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum): At least since President Truman, presidents have been using pens and handing them to people who helped push bills through. Probably the most famous one is when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. He used multiple pens when he signed that.

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite presidential pen there at the Ford Museum?

Mr. KRATSAS: Well, probably the most famous is the one that he used to sign the pardon for Richard Nixon. But when he signed that pardon, there was - very few people around. So he signed that fully with one pen, but then signed other copies of that pardon with pens and gave them to certain people, and also made sure that one was available for the Gerald Ford museum.

BLOCK: Now, President Obama today, when he was doing this signing of tiny parts of a letter with one pen, President Obama said he hadn't practiced. But that's got to take some work, because your signature is just going to look really strange, isn't it, if you're changing pens?

Mr. KRATSAS: Well, it does. And the fact is, you know, it's not a fluid signature, like when we sign our checks and so on. So if you're doing one letter at a time, or even a half a letter with 22 pens, it's got to be a little difficult, to say the least.

BLOCK: What do these pens have on them?

Mr. KRATSAS: Well, it was my understanding that Harry Truman was the first one to have a box of pens, kind of like giveaways. And it was actually started by somebody who sent President Truman a box of pens that said, I swiped this from Harry Truman's desk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KRATSAS: But the tradition has been, ever since then, that each president that comes into office, they get multiple boxes of these pens.

BLOCK: Well, Jim Kratsas, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. KRATSAS: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jim Kratsas is deputy director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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