A single pen would obviously not do. Seventy five pens were reportedly used by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964, while Barack Obama imprinted 22 signatures on the 2010 health care bill using a different pen each time. Apparently the peculiar custom of using multiple pens to sign important documents goes back to Franklin Roosevelt. In the signing ceremony which followed the inauguration of 21 January 2013 the President used no less than 6 pens to sign the cabinet nomination documents. Senator of Nevada, Harry Reid couldn't wait to lay his hands on one of the ceremonial writing instruments. After all weren't these instant historical artefacts supposed to be given out to the witnesses of this memorable occasion?
In the hands of the famous and in the moments we like to call historical moments, pens become artefacts, almost religious relics - to be kept, displayed and revered as witnesses to greatness. Mediators between the human agent and the historical occasion, pens become magical receptacles, conductors of human energy, mementos of time, markers of the pinnacle of human endeavour. Pens are ceremonial. Akin to God’s powerful finger giving life to Adam, to the Shaman’s stick, to the Wizard’s wand - pens gesture full of pomp and circumstance. In contrast to the infantilism of the touch screen where the complexity of the hand is reduced to the simple actions of point-press-slide performed by the index digit, the use of a pen requires a ritual, a ceremony of gestures. Silence falls when it touches the paper as if a moment of transubstantiation is witnessed: what was previously just ink has now materialised into act.
The use of multiple pens is surely an acknowledgment to the democratic process where not one person but many have worked towards the passing of a bill or the successful conclusion of an electoral campaign. The pens are given out as tokens of appreciation; they are symbolic of a responsibility shared. One imagines they must be made of fine materials and endowed with exquisite nibs. But are they? Looking at Nevada Senator Harry Reid the writing instruments used by Obama were anything but objects of desire.
The pens must have been in Harry Reid’s mind all the while for with the signing ceremony over he reached for the pen case on the table. As the pens were not given out by the President himself and lay there uncapped consternation ensued. Was Senator Reid “supposed to take one?” Yes, came his confident answer and he seemed undaunted by the entreaties to “put the pen back.” However, a brief handling of the writing instrument was enough to convince him that historical artefact or not he didn’t want to take possession of said pen. The President came to the rescue and after jokingly asking whether Reid was stealing the pens ("I don't want one of these" the Senator replied) he reached inside his pocket (“I can get you one”) and gave Reid his very own writing instrument. “This is a nice one,” Obama said. “That’s yours.”
And that pen must surely be a second-class relic.