Jack Lew’s Signature

I’ve been thinking about Jack Lew’s famous signature, which looks like the squiggles on the top of a Hostess cupcake. A series of O’s is an odd way to write the words Jack and Lew, and I actually hope some good-natured senator asks him about it, good-naturedly, at the end of his confirmation hearings.

Maybe Lew will have some interesting thoughts. Maybe he decided some years back that scrawling a series of O’s is, when you sign a lot of things, one way to save time. Maybe his signature started out as a way of subtly spoofing the institution in which he’s spent his life, government, which some think tends to be staffed by a bunch of zeros. Maybe the signature is Proustian: Those cupcakes were his Madeleine, and replicating the squiggles makes him happy. Maybe he is a little eccentric, or a little hidden—if you didn’t want people to think they can read Jack Lew, you could start with having them not be able to read Jack Lew’s signature.

There is the practical question: Is he going to scribble those O’s on the dollar bill when he is Treasury Secretary? Or is he going to give us a new Jack Lew signature that looks like it’s saying something like Jack Lew?

He should do that. Half of America thinks the country is broke, with only zeros in its bank account. Why have something that reminds people of that fear, or seems to underscore it, on your currency? From this high-spending government it may seem like a taunt. Or an admission.

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In general I think the bigger the ego the more indecipherable the signature. Modest people write their names, others give you swirls and squiggles you’re supposed to make out. The signer is so big he doesn’t have to be named, even by himself.

In my mind this connects to something about the signatures of those now in politics. I have on the wall of my office something that means a lot to me, a framed presidential commission from 1984 that named me a special assistant to President Reagan. It’s about 20 inches top to bottom, 24 inches wide, with black script on ivory colored paper. The commission bears the embossed seal of the president, and is signed by him and his secretary of state. Everyone who’s ever been an officer of a White House has one, and some old Washington hands have three, four or five of them, from different administrations, given pride of place on the office wall.

Underneath my Reagan commission is another, same size, almost identical, signed in 2011 by President Obama. That was the centennial year of Ronald Reagan’s birth, and the Obama White House graciously and generously appointed some old Reagan hands to be part of planning its celebration in the Capitol, and elsewhere.

The two commissioning documents, which haven’t changed in style over the years and are almost identical in script and format, are different in one big way. On the Reagan document, the president’s signature is small, clear, modest—rising about half an inch at its highest point. The signature of the secretary of state, George Shultz, is clear, and about the same size.

The Obama commission is startling in that the president’s signature is so big, more than an inch and a half high at the B, which is an inch and a half wide. Reagan’s first and last names could fit in the B alone. Obama’s signature is dramatic, even theatrical: The O is cut almost exactly in two by the elongated b of Obama. Even in his signature he starkly divides. The signature of the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is clear, unslanted, and also big, an inch high and five inches long.

Almost always when people come into my office and look at the commissions they notice the signatures and note the change in size from one era to another.

To me it’s a metaphor for the growth in the power and size of the federal government the past quarter century and, frankly, the more flamboyant egos—or, a nicer way to say it would be the bigger personalities—that populate it today.

This always makes me think of what’s happened with American flag lapel pins. I have one from Reagan days on my desk. It’s a little bitty thing, half an inch wide. Now American flag lapel pins are more than twice that size, as big as a man’s thumb.

I wonder why. The men aren’t bigger, or the suits.