One of the unspoken duties concerning our blanket coverage of the President when he is in public is the “death watch”, which is, quite simply, being there “in case” something terrible should happen. It is the reason the Associated Press photographs each and every take off and landing of Air Force One or Marine One, just “in case” a terrible mishap should occur during take-off or landing, or somewhere in between. We don’t carry our blanket coverage to that extreme, but we certainly are with the “body” whenever he is in public.
Now here’s the thing. Our job is really not unlike that of the Secret Service that protects “the body”. But, 99.99999 percent of the time nothing happens. So how do you stay constantly alert and at the ready in case something does happen. Well, the Secret Service certainly is. That is their sole purpose. But photographers? Well, we tend to walk about during a presidential event, looking for different angles, or simply taking a breather when we think we have exhausted the photo opportunities of the event. Often, we have our eyes deeply embedded in our laptops, filing photos as the President is still speaking. So, are we always as alert and fixed upon “the body” as the Secret Service is? Of course not.
So, imagine our surprise when a man hurls a pair of shoes at the President. I had taken a position side on, midway between the podiums and the back press riser. I had anticipated that would be a good position for the signing of documents that was due to occur immediately after the remarks from the podiums. The setting of the remarks was incredibly unremarkable for photo possibilities, so after shooting that, I had moved to prepare for the signing of documents hoping for better.
About 10-feet from me I heard a loud voice. Protester? Probably. Not unusual at a Presidential event. My camera was trained on the President. The voice caught my attention again, so after the President ducked from the first shoe, I immediately turned to see where it came from. By that time, the second shoe had been thrown and the culprit was already on the ground, smothered by Iraqi security and Secret Service agents who skirmished directly beneath me.
All I could see was backs and butts, but I held my camera aloft hoping to get something dramatic. I never saw the culprit’s face. There were so many agents on top of him; they dragged them off, again, backs toward me. I pondered following, but thought better of it, remembering my job is to stay with the President. To the sound of blood-curdling howls as the culprit was being taken away and beaten, I returned to the front of the room to document President Bush’s reaction.
Secret Service agents stood around a visibly shaken President. President Bush appealed for calm and for people to take their seats and resume the remarks. Using various quips, he tried to lower the tension, but it was quite apparent this incident would leave a deep impression on his mission here, replacing all the words of hope that had been spoken before the shoes began flying.
As the President and Iraqi Prime Minister returned to the podiums and finished off the remarks, President Bush looked down at me kneeling in the front row, and winked at me, his way of saying all is fine. I nodded back; my way of trying to reassure him all was okay. It was one of the few moments of interaction I have experienced with the man in eight years of coverage. At that moment, I felt pity, but also saw him as a man, a friend even, not just the President.
As we faced the challenges of trying to get our photos from the incident out as quickly as possible, stories flew about, and we gradually tried to piece together all that had happened. As time went by, it was clear that the video cameras in the back captured the whole incident with the best angle and that the papers would most likely use grabs of those images over our stills.
It was a difficult moment for still cameras to cover in full. Do you train the camera at the culprit or the President? Split second decisions had to be made by reflex, there was no time to think. The light at the front (where the President stood) was dim but sufficient. Light where the reporters and shoe-thrower sat was dim at best. Technically, a photographic nightmare really. There was no flash was on my camera, and no time to properly change my settings. All I could do was reduce my shutter speed and hope for one or two decent frames.
I finally got to watch the video upon my return to the U.S. I realized that at the time I never even knew two shoes had been thrown. What I saw on TV amazed me. The President had amazingly fast reflexes!! Humorous as it seemed, I could not forget how it ruined the President’s mission, nor could I forget the screams of pain as the shoe-thrower was taken away.
It is a White House photographer’s nightmare to think about something happening to the President and missing it completely. Each of the wire photographers on this trip managed to get a frame or two which helped tell the story, but there would be no “moment” image. I think all were glad that it was only shoes, and not something more lethal. The President tried to laugh off the event with some clever jokes, but we photographers were thinking “what if” and that was nothing to laugh about.