Bush years: First-time history

January 19, 2009

Larry Downing is a Reuters senior staff photographer assigned to the White House. He shares that duty with three other staff photographers. He has lived in Washington since 1977 and has been assigned to cover the White House since 1978. He worked for United Press International and Newsweek Magazine before joining Reuters as a stringer in 1997 and then as staff in 1999.

As the final moments of President Bush’s administration wind down, I look forward to Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. Having grown up in America as a child of the 50’s, I found the odds impossible that he, or any other African American, would ever win the presidency in my lifetime.

Early on election day last November I drove with my wife from the suburbs in Northern Virginia to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in the Anacostia district of Washington D.C. to watch as thousands of African Americans stood in line to cast their vote on a cold, raw morning. It was heartwarming to watch.

Obama will be the fifth president I’ve been assigned to photograph at the White House in the last 32 years. Each presidency was unique and enjoyable to document. I remember flying back and forth aboard Air Force One with President Carter while he brokered peace between Egypt and Israel in the late 70’s. I then documented his success on the North Lawn of the White House with a three-way handshake between Egypt’s Sadat, Israel’s Begin and Carter.

Less than two years later, the American Embassy in Iran was overrun and embassy personnel were paraded in the street in blindfolds. Carter barricaded himself in the deep bunkers of the White House and lost his bid for re-election.

In came Reagan and the era of feeling good.

I remember laughing out loud when President Reagan traveled to Berlin in 1987 and he stood next to the Berlin Wall, at The Brandenburg Gate, and under the watching eyes of East German guards declared that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down” this wall!

President Bill Clinton was good for the news industry. How often can you cover an impeachment proceeding against a sitting president? He provided 8 years of learning to stay on high alert, anything could happen. The picture I’ve included was taken aboard Air Force One, right in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The movie playing aboard the aircraft was one of the Austin Powers movies.

President Bush’s eight years of office offered many unforgettable moments, some from very early on. Every political junkie in the world now knows the expression “hanging chad.” The usage of the expression “9/11” sums up tragedy, grief, and loss into three simple numbers. That day and his response may end up being the defining moment of his entire two terms as president. My picture of the Pentagon sums it up nicely.

President Bush has a tremendous sense of humor and demonstrates it often when the cameras are off. Occasionally, he would let himself go, if only for an instant, when they were on. I’ve included two pictures to demonstrate his humor. Both the umbrella picture, and the one with U.S. Olympic team members, happened at lightning speed. He is quick to seize a moment and go with it. News photographers must be ready to seize the moment too.

I’ve also included a picture that I really like of a cicada buzzing the president. Simple, but humorous. He appreciated that picture.

I like the Mount Rushmore picture for the same reason.

President Bush could be very gracious. Like his father, Bush learned the names of every news photographer assigned to the White House early on. To document Bush’s graciousness, look at the picture of the elderly woman seated next to him. A perfect stranger, Ruth Harris was seated in a chair along a motorcade route, with a sign next to her stating it was her 91st birthday. Bush stopped the vehicles, got out, then posed with her. They look like lifetime friends.

One of the most touching moments I experienced during my travels with Bush was when he secretly sneaked out of the United States, flew undetected, and landed in Baghdad to visit with U.S. military personnel on Thanksgiving evening. I was honored to be included on that super-secret Air Force One travel pool and I watched as he stepped out from behind a curtain and immediately warmed the hearts of hundreds of American GI’s waiting for their Thanksgiving dinner.

When I asked a young GI seated at a table if he knew who was coming out to speak he replied, “They told us the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are here.” God bless those innocent, young, GI’s stranded thousands of miles from home on perhaps their first BIG dinner away from mom and dad.

Bush walked out, and they went nuts.

I sat in their chair almost 40 years earlier as a young GI and It was the loneliest time of my life; I couldn’t help but tear up when Bush appeared.

Tuesday ends an era and brings in new change. The White House seems different today, more like the last day of school. All the seniors are ready to graduate and the new class of freshmen are moving in.

Fasten your seat belt because Tuesday starts a new semester.


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[…] Larry Downing es el autor de la foto que encabeza el post y ha fotografiado a cinco presidentes en 32 años. Aquí podéis leer su post. […]

Posted by La mesa de luz » Los fotógrafos de Reuters y el presidente Bush | Report as abusive

[…] Larry Downing, Reuters: […]

Posted by Flopping Aces » Blog Archive » The Long Goodbye… | Report as abusive

Great pictures Larry! And great stories with birthday lady and GIs!

Posted by BednarskiMedia.blogspot.com | Report as abusive

Wow, is all we can say. What a time you have had and the pictures to go with it all.
We are VERY happy for you.

Posted by Tom & Betty Ferren | Report as abusive

Great pictures. Some rare kind words for President Bush from the press. Thank you!

Posted by Chitownckb | Report as abusive

[…] also might be interested in the Reuters photographer blogs where Larry Downing, Kevin Lemarque, Jim Young and Jason Reed share their thoughts and experiences of photographing […]

Posted by The Image(s) of Leadership: The Bush Years | Weekly Leader | Report as abusive

thank you for these wonderful photographs and memories. they are photographs of candid, genuine and humanly moments of our president. such a breath of fresh air from what i read from new york times where some photographers and columnist tried to put in disrespectful, negative, biased and out-of-contexts comments associated with some photographs.

Posted by ordinary | Report as abusive

Wonderful stuff! Your masterful composition and whimsical subtlety have given us over thirty years of precious milestones of the Presidency. Nicely done, very nicely done! Keep up the good work …….

Posted by James M. Stanfield | Report as abusive

You’ve come a long way Larry, and I am so proud of you. You were a superb USAF member 35 year’s ago in my squadron. Now you are quite modest, yet one of the top photographers in America. I say modest because you don’t show those many photos of President Bush hugging you. They leave no doubt he had tremendous appreciation of you for your fine work. I do also! Lt. Col Edler (USAF-Ret).

Posted by Tony Edler | Report as abusive

I want to purchase the picture of Obama with the ‘shaka’ sign. Is there a website that I can find the picture and pay for it?

Posted by Romy Kelly | Report as abusive

Great work Larry. You’ve come along way since those Minos shakes at Yannis in Malia. Congratulations. Harold Siverd 6931st

Posted by Harold Siverd | Report as abusive

Truly great stuff brother, be it the images, your memories and the moments!

Posted by Stelios Varias | Report as abusive

Extraordinary pictures Larry! Your sustain career focus, tenacity and hard work has resulted in your photographic talents being recognized on a universal scale. I’m extremely proud of you and your accomplishments. I was proud to serve with you in Crete and thank you for remaining a true friend for the past 37 years.


Edward Cole, CMSgt, Ret

Posted by Edward Cole | Report as abusive

Congrats on all the praise, those of us who have known you and your work for years have always known what you were capable of doing. It’s been a long road but here near the end we’re standing to congratulate you. Your legacy is one that all current and future photographers will try to measure up to. I wish you the best.


Posted by Patrick Downing | Report as abusive

thanks for posting the story and shots Larry, I too liked the shot of you and bush together I saw a while ago. For me that said alot. Seems only a few years ago that you were telling me what it takes to become a photojournalist, complete with animated body postures and clearly stating you were on the road to destiny, all this from behind the counter of the camera store we worked at in the valley, selling om1’s and nikormat’s..
well congratulations.. you did make it, and then some. I have enjoyed seeing your award winning work the past years.
paul moore

Posted by paul moore | Report as abusive

Larry-Fascinating-Many thanks. If many more people saw your pictures and read your comments, George W’s approval ratings would have been much higher !

Posted by Jim FitzGerald | Report as abusive




Posted by TERES OSBORNE | Report as abusive

Larry, get in touch with me soon, by my e-mail address, Ken

Posted by Ken Papaleo | Report as abusive

You’ve enjoyed a rare vantage point all these years and it’s great to be able to read your insights and impressions. Thanks for sharing poignant words as well as images. Continued success and happiness to you, Larry.

Posted by Lisa Ocker | Report as abusive

Larry, trying to track you down for a photo you took 9/14/09. Please email me. Thanks!

Posted by Jennifer Flowers | Report as abusive