Bush years: First-time history
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.