"Banging on the Closet Door"

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

In just a little over two months, a new president will be inaugurated on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

No sooner will his hand rise from the bible, then the new press secretary's email will be jammed with requests for special interviews, and those "exclusive behind-the-scenes" photo-essays of the president and first family.

Depending on the nature of the chief executive, and how badly the West Wing wants the press, you can count on seeing lots of black and white shots of the "real" new administration, up close and personal.

Photojournalists who cover the White House on a regular basis, wince when they hear that one of their colleagues is doing a "closet job." That's what they call these personal access shoots. It was John Kennedy who first discovered the upside of having a magazine or newspaper (rarely a wire service) photographer feel at home wandering around the Oval Office with his or her Leica. The shot of little John Jr. climbing out of the secret door in the president's desk, told an eager public that this was a regular guy, and an adoring father. Then, there is George Tames' famous photo of Kennedy hunched over a table in the Oval Office, by the window, which the New York Times labeled "The loneliest job in the world."

I confess, I have done my share of these special moments, and as I leave this beat, I have to tell you that most of these sessions were bogus. Yes, Gerry Ford was a nice guy, who really did sit around the Oval Office in shirtsleeves, and George Bush did love to have the "photo dogs" around, but I never really thought I really was a "fly on the wall."

All these men knew I was there, and were very aware of what I was doing -- more importantly, so did their handlers. The reality was I wouldn't be in the Oval Office in the first place if someone in the administration didn't think it was a good idea. Therefore, most of these "candid" looks behind closed doors were as non-scripted as the West Wing TV show. I got to see the president when he wanted to be seen. The president was always in control.

At the beginning of Reagan's second term, I asked White House officials if I could be given a staff pin for a few days, so I could walk through the president's day with them -- minus my cameras. I wanted to figure out exactly what Reagan was like in "private." If I could come up with some interesting -- presumably pro-administration -- suggestions, they were willing to consider letting me take pictures. After one full day of this routine, I returned the staff pin and said thanks, but no thanks. The reason: Ronald Reagan. What you saw in the public photo ops WAS the Reagan presidency. Like the professional actor Reagan had been, he came out of makeup, hit his marks, did his scene, and went back to the trailer, or in this case, the residence upstairs.

On the last day, once his handlers had left, I managed to slip into the Oval Office for his farewell to that room; accompany him back to the residence; and then take a final photo of the president and Nancy holding hands on the state floor, while waiting for George Bush to accompany them to the inauguration. It was a real picture -- but no more so than the many pictures that we were able to take in photo ops throughout his administration. In the Reagan presidency the photo op was the reality.

Richard Nixon would not hear of "access," but we never needed it. The story was so good, and he was such an unbelievable character -- just being Nixon -- all you needed was to find a good spot, have a 600mm lens ready, and wait.

Which gets me to the point I'd like to make. I fear that we have become so preoccupied with arranging for these special access shoots, that we're forgetting how much we as journalists are being manipulated by our subjects. We also tend to ignore the reality of great events, with the photographic drama that goes with them, in favor of "getting ahead of the story."

It would be good if publications use the beginning of the next administration to avoid these orchestrated productions, and instead, think about getting back to covering the news.

Dirck Halstead

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