Presidents Who Have Known Me (Almost)

by David Burnett
Contact Press Images

There is a terrible tendency to think that by spending time with someone, we may actually become like them. Whether it is with movie stars, or well-known writers, the seduction of judgment is always at risk. And there is perhaps no more seductive force for an American journalist than the White House. 

It becomes easy to believe that by regularly covering events with the President, that we "become" part of what we are covering. There may be a law, as yet unformulated, which states that the degree to which you are abused or spied upon in your attempt to access a subject is directly proportional to the degree of elitist behavior you exhibit once you have arrived. That is, constant sweeps by bomb sniffing dogs, passage through metal detectors, magnetic I.D. cards, all force you to try and evaluate whether what you have just gone through is worth it for the pictures you are about to get. And, once inside the Press Room of the White House, a small cramped series of rooms in the West Wing, you feel you are ready to  not only perform your duty as journalist, but must at the same time try to keep a level head. "This is not about ME," is the mantra. 

There are certainly a number of ways you can be reminded of this. The first being that you are constantly told where you [ital word]cannot be. Whether it is a warning from a well dressed Secret Service officer, or the standard Red Velvet Rope, you are to be separated from the Rest of the World, and generally put into your own space. 

Another of the unwritten laws which applies is that which describes how the security people, unable to completely scour everyone at an event, end up checking out the Press with more scrutiny, simply because we are the ones who are confined and controlled, naturally, to the Press Area.  Forget for a moment that in order to have a White House Press credential you must pass a Secret Service and F.B.I. background check, something which, it can safely be said, is almost never true of the scores of regular, normal people who may attend an event. But, because we are easily accessible, those who feel it necessary to control SOMEONE, or SOMETHING,  will come back to us. It makes their lives much less complicated.

Years ago, I had a friend who virtually lived in the Press Room, waiting to be given the call: “The Pool will assemble in two minutes in the Colonnade entrance.”  Those are words to make grown men and women turn into squeamish, churlish children, as they jostle, albeit with some tactical reserve, with each other to try and be First out the door. My friend would always phone ahead to a restaurant wanting to insure a reservation,  for example, by letting them know who he was: “This is Joe Smith at the White House...” I must have heard him say that a hundred times. He literally thought he had become a part of what he was covering. And in his own mind, as with many of us in similar situations, the mere chance to ally himself with the mystical presence of the White House was an opportunity not to be missed. In those calls, you can be sure he never mentioned the fact that he had been given 30 seconds to take a picture of the President with the Shah of Iran, or had been blocked by an over zealous security officer just at the moment the President toasted glasses with Brezhnev.

Those are the stories we save for ourselves. How we were foiled by a certain youthful "advance" man, who hadn’t yet been born when we started covering the White House, but who now was in charge of which photographer got to see what. 

In our hearts, we share the public wonder of the place, the office, the grounds. But it is difficult to feel either romantic or sentimental about a Friday night this past April when the NATO heads of state were arriving at the White House for a formal dinner, and we, the journalistic underclass had to stand in a driving rain for almost two hours while the guests arrived. They simply forgot to extend the tent covering the entrance to include the press stand.

Yet, there is a formidable attraction as a journalist to try and find, in those rare public moments, some kind of truth, or discover a visual gem which gives a real feeling for what the man is like. Whether it is Ronald Reagan on a bus, riding in New Hampshire, looking thoughtfully at a reflection of himself in the window, or Gerald Ford, puffing his pipe on a Saturday morning in the Oval Office, there are images we strive for and seldom accomplish. 

Over the years there have been a few photographers, in most cases someone actually working for the President, who pierce the veil to see Presidential life in its more mundane, and thus more interesting, moments. But for most of us, our view is limited to what we can connive and cajole out of a situation, most usually one that is very public. Thus, the dreaded "photo opportunity." Usually, they were neither much of a photo, nor much of an opportunity. 

The best pictures are often those isolated moments which transform a big public event into some kind of personal or private photograph. Being in the public eye forces the subjects to adopt a certain kind of body language which most of the public will never know about. The knowing glance, the wave, even the posture while standing. All these things are in some way the result of the subject having seen themselves in pictures and television, and reacting to what they did or didn’t like about those images. 

Our job, admittedly, with many more red ropes involved than I would like, is to try and pluck those moments when we see them. And resisting the temptation to see ourselves as part of the "scene," once understood, helps us to bring a certain reality to the work. Everyone working in the White House Press Corps knows that what we see is really only a scarce glimpse of what Presidential life is really about.

In 1963, when John Kennedy visited Salt Lake City, my hometown, I asked my mother to take me downtown to see him. I had borrowed a Petriflex 35mm camera from the photo store where I had worked and, armed with a roll of home-rolled tri-x (at $.01 per shot, it was a bargain), waited in the lobby of the Hotel Utah. A few minutes passed (would that all presidental events occurred with so little waiting), and in he came, greeting the small gathering. He never really stopped, and as he passed by me, rather than shake his hand, I tried to photograph him.

The result, blurry, out of focus and slightly underexposed, has sat in an envelope for 35 years.  The scratches are from the rather rough processing techniques of a 17-year-old. But, as I am proud to point out to anyone now, you can at least SEE that it’s Kennedy! The other picture, taken the next day at the airport where JFK presided over the opening of an electrical power plant, was another victim of youthful indiscretion: this time it was a badly wound roll of self-rolled film and a leaky cassette. But, I also remember watching the photographers who accompanied him, and wondering what magic must lie in their job. 

My first time at the White House, four years later as a Time Magazine intern, filled me with awe and appropriate wonder. For a while, I felt like calling everyone I knew, and announcing; “This is David Burnett, at the White House.” Fortunately, it was more complicated to make long-distance calls, I was a poorly paid intern, and I spared my friends the boasting.

Nowadays, it is still a test of photographic will. To look at a “nothing” event and try to find some kernel of visual truth, to make some kind of statement. Most photographers will find themselves in sympathy with one recently retired magazine photographer. He  spent almost 30 years covering the White House, and was never shy about letting everyone know exactly how he felt about things. More than once I remember exiting the Oval Office after some terrible "grip and grin" shot, hearing him announce aloud to any and all,  “...that was horseshit!” 

There were times, of course, when we did make a good picture or two. But somehow that kind of crabbiness, the wariness, and the skepticism, all proper and normal journalistic traits, will keep our work honest and, hopefully independent. It remains a day-to-day adventure. In the end, so many decisions are made at the White House affecting the world, that we cannot simply forget about it. And to the extent that the whole world is watching what the U. S. President might do, we, the photographers, will try and explain the best way we know. Occasionally, we will avoid the red ropes, and get past the security people, and give you a picture that really tells you the story. And remember: “This is David Burnett, at the White House.”

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