The Gipper Bids Goodbye

by Dirck Halstead

World Press Photo recently asked me to select my favorite photograph taken during the years I spent covering the White House, for a book they're putting together. This is a difficult choice for any photojournalist to make because we tend to think whatever project we're working on at the time is our favorite story.

However, there is one I remember taking that continues to give me personal satisfaction, and still makes me smile. It's one I took on Inauguration Day in 1989.

Whatever you may think of Ronald Reagan's eight years as President of the United States--for a photographer covering his administration, it just doesn't get any better.

He was a great photographic subject. His career as a movie star had taught him how to project his real-life role, as president, for the camera. I always thought he was playing one of the great ongoing performances-by-an-actor in history.

Reagan was surrounded by professionals who understood how to create a stage on which he could work his magic. There was no contradiction between what you saw as a photographer and the reality. Because the "photo op" WAS the reality--a moveable set, constantly on the go around the world, but at a very leisurely pace.

If the president was going to visit Asia for example, it would be via stops in California, Hawaii and Guam, with lots of time to get over any threat of jet lag. It was Reagan's version of a "slow boat to China."

Then, there was always Santa Barbara, California, and his sprawling ranch. Reagan spent at least one year, out of his two terms, there as president. My greatest regret is that I didn't buy a house in the area at the beginning of his administration, rather than paying for hotels. More than a few of my colleagues did.

In the interim period between George Bush's victory as Reagan's successor and the inauguration, I was constantly badgering my contacts in the White House press office to allow me to do exclusive coverage for Time Magazine of Reagan's last day as president. I wined and dined the decision-making people, sent bottles and bottles of champagne, all in an unsuccessful attempt to get those precious last-hours-of-the-presidency-oval-office access I desperately wanted.

Early on the morning of January 20th, I arrived at the White House. The press office was nearly deserted. The White House aide in charge of photo coverage was cleaning out his desk. I decided to try one last time. "Mark...what can it hurt? Just let me have an hour with the president." Mark Weinberg, the staff member who would eventually "turn off the lights" of the Reagan administration, just looked at me in bemusement. "Go ahead," he said. "I don't care! Do whatever you want!"

Actually, Mark had already taken into account my suggestions that there should be some sort of photo op to mark the Gipper's last day on the job. The only problem was, there were very few photographers around to take a picture--everybody was getting into position at the Capitol for the inauguration.

At 10:30a.m. a few of us were ushered into the oval office to watch the president standing behind his cleared desk. We took that picture, and as we were being ushered out, I turned and saw Reagan heading for the door. I brought up my wide-angle, as he turned to look back one last time. It was the actor in him, exiting the stage. He paused for two beats--I took the picture. As the other photographers left the office, I turned to Mark. Without a word, he waved me toward the president who was on the way out the door.

And so it was that I found myself alone with Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, walking down the colonnade where we had photographed him with heads of state and others so often over the past eight years. On he walked, into the White House, and then to the elevator that took us to the State Floor. There, the first lady, in her trademark-color red dress, gave him a big hug. I looked around, a bit bewildered because there were no press handlers, no aides, only a lone uniformed Secret Service officer standing guard by the door. Reagan was an enthusiastic joke teller, especially when he had to wait around at events--so, since he had an audience, albeit three, he started to tell jokes. The problem was I needed to back away from his monologue in order to take pictures, but I didn't want to be abrupt or rude.

Finally, the first lady turned to him, and said, "Ronnie, let's just enjoy these moments." They held hands and waited quietly as we heard the sounds of the Bush motorcade driving up. I backed farther away, crouched down, and took the picture. The next thing I knew, president-elect Bush strode through the door with his wife, Barbara. The first words out of his mouth were "Hey Dirck, are you coming with us?"

When you visit the Ronald Reagan Library in California--as you leave the oval office, a replica of the original, you will see ahead of you a life-size image. It is the picture I shot that day.

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