The Digital Journalist
Front Row Tears
July 2004

by Pete Souza

The first time I cried was when a former White House staffer spoke to the casket and addressed it as, "Mr. President." Two hours after Ronald Reagan died, a former White House staffer called me say that Mrs. Reagan wanted me to be the official photographer for the funeral. I had been an official White House photographer during his Presidency and remained on good terms with Mrs. Reagan, so this was not totally unexpected. I dropped everything - thankfully, to an understanding family and employer - and flew the next day to California.

Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Doria, view President Reagan's casket during the flight from California to Washington, D.C.

Photo by Pete Souza/Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
I held it together emotionally when I first saw Mrs. Reagan and the president's casket as it was brought to lie in repose at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Following the brief service with the Reagan family, there was a private service for the Library staff and some of the former White House staff who were assisting with logistics of the funeral. When one of them addressed the casket as, "Mr. President," I couldn't hold back the tears. I reacted much the same way throughout the week. One minute, I'd be totally focused on my task at hand-visually documenting both the intimate moments and the ceremonial aspects of the funeral. But at other times, I'd choke up with emotion. Just seeing tens of thousands of people along the motorcade route in California brought tears to my eyes. There were also some treasured personal moments. At the Blair House in Washington, it was like stepping back 20 years as familiar faces from Reagan's Presidency came to pay respects to Mrs. Reagan-Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yashiro Nakasone, President Bush (41), Prince Charles, Howard Baker, and others.

Mrs. Reagan meets with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Blair House in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 2004.

Photo by Pete Souza/Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
Gorbachev asked me to take a picture with the Reagan family, then afterward looked at me familiarly and through his interpreter asked, "You were in Geneva?" (the site of the initial Reagan-Gorbachev summit).

I replied, "Geneva, Reykjavek, Washington and Moscow." Gorbachev smiled and extended his hand for a warm handshake. I was honored that Mrs. Reagan asked me to photograph the funeral. There is no place in the world that I would rather have been than with a front row seat to a very historical week.

© Pete Souza

Pete Souza is the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune based in their Washington bureau. He took a one-week leave of absence to serve as the official photographer during the Reagan funeral.