The Digital Journalist
Recalling the Gipper and Me
July 2004

by Dirck Halstead

When I think back on the eight years of covering the Reagan presidency as Time magazine's Chief White House Photographer, the first thing that comes to my mind is china.

For the members of Congress, the press and the staff who populate a presidency, Christmas has always been a big deal. Starting the first week in December, and right up to Christmas Eve, the White House is turned into a beautiful and joyous celebration of the season. Each room on the State floor is bedecked in trimmings. In the center Blue Room, there is a huge Christmas tree decorated with thousands of lights, ornaments and presents. The Marine Band, dressed in red uniform jackets, plays Christmas music in the hallway, roving bands of singers raise their voices in carols, and a dance band plays in the East Room.

In the State Dining Room, the table is overflowing with bowls of fresh shrimp, roast beef, ham and smoked salmon with creamy dill sauce, which hungry visitors heap onto the White House china, and pick at with silver knives and forks.

However, from 1977 until 1981, a gloom of tackiness descended on this grand house. During this "Age of Malaise," as the Carters liked to call it, the silver, glass, and china were stowed away. Paper plates and napkins were the rule of the season, along with plastic utensils. Instead of the open bars in every room, cheap wines were served in plastic cups. Scrooge had indeed taken over the holiday. I suppose the Carters saved tons of money, which hopefully went to better purposes, but there is, after all, something very special about going to the White House. It's not supposed to be Christmas in Plains, Georgia.

So, when the Reagans threw open the doors to the residence for their first Christmas party, it was as though Santa himself, and all his elves, had found the china. Once again, the White House was filled with cheer, laughter and the Christmas spirit.

That was so much the Reagans - an understanding of what was proper and expected. The White House was the people's house, and they should be made to feel that going there was one of the most special things in the world.

It was also how Ronald Reagan viewed his job. There were standards to be upheld. Traditions to be observed. Appearances were important. And people deserved to be treated with courtesy and respect. Every year, between Christmas and New Year's Day, the Reagans would fly west to their beloved California to spend the New Year's holiday in Palm Springs. However, it was very important to the president that his personal travel should not disrupt the lives of the families of the staff, Secret Service and even the press. So he would always wait until the day after Christmas to wing west.

As a photographer, I have to say that Ronald Reagan was a delight to cover. First, from years of practice as an actor, he knew stagecraft, and that translated into good pictures. He was also the most "comfortable-in-his-own-skin" person I have ever photographed. Even though he might be using his training as an actor, there was never any feeling that we were seeing "an act."

Once, after covering the first term, I thought I wanted to dig deeper photographically, to find out who this man was before and after the "photo ops." So I made a deal with one of the senior staff that I would be allowed to just observe the president as though I were a member of the staff. No cameras. Just watch and learn what it was we were missing, and then, perhaps once I knew what I was looking for, I might be permitted to photograph those moments. I should have anticipated the result. After a typically long Reagan day, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., during which I was allowed to see everything, I handed back the staff pin I had been loaned and said, "You know what? There is no behind-the-scenes." What we saw in the photo ops was, in fact, the presidency. What you saw was what you got.

Every once in a while, I was privileged to be allowed to do an exclusive, where I would spend hours in private with the president, culminating with his last day at the White House. What I remember most about those times was how difficult it was to take pictures, because the president was constantly telling jokes.

Traveling with the Reagans was the best. If Ronald Reagan was going to China, for example, it would take forever to get there. First we would fly to California, and rest up for a few days, then on to Hawaii for another few days of rest, and sun. Then to Guam, for another night's rest; finally, after nearly a week, we would arrive in Beijing, tanned and rested. In contrast, with George Bush 41, we went to Japan and China and back to Andrews Air Force Base in three days.

And, of course, there was California. It has been estimated that he spent more than a year of his eight-year term in the Golden State. For the press, these idyllic weeks were governed by the principle "if he doesn't bother us, we won't bother him!" Generally, two weeks would pass before we would see him, then he would come down from Rancho del Cielo for a day, do an event, then return to the mountaintop for another two weeks. My biggest mistake was that I didn't buy a house in Santa Barbara during the first year.

But if the vacations were fun, the real business of covering the president is what made it all worthwhile. There were major foreign trips to Europe, South America and Asia. In most cases these trips resulted in major stories - so much so that Time would regularly send a contingent of four or five photographers on these trips, often with advance trips to set up communications and couriers to get the photographs back to the magazine. Once, at deadline on a trip to Bali, the Air Force flew a C-130 from Guam to pick up our film, and got it back to a staging area from which it could be sent back to the States.

I was too young for one of the most historic presidential moments, when John F. Kennedy shouted "Ich Bin Ein Berliner!" from the Brandenburg Gate. But I was there, 20-plus years later, when Ronald Wilson Reagan called, "Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!"

And you know what? Gorbachev did.

The former president of the Soviet Union was one of the mourners at the funeral of Ronald Reagan.

© Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher of the Digital Journalist