The Digital Journalist
President Reagan's Shadow
July 2004

by Pete Souza

For five years and seven months, I was one of President Ronald Reagan's shadows.

From June 1983 to January 1989, I followed him in public and in private, often in intimate moments known only to a few. Sometimes, it was just Reagan, my camera and me.

I was an official White House photographer, and thus, I saw him when he was far less guarded and less scripted than he was in public. In private, I also came to admire how he treated people in all walks of life.

The president was comfortable with my presence and understood the historic value of documenting behind-the-scenes moments of his life on film. As a result of his trust, I had virtually unfettered access to the Oval Office. The only time he asked me not to photograph him was when I once saw him putting in his hearing aid.

Many of the moments I witnessed were extraordinary for their historical impact: consoling families whose loved ones were killed in the U.S. Marines' Beirut barracks bombing attack in 1983. Agonizing over the Iran-contra debacle in late 1986 and early 1987. Grimacing while watching a rerun of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. Storming out of a summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in October of that same year.

It was at the breakup of that meeting, in Reykjavik, Iceland, that President Reagan was the angriest that I had ever seen him. Gorbachev had tried to get Reagan to stop research on the Strategic Defense Initiative, known as Star Wars. And Reagan had said no, bringing the summit to a stalemate. Reagan normally was very reserved in his emotions and facial expressions; this in itself made him a challenge to photograph. But at that moment in Reykjavik, as he emerged from the meeting room of the Hofdi House, into an adjacent foyer, anger and disappointment were etched on his face. The meeting obviously had not ended well.

I photographed the two leaders as aides helped them put on their overcoats. Gorbachev approached Reagan one last time in the foyer, but Reagan had had enough. Gorbachev escorted the grim-faced Reagan into the cold twilight. The two stopped at the door of Reagan's limousine and I was only a few feet away as I photographed them. KGB agents then blocked my view, but I was able to hear the leaders' final words to each other.

When I jumped into my car in the motorcade, I turned to seatmate Pat Buchanan, who was White House communications director at the time, and told him of Reagan's anger and final conversation with Gorbachev. Buchanan barked: "Write it down! Write it down!"

"I don't know what else I could have done," Gorbachev had said to Reagan.

"You could have said yes," Reagan replied angrily. And with that, he disappeared into his limousine.

Buchanan told White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes that I had heard those parting words. Along with the substance of what was said inside the meeting room, Speakes later released the last words of their conversation verbatim from my notebook to Time magazine.

Our motorcade returned to the U.S. ambassador's residence in Reykjavik, where Reagan had been staying overnight, and I found myself alone with the president and a Secret Service agent. Reagan was waiting to formally thank the embassy staff for their hospitality before returning to Washington. He was still visibly distraught as he stood silently in a doorway.

"I hope I didn't let people down," he said somberly, almost in a whisper.

Reagan's personal aide came to escort him to the embassy staff, gathered in another room. Reagan was always so good at this - posing for keepsake photos - a firm handshake, a twinkle in his eye as he looked at each person, a few words of thanks, and finally a nice smile. He always made people feel special in what was likely their only chance to meet a president of the United States.

But Reagan was obviously distracted this day, which he explained to the embassy staff, apologizing for this rare difficulty in "smiling for the camera."

Other scenes during my White House tenure were extraordinary for their sheer normalcy, except that they happened to include the president of the United States. Those included feeding the squirrels on the White House colonnade, putting a golf ball aboard Air Force One, tossing a paper airplane off the balcony of a hotel.

During Reagan's annual August vacation to California in 1986, I walked into his Los Angeles hotel suite with speechwriter Ken Khachigian. Reagan was seated on a sofa, folding a piece of White House letterhead paper into the shape of an airplane.

"I'll be right with you fellas," he said, glancing up at us.

Reagan finished his precise folding and walked out onto the balcony, some 30 floors up. With a flick of the wrist, he fired his paper airplane into the afternoon sky. After snapping a few pictures, I joined the president and Ken, the three of us hanging over the edge of the balcony, watching the airplane finally land on the balcony of an unsuspecting guest some 25 floors below.

Months later, when I showed Reagan a copy of the photo, he said he didn't like it because it didn't look very presidential. I told him I thought it showed that there was a little bit of a kid in each of us, even the president of the United States.

I later had a print made for him, and inscribed on the white border: "Mr. President, Bombs away!" After Reagan left office, a friend of his told me, Reagan had the photo framed and prominently displayed on a shelf in his home office near a signed photo from Queen Elizabeth II.

As a White House photographer, I captured a diverse array of events, including the well-known dance floor whirl of John Travolta and Princess Diana. But I also captured many poignant moments, such as those between the president and first lady Nancy Reagan.

The Reagans truly loved each other; it was no act. They held hands often, joked with each other and exchanged multiple cards on special occasions. I rarely saw them argue, and if they did, it inevitably concerned something that was hurting him politically. For instance, in 1985, Reagan had agreed to visit a cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany, at the invitation of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was then revealed that Nazi soldiers were buried there.

A political uproar ensued, with many calling for Reagan to cancel the visit. Members of the Jewish community were incensed. Nancy Reagan pleaded with the president not to go, to cancel the visit. But I heard him tell the first lady and others that he had accepted an invitation from another head of state, and if he couldn't keep his word to a fellow head of state, then "my word means nothing."

It was as simple as that. While those around him framed the visit as a political liability, Reagan was determined to keep a promise, political damage be damned. Even the first lady couldn't change his mind.

The Reagans' close relationship was evident even when they weren't together. Once, on a flight to Europe aboard Air Force One, Reagan came back to the staff area of the plane to find me. Nancy Reagan had stayed in Washington, and the president needed a favor.

"Pete, can you come up here?" he asked. "I have a picture I want you to take."

Reagan motioned me inside his cabin at the front of the plane. He explained that the first lady had pestered several aides to "make sure Ronnie gets some sleep on the plane." She knew he never slept well on trips if she wasn't with him.

"Please get a picture of this," the president now asked me. He then lay down on the small bed in his compartment and feigned sleep. I snapped several frames.

After arriving in Europe, we had the film processed and faxed a copy of the picture to the White House with a handwritten note to the first lady: "The president got some sleep on the plane."

When we got back to Washington a few days later, I asked Mrs. Reagan if she had gotten the fax. She just smiled.

In Washington, Reagan would count the days before an upcoming trip to his ranch in California, Rancho del Cielo, or "Ranch in the Sky." I likened his visits there to a bird being freed from a cage. At the White House, he was trapped inside a big, protective bubble. But at the ranch, there were 688 acres where he could roam at will.

The president called the shots on what he would do for the day. Mornings usually meant horseback riding on his favorite horse, El Alamein. Afternoons usually were spent chopping wood, trimming trees or working on a project like building a fence. Dressed in blue jeans, a workman's shirt, and some sort of hat, one could easily mistake Reagan for one of his workers. The only giveaway would have been members of the Secret Service in the woods, not needing to conceal their Uzi machine guns.

Most of the staff stayed away from the ranch, with the exceptions being the ever-present military aide carrying the "black bag" containing nuclear missile codes and the White House doctor carrying his medical bag.

Reagan clearly was more relaxed at the ranch than anywhere else. Though it wasn't her favorite place, Nancy Reagan definitely recognized the good it did for her husband. Primarily, it gave him a chance to leave the protective bubble and clear his mind in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Reagan knew that some of the networks set up television cameras miles away on a ridge overlooking the ranch, which he viewed as an invasion of privacy. He once tricked the reporters by going to an area where he knew the cameras could see him and clutched his chest with both hands as if he was having a heart attack. White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan looked as if he might have a heart attack when I told him later what his boss had done.

I will always cherish my personal moments with the president. Reagan and I usually exchanged "good morning" greetings each day. In between meetings, he often would tell his personal aide and me a joke, and if it went over well, I would hear him tell the same joke later to a larger audience. That made me realize that I'd better not laugh if I heard a lousy joke.

He oftentimes would wink at me if he spotted me photographing him in a Cabinet room meeting that was dragging on too long.

In a lighthearted way, he mentioned a couple of times that Nancy Reagan relied on an astrologer, years before it became public. I didn't think he took it as seriously as was later reported.

Reagan enjoyed all kinds of people and often would extend a small, personal gesture that went unnoticed except to a few. One weekend in 1988, my younger sister, Amy, then still in college, visited me in Washington. I brought her in to watch the president's radio address from the Oval Office. She was no fan of Reagan's politically, but I introduced her to Reagan and mentioned that she had to analyze one of his recent speeches for her rhetorical theory class. He told her he could select a speech for her.

Later that day, as Amy and I headed to the National Zoo, I was paged by the White House.

"Mr. Souza, please hold for the president," a White House operator said as I checked in.

"Pete, I hope I'm not interrupting anything," he said. "If it's not too much trouble, can you come up to the residence? I have something for your sister."

"Sure," I said to him. "I'll be there in about 10 minutes."

When we got back to the White House, I walked to the residence, logged in with the Secret Service agent, and took the elevator up to the Reagans' living quarters. The president was in his study.

"Oh, Pete," he said, handing me several sheets of typewritten paper, "tell your sister this is the speech she should analyze for her class. I wrote this a long time ago. It was in my files. I don't really get to write my speeches these days; the fellas do."

I thanked him for helping my sister. And as I departed the residence, I glanced at the speech he had given me. It was from 1964, a speech in support of Barry Goldwater, who was the Republican nominee for president that year. The speech had launched Reagan's political career.

Reagan's last day as president, Jan. 20, 1989, was also my last day as an official White House photographer. I photographed him as he surveyed the Oval Office one last time. Reagan wasn't one to outwardly show his emotions, but I thought he looked almost sad in the resulting picture. His temporary custody of the Oval Office had come to an end.

After George H.W. Bush was sworn in as president, the Reagans boarded a Marine helicopter at the U.S. Capitol en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The pilot circled the helicopter over the Capitol, and then flew above Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. As the helicopter flew over what had been their home for the past eight years, Reagan said to his wife, "Honey, there's our little bungalow down there."

At his new "bungalow," in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, I put my cameras aside and joined a handful of other staffers in bidding the Reagans farewell. I shook hands with the now-former president, and thanked him for the opportunity to document his life for the past five-and-a-half years. He seemingly was embarrassed in saying, "You're welcome."

I saw him twice after that, and continued to receive handwritten notes from him in response to my occasional letters. Our correspondence ended when his Alzheimer's disease became apparent in 1993. For whatever flaws he had, Ronald Reagan was as good-hearted a man in private as he appeared to be in public. There was not a prejudicial bone in his body. I admired him because he was genuine in showing respect to all people - whether it was a head of state or a White House butler.

Looking back, I am perhaps even more grateful for my experience as White House photographer now. While my personal political philosophies didn't necessarily mesh with Reagan's, I am glad that fate and good luck put me inside his White House.

© Pete Souza