The Digital Journalist
Remembering Reagan
July 2004

by Diana Walker

When over the years I have been asked to describe what it was like to photograph various presidents, I have explained that I see them as simply human beings - albeit exceptional ones - but not as either Republicans or Democrats. Often audiences ask after a slide presentation whether I am myself Republican or Democrat. My answer has always been, you have just seen 100 sides: you tell me. And, thankfully, they cannot.

Now that I no longer cover presidents, at least those currently in office, I feel more at ease in writing for The Digital Journalist that I was not a supporter of Ronald Reagan's policies. To the contrary. But this fact, you professional photojournalists will understand, had absolutely no effect on my work, or how I photographed him, nor should it ever. But how I enjoyed those eight years!

As the administration started in 1981, the White House was beautifully covered by two Time photographers, Dirck Halstead and David Kennerly. I later joined Dirck in 1984, covering Reagan. But at the start of the Reagan years, I was around to do general assignment, fill in at the White House, and to cover the travels of Nancy Reagan for Time. The latter became an enormous pleasure for me.

Photojournalists learn a lot about their subjects, and often the lens takes us far more deeply into the true hearts of our subjects. I have wondered over the years whether I lost any objectivity about the Reagans with my private, closely-held admiration and affection for them. I rationalized it by saying I was still the old, cold cynic, just doing my job. But as I think today about yesterday, what I am left with is a feeling that I witnessed an amazing eight years, presented to the press in a skillful and sophisticated way, by consummate pros in the Reagan White House.

But what overwhelms me, really, is the remembrance of a pair who so obviously loved each other, relied on each other, who exuded enormous style; a president who believed in and continued to articulate a few things strongly, with an air of uncomplicated, sometimes disturbing simplicity that was dominated by grace, humor, charm, and pride.

Because of the thoughtfulness of Nancy Reagan, my husband and I joined those in the National Cathedral last Friday for the state funeral. What I saw in my mind's eye as I remembered Reagan was not an ideology, but a simple, charming, straightforward and, yes, clever man who knew how to disagree without rancor.

From Tip O'Neill to Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan knew that together - with either Irish humor or an innate sense of the goodness of the working man - all could and would work out. Those years were a time when a president could make us feel strong and united by his example.

To have the opportunity to cover this man, to watch him, to make photographs where Reagan's own "self" actually made the frame, and filled the frame, honestly and truly was a joy.

I sat in the cathedral, quietly smiling, amid strangers and friends, many of whom knew him, worked for him, believed in him, or simply observed him. In that gathering, I really was a stranger; I didn't "belong." Even so, I knew what I had been allowed to see during the Reagan years; I knew what I had recorded, and I felt proud and, somehow, simply amazed by it all. In a way I was dazzled and, for a minute, there were tears in my eyes. This was history, and in part it was my history, thanks to my work. When all this came clearly into focus, I understood the country's loss. I never doubted Mrs. Reagan's.

The choir began to sing "Amazing Grace." What a perfect ending for President Reagan - a grand and beautiful state funeral. Yet again, a beautiful picture. Through my head appeared a series of images of the late president, and what was clearly there in each photograph was a charm, a resilience, a dedication and an enduring humor that made my life as a photographer indeed a more joyful place.

© Diana Walker