White House photographer shares ‘inside’ view

3/6/2009 - By: John Trent

Former White House Photographer Eric Draper had a simple piece of advice for the students in attendance Friday morning for his talk about photographing the President George W. Bush for eight years.

To get a job like Draper had, go directly to the source and ask.

At least that was what Draper, a top Associated Press photographer, did when candidate Bush had become President-Elect Bush in December 2000.

“It’s not one of those things you really plan on doing,” Draper said during his 75-minute presentation, which included dozens of historic and behind-the-scenes images of the nation’s 43rd president. Draper’s talk was one of the final events for the week-long “J-Week” series of talks and presentations put on by the faculty, staff and students of the Reynolds School of Journalism. “It just sort of happened.”

Draper – who had been assigned by the Associated Press to cover Bush, then the Republican governor of Texas, during the 2000 presidential campaign – saw a professional opportunity in the tangled days following the 2000 election, when the nation’s eyes were focused on the recount in Florida between Bush and the Democratic candidate for president, Vice President Al Gore.

“I still blame everything on the recount,” Draper said with a smile. “During that two- to three-week time period, I applied for the job (as White House Photo Director and personal photographer for the president), and timing is everything.”

It didn’t hurt that Draper was invited to a Christmas party in Austin, Texas that Bush was attending as well.

“I just decided, ‘I’m going to walk up to the President-Elect and ask for the job,” Draper remembered. “And that’s what I did.”

At the party, Draper confidently got Bush’s attention, and said, “Thank you for inviting me to the party … And I want to be your personal photographer.”

Bush smiled and pleasantly told Draper the President-Elect’s team would be in touch soon. A week later, Draper, who had shot the presidential campaign for 18 grueling months, and had also earned a sterling reputation as a photographer in the middle of such important events as civil war in Kosovo and the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, was called back for an interview.

“I was pretty much offered the job on the spot,” said Draper, who had also worked for newspapers in Albuquerque, N.M., Seattle, Wash., and Pasadena, Calif.

What transpired over the next eight years was an experience of a lifetime, Draper said.

“I documented the president’s daily activities,” Draper said. “I had an opportunity to be that visual diarist and fade into the background.”

Then Draper, a well-built, imposing figure, added with a smile, “That was the tricky part, because I’m not a small guy.”

The images he showed in the Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre Friday were a fascinating mix of the formal and informal, the historic and the behind-the-scenes moments that were all part of the Bush presidency.

Operating from his own office in the West Wing, which was converted from an old White House barbershop – “The (long barbershop) mirror was still there on the wall,” Draper said – he snapped more than 950,000 images over Bush’s two terms as president.

“It was very challenging, but very fulfilling to have that much access,” said Draper, who would accompany the president through the day, from high-level strategy sessions to personal meals to trips overseas to visit with heads of state.

Some of the images Draper shared Friday included:

A final shot of President-Elect Bush leaving his home in Midland, Texas, on the way to the presidential inauguration in January 2001. The President-Elect turned to Draper and said, “Welcome aboard, we’re going to see the world together.” Then Draper added, “At that point, I thought, ‘Hey, it looks like I’ve made a pretty good decision.’”

A photo of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, standing close together, each staring at their watches, seeming to be synchronizing their next meeting. “(Bush) was always on time, or early, and this typifies what it was like working in the White House,” Draper said.

A photo of a grim-faced President Bush and Vice President Cheney in November 2006, when news of the Democrats’ mid-term election victories began to pour in. “(The photo represents Bush) learning the country’s new political landscape,” Draper said.

A photo of President Bush with his father, George H.W. Bush, the nation’s 41st president, sharing a meal in the president’s private study. Behind the current and former president hangs a portrait of President John Quincy Adams, who, like George W. Bush, was the son of a previous president. “Anytime the president’s father was a round, I would take pictures to show their relationship,” Draper said. Draper also shared a portrait he took of the two men, remembering that President George W. Bush was “really into it.” The portrait, prized by George H.W. Bush, still hangs today in the father’s office in Houston. Having two men with similar names, from the same family, who had held the same post, led to some surprisingly funny moments, Draper remembered. “That was something I learned very early,” he said. “You can’t call them ‘Mr. President,’ or else they both would turn around and look. So you would have to call them by number.”

A photo of President Bush sitting in a chair on the porch of his home in Midland, staring down underneath the chair at his dog, Barney, a Scottish terrier. Draper said Bush loves dogs. “Speaking of access,” he added, “Barney had an all-access pass to the White House.”

A photo of a relaxed President Bush, in cowboy hat, behind the steering wheel, driving on his 1,600-acre Midland ranch, looking like Paul Newman in the cattle country classic movie, “Hud.” “The president loved going to his ranch, and I liked it, too,” Draper said. “I could shed the suits and wear jeans. It was great.”

A photo of a serious President Bush, left hand in pocket, head down, taking a walk around the entire circle of the South Lawn of the White House on March 19, 2003, the day the president committed U.S. troops to Iraq. “I knew he was very emotional,” Draper said. “He took a walk around the entire circle. We actually spoke. He asked me, ‘Eric, are you interested in history?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘Well, these photos you are taking (today) are very important to history.’”

After eight years of constant 12-hour days, Draper said he was extremely fortunate to have been a witness to one of the most intriguing presidencies in modern American history. In all, there are more than 3.5 million images in the Bush administration digital archive, many of which will be used when Bush’s presidential library is built in Dallas, Texas.

Draper, who, like many White House Photographers before him, will put together a book of his images soon, isn’t quite sure what the future holds for him. “I’m still transitioning from D.C. to Albuquerque,” he said.

He added the experience will remain with him forever.

“To me, what was fascinating and actually challenging was finding those moments, the surprises, the stories behind the waiting and putting in the time,” Draper said.

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