The American President

Behind the lens

President George H.W. Bush on the ‘Photodogs’

Like most — if not all — who have been privileged to serve as president of the United States, I did not always have the warmest of relations with the news media. In fact, it wasn’t until after I left the White House and joined a local chapter of “Press Bashers Anonymous” that I realized every chief executive dating back to President Washington has been routinely criticized and second-guessed by the Fourth Estate.

But for me, relations were always much warmer with the news photographers — or “photodogs,” as I called them — who covered the White House. Without exception, the photodogs I knew were a decent, hard-working and good-natured group of dedicated professionals who were passionate about their work. It could be that I loved the photodogs because they wielded their talents behind the camera, and let their work speak for them. Yet, there was something more to it. They were fun, and always so nice to Barbara and me.

The men and women who have covered the White House for the AP dating back to the middle of the 19th Century have truly had a “front row seat to history.” Through their lenses, succeeding generations of AP photodogs have captured both the ecstasy and agony of the American Presidency, and contributed in important ways to the historical record of each administration.

George H.W. Bush

41st President of the United States, 1989–1993

“The men and women who have covered the White House for the AP dating back to the middle of the 19th Century have truly had a ‘front row seat to history.’”

The primary mission of the AP‘s Washington photo operations is to photograph the heartbeat of the national government: the president, vice president and cabinet officials — whether they are in Washington or traveling the world — as well as the House, the Senate, the Cabinet, the courts, the first lady and foreign visitors.

At present, this is the job of nine photographers. The White House and the president are covered daily on a rotating basis. When the president travels, one AP photographer always accompanies the president as part of the traveling press pool.

Explore below and get the story behind some of AP’s most memorable photos.

Jackie and J.F.K. after the ceremony

“I was the only member of the press that followed John and Jackie Kennedy after the ceremony as they went back into the Capitol. Jackie was wearing her signature pillbox hat and Oleg Cassini suit. She congratulated John on his speech in the little rotunda right inside the building. I made one quick picture. It was a tender scene with Jackie’s hands on his chin. Charming. The head of the Secret Service detail, Jerry Balsh, realized I was not in the official party and I was banished.”

Henry D. Burroughs

AP photographer

“Close-Ups of History” by Henry D. Burroughs (University of Missouri Press, 2007) Courtesy Peg Burroughs

Tear down this wall

“Sometimes you don’t know history is being made when you see it. But you get this front row seat on history that can’t be matched.

“The biggest story of that era was probably the Cold War. When this tension, this sitting on the edge of annihilation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and it was something that President Reagan and the Soviet leader grappled with. And President Reagan made this sort of politically risky trip to Berlin. And there were two of us on the trip. A very seasoned photojournalist, Barry Thumma, was in the travel pool, and I was a second.

“In those days sometimes we’d send two people, but you’d fly on a different airplane. And Barry was in a frame where he could see the president close. And the president gave his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate that separated East Berlin from West Berlin. And I’m much farther back but I have a greater sense, maybe the president is not as dominant in my picture, but I can see the whole scene — the wall, the crowd. And this is when President Reagan sends this message to the leader of the Soviet Union, says, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ And wow, there was electricity. And I’m shooting the best I can. And I remember a young man jumped up in the air, leapt up in the air, and sort of helped set it all off. It sort of reflected the jubilation, the sense of hope that the crowd had.

“And I remember being on the phone later with somebody back at the bureau. I said, ‘Yeah, did you hear what Reagan said? Tear down the wall.’ Said, ‘Right, like that’s going to happen in my lifetime.’ Thought that wall was there to stay. And sure enough, it was the start of something. And like I said, you don’t always know it’s history when it’s happening — different angle, revealing picture.”

J. Scott applewhite

AP photographer

Interview with J. Scott Applewhite conducted by Chuck Zoeller, Aug. 23, 1997, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives

Clinton impeachment

“There was a slight change in the mood of the place when the door from the Oval Office opened. I couldn’t actually see him walking, but he’s walking from the Oval Office to the lectern. And he’s coming through the pillars of the colonnade, and he’s sort of halfway between them. And it’s a very simple picture really.

“What other people have said to me is they thought it was symbolic of his body language, which is one of the ways we try to convey what the spirit of the moment is, or the mood of the moment. His body language is certainly defeated. You could see his hand coming out, and all you could see was his wedding ring. And the white pillars that we know so well that are part of the symbolism of the White House.

“And when we got back to the office — that was the early days of digital—and handed the disk to my editor, said, ‘You might want to take a look at this.’ And it had the one frame, and it worked out. Maybe it was because it showed an angle that you couldn’t see. The other angles were more familiar. It was very — it captured the solitude, I think, and the mood of the moment.”

J. Scott applewhite

AP photographer

Interview with J. Scott Applewhite conducted by Chuck Zoeller, Aug. 23, 1997, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives

Carter on top

“We got in the truck, the car moved about 10 feet — a pretty good crowd of people — President Carter got out of his limousine, and I recall there was a thunderstorm coming up. Tremendous. And I knew we were going to get wet here, and I couldn't make a picture if we didn't get on with it.

He came to the front of the car, plopped himself up on the hood of the limousine and then on up on the roof with his feet dangling over the windshield. Stretched out, you know. Shaking hands on either side. I thought that was probably one of the most remarkable presidential political pictures that I had made, in my opinion, in Washington. I still — it‘s one of my favorites.

Of course, we went on 10 minutes down the road, to the town hall meeting and no one remembers what the town hall meeting was all about because that picture was all over the next day. I passed the film off and I could have gone home after that, I think.”

Bob Daugherty

AP photographer

Interview with Robert Daugherty conducted by Harold “Hal” Buell, Nov. 6, 1997, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives

Kennedy and Eisenhower

“ ... so they started walking up this path. Ike turned around and looked up, and they looked, all alone, trees all around them, all alone walking up that path. And I said, 'Holy mackerel!'

“And I started to pick up the camera and Moose is right, Moose, he’s a — excuse the expression — he’s a Secret Service agent. The guy’s around six feet four and he weighs around 260 pounds and I knew him from the years with Eisenhower; we were fairly good—well, you knew all the Secret Service men then because you’re always around the Secret—he moved over to the Kennedys here as Secret Service.

“So he was standing in front of me and I said, ‘Moose, open up your legs.’ He said, ‘What for, Paul?’ I said, ‘Moose, open up your GD legs; it’s a perfect shot!’ He said, ‘Pierre says the lid’s on.’ I said, ‘Moose, just open your legs.’ He goes like this, and he opens up his legs and I shot between his legs with a 180 Hasselblad, shot two quick shots and Pierre heard the click, click going. He said, ‘I thought I told you guys the lid’s on.’ ‘I‘m just unloading my film. How do you expect me to get the film out of my camera?’ He tapped me on the head and said, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ So that’s the way I got the shot.”

Paul Vathis

AP photographer

Interview with Paul Vathis conducted by Harold “Hal” Buell, April 23, 1997, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives

Photographing FDR

“In those days, in the presidency of FDR, we had an understanding. Now, it’s the only way I can describe it, is to say that it was an understanding. Nobody ever told me or any of us that we could not shoot him while he was walking, or to show his infirmity. It was just a, an agreement that, that we all seemed to abide by, and we did not emphasize the fact that he had to lean very heavily on the, on his son’s arm or that when we would see him being transferred from the, from the wheelchair to the, to his car for instance, it was just something we just didn’t shoot.

“There were occasions when, when you couldn’t help but shoot him as we were standing there, leaning very heavily on, on his son’s arm or his aide or, or a cane, but it was never really emphasized. But as I say, it was never an, an order, it was never told directly in words that we could not shoot him.”

Max Desfor

AP photographer

Interview with Max Desfor conducted by Harold “Hal” Buell, June 6, 1997, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives

Lyndon B. Johnson's scar

“ ... after his operation we got called for a news conference so he wanted to talk to the press, and all the press, all the photographers. And during the news conference, he started to stretch his shirt. I said, “Oh yes.” And I turned my camera just on this hunch, and as he sat, you see, that was it. If you didn’t have your camera on him, you don’t have the picture.”

Charles Tasnadi

AP photographer

Interview with Charles Tasnadi conducted by Valerie Komor, May 19, 2006, AP20 Oral History Collection, The Associated Press Corporate Archives