Bush's Photographer Shares Inside View of Presidency

Eleanor Stables
for National Geographic News
February 18, 2005
George W. Bush is accustomed to undivided attention, but no one is more
focused on his every move than Eric Draper, the U.S. President's
personal photographer.

When the doors close to the press, Draper is on the inside. Only Bush's personal aide spends more time in the President's company.

Draper sees firsthand how Bush relates to visiting heads of state such as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. "They really enjoy being around each other. They're friends, and it shows," he said.

The photographer also sees how the average person reacts to seeing the Presidency close-up. He's seen numerous guests, upon being invited into the Oval Office for a tour or photo opportunity, become overwhelmed to the point of tears.

Draper's familiarity with the Presidency hasn't lessened his admiration. "No one compares to the President of the United States. There's only one Air Force One, and whenever you see the President's motorcades stacked up against any of the other motorcades, there's really no comparison with the size," he said.

After growing up in south-central Los Angeles, Draper worked for several newspapers out West before joining the Associated Press. He got his job as "First Photographer" by asking the then-President-elect for it at a party at the Governor's Mansion in Texas.

Bush had seen how Draper covered the politician's 2000 presidential campaign for the AP and thought he could trust Draper, according to Mike Davis, who was the deputy director of the White House Photo Office in Bush's first term.

Witness to History

As White House photo director, Draper is chief among five White House photographers. As Bush's personal photographer, he is often the only photographer present to record historic moments. (See White House photographs by Draper.)

Draper was on the scene minutes after Bush formally made the decision to launch the war in Iraq in 2003.

The photographer was waiting outside the situation room (he's often asked to leave during sensitive discussions). Before the military commitment was publicly announced, Bush took a walk on the South Lawn with his dogs. Draper followed and photographed.

After the walk, Bush asked Draper if he had taken photographs and whether he was interested in history. Draper said yes to both questions. Bush said the pictures were important.

"It's always interesting to go back to the photos I've taken at the beginning [of the Bush Presidency], because I look at them differently now because of context. They're developing their place in history," Draper said.

One of two photographs Draper named as his most historically important was taken on Inauguration Day in 2001. The new President is sitting at his desk in the Oval Office for the first time, accompanied by his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

The other was taken on September 11, 2001. The President is aboard Air Force One on the phone to the Vice President. Draper said he was standing at the door of the plane's front cabin when Bush ended the phone call and came out to announce that intelligence personnel believed Air Force One was the next terrorist target.

Though a pool of about three photographers was confined mostly to the press area of the plane, Draper had free rein and shot 50 rolls of film that day.

On the night of the 2004 presidential elections, Draper was the only photographer with the first family for the entire evening.

And when the President travels abroad, the White House Photo Office staff goes in advance of Draper to do a full practice run. "You can't miss anything. You can't have the President do something over again," he said.

History of the Job

The position of White House photographer was first officially created by President Lyndon Johnson and held by Yoichi Okamoto. Reportedly, Johnson had been unhappy with the photographs taken of him, noting that the camera was kinder to his predecessor, John. F. Kennedy.

Previously photographers from other federal entities—such as the Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Park Service—were periodically assigned to cover the President for the historical record. Starting in 1941, Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe filled the position for a quarter century, covering five Presidencies, from Franklin D. Roosevelt's to Johnson's.

Each President has offered varying degrees of access.

"With Clinton, the media had more immediate access to the office but very little to the private life, whereas now there's very little of the high security and more of the personal side than was done in the past," said Davis, the former White House Photo Office deputy director.

Compared to the Clinton Administration, the Bush White House allows "less access, and the access we do have is more controlled," according to Susan Walsh, president of the White House News Photographers' Association.

Under Bush, the White House Press Office, which approves and distributes the photo office's images, offers more official releases than any previous administration, said photographer Luke Frazza, who photographs the President for the AFP news agency. "More White House Photo Office images make their way into the media than in the past."

So far the Bush Administration's photo office has produced over a million photos.

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