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April 25, 2013

Lipstick on an Administration: Reading Eric Draper’s “Front Row Seat” Photos of George W. Bush

I’ve been transfixed by the edit of George Bush photos TIME Lightbox published this morning. They’re from a new book by lead Bush administration photographer Eric Draper. Monday, I’m going to go into detail about one of the 9/11 images. For the moment, though, I wanted to mention a few of the photos that really stood out for me.

What’s more interesting about the edit than anything is how defensive it is. In other words, it feels like it’s specifically designed to counter and re-frame Bush’s considerable faults and mistakes. Take the absolutely stunning photo of Bush flying over the smoldering World Trade Center site, for example. If there’s one moment, and one image, that sunk Bush’s presidency, it’s his Katrina flyover where he’s shown looking out the window (and that was about all) in the face of the catastrophic damage to the gulf city. Of course, this photo alone wouldn’t necessarily read like a “flyover do over” or Draper trying to drown out the aura of the other image.

When you look at the photo just before it in the edit, however, it starts to really give that scent. In this September 11, 2001 shot, so similar to the trappings of the fateful Katrina visual, we see Bush and his entourage bending to look out the window at an escort fighter jet, the president finally, finally, finally airborne on 9/11. (I’m mindful, by the way, that a photo editor at TIME put the edit together. That still doesn’t take away from the fact, though, that Bush continues to suffer from “looking out the window-itis.”)

I love just how tone deaf this shot is. Yes, it was taken in the year prior to the start of the Iraq War, but it still screams out how the administration fiddled while Rome burned. (For long time readers, you’ll remember how The New York Times ran a very similar photo — sans Bush — during the war that reflected exactly that! Make sure to check out the thumbnails of pianos from Iraq in that post.)

Given the love between Dubya and Condi (she’s the woman “making music in between GWB and Laura”) and the desire to conjure up days of innocence and the fantasy the Bush Administration was somehow classy, doesn’t this yearn for an analogy to a Cary Grant movie? And then, it’s really amusing how this (occupation?) was captured in Putin’s dacha. Funny, the image I remember better involves Putin handing Condi’s head to her.

Finally, you’ve got to love (perhaps cringe over) this photo of Bush comparing heights with Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. I don’t care how amiable Bush was (a quality being over-emphasized today at his library unveiling), the fact is — and this photo nails it — the man always wore his ego on his sleeve. There wasn’t a day that went by (and hardly a word that came out of his mouth) over those eight years that wasn’t primarily concerned with his stature, how big he was, and if he/his was bigger than that of somebody else. And that’s what he projected onto the world and America. Yes, Draper nails it.

(Photo credit: Eric Draper. Caption photo 1: Sept. 14, 2001. With smoke still billowing from the World Trade Center disaster site, President Bush departs New York City en route to Washington. Caption photo 2: Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush and his staff look out the windows at their F-16 escort while en route to Barksdale Air Force Base. Pictured with the president are, from left to right, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, personal assistant Blake Gottesman, Senior Advisor Karl Rove, Director of White House Situation Room Captain Deborah Loewer, and Deputy Assistant Dan Bartlett. Caption photo 3: May 25, 2002. Condoleezza Rice plays the piano as President Bush stands on the staircase during a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dacha. First Lady Laura Bush sits in the background. Caption photo 4: Jan. 9, 2007. President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert compare heights prior to dinner at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.)

  • Majorie K

    Your remark about Bush “finally, finally” being in the air brings back hefty memories. I remember that morning, waiting for him to do something and then a feeling of disbelief as he flew away, landing in different states sort of aimlessly. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t doing anything, it’s that it felt like he was a coward, running away. The image that always comes to mind is the footage they showed of Air Force One in the air. Maybe they didn’t really show it and it was only in my mind, but I remember it as fleeing, going west, when the deluge was east.

    • Nathan Cowan

      Wow, ignorance at his greatest. Thanks for my daily laugh.

  • black_dog_barking

    Pretty sure this covered tomorrow but for me the one image that covers the Bush presidency is The Pet Goat. His library needs only enough shelf space for this one book, enough wall space for this one image.

    • glennisw

      I for one am waiting for the day we really learn what Andrew Card whispered in Bush’s ear that morning. I’m betting it was “just stay here and don’t say anything, until Dick tells us what to do.”

  • Bugboy

    Dubya seems to be in the brainspace that naturally follows his comments about history judging him, a phrase that one normally reserves for discussing economics: In the end, we’ll all be dead.

    He seems to be just biding his time waiting for the grim reaper. A sad little man doing nothing with his ex-presidency. I’m not sure if even Nixon did less to better the world after he resigned, but most presidents have done SOMETHING, ANYTHING to engage the world after their terms in office ended. What little Dubya has done speaks to his character and confirms what his critics have said all along.

    My take on his presidency is that his first failure as president was before he was even president: when he allowed the man he selected to help choose his VP made himself VP, when the man wasn’t even on the list. Dick Cheney told George W. Bush what to do. Not a great sign of a leader.

  • gasho

    I have always held the belief that Bush knew the attacks were coming and that they were part of an agenda developed by the PNAC to justify invading Iraq. Given all of the news at the time, and in the years following, it was the simplest explanation and nothing I’ve ever seen has contradicted it.

    In my mind, the first image is Bush, seeing the damage and realizing that the plan was underway and there was no turning back or chickening out.

    I put the odds at about 70% that Bush confesses on his deathbed; with no more reason to lie in this lifetime, yet scared out of his wits for the afterlife — he’ll try to evoke that last loophole: confess his sins, swear up and down that Jesus is his savior and call himself born again [again]. Too bad the neocons will have him in a soundproof room with no cameras and no witnesses.

  • kimlovesusa

    What’s the matter Mr. Shaw, you can’t handle all of the attention this first class President is getting? You can kiss President Obama’s legacy bye bye, as he has not an ounce of class, is in love with Hollywood and all elitists. Obamacare will destroy his legacy if not anything else. Love President Bush and I am fully aware of mistakes he made. Chill out and watch the citizens make President Bush’s legacy GRAND. :)

    • glennisw

      I’m always fascinated by the mindset of people like kimlovesusa. Especially the first sentence – what an emotional misunderstanding of what Michael is saying here. I am really convinced that the true Obama-haters are emotionally disturbed people. I pity the people who have to live with them.

  • Jamesdean01

    I think putting politics aside, this is an unfair attack at the photographer and his great work and I see no reason to follow this blogger or writer. You don’t know what you are talking about. Get a life.

    • Kyle Grantham

      I agree. No White House photographer, especially a lead presidential photographer, can be painted with the brush the administration is. As photojournalists our job is document what we see in front of us. You cannot spin reality in a photo the way you can with words. These are moments, any meaning you attach to them one way or the other is through the lenses your political bias forces you to see them through. They are moments in time. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Kate D

    Well that was totally biased. Sounds like you had your mind made up before you even looked at photos in the book. Try to be at least a little objective next time, if that’s even possible.

  • Aaron Wilson

    I saw Eric present most of these photos over a year ago. I am not really up their misinterpretation here. Michael, it is easy to add your own spin on it, but from what I heard from the man, you’ve taken away from what Eric has captioned to these photos and added you own verbiage…mostly taken from the same old tireless talking points and political myths. If you were honest about it, you would at least allow for Mr. Draper’s own captions from the book which are oddly missing here. You even have overlooked a photo credit on each, but I can see you big name at the top. Alright then, that tells me a lot.

    The photo of Secretary of State Rice playing the piano is from the President’s visit to Moscow that year. They had not no say over where they were quarter as they were guests of the Russians. The piano came free of charge, and I think the Secretary just leaped at the chance to play it. What does that to do Iraq a year latter? Putting your own words to picture seems game these days, but to deny the original author his caption shows how far some are willing to go to mislead.

    Still people persist is seeing what they want to see. I’ve not seen what made the cut for the book, but I know the from Mr. Draper’s account of 9/11 and from the photos I saw there was one, of President Bush in clear disagreement with Andy Carr about Bush’s want to return to Washington ASAP. As I remember Mr. Draper’s description of the photo; the Secret Service, charged with the President security, were insisting on the delay to returning to the Washington, D.C. airspace as they the FAA were still in the process of landing all aircraft aloft that day as there was still little understanding about the full scope of the attack, and for a time Air Force One flew out over the Gulf of Mexico to avoid U.S. airspace completely as again the number commercial aircraft that had been seized was unknown. The delay of Flight 93 form take off and the great courage it’s now dead passengers in their attempt to retake control of the plane is well documented. The highjacked jet was indeed headed strait for Washington.

    Majorie K. these pictures lack the authors original captions and so Mr. Shaw has seen fit to write his own, of course, just adrift in the body of commentary. You have to take me at my word, it was very clear from Mr. Draper’s description of events aboard Air Force One that morning that the President’s first instinct was to return to D.C., but he instead chose to follow the protocol for an sizable attack of an unknown nature. The real destination became an air-base in Nebraska where a much more sophisticated tactical command aircraft was to be boarded. So from what was said by Mr. Draper, I didn’t ever here the words “we were aimlessly flying about. As it was, the 9/11 attack was simple in it’s nature, but very still manged to kill thousands.

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