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February 7, 2014

The Pet Goat, Revisited. (Or: The 9/11 Photo I Never Saw Before.)

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Working on the photo edit for Sunday’s BagNews Salon on White House photo access, I’ve had the chance to look at a broader sweep of White House photography. (If you’re not familiar with the format of the Salon, major political events and issues are examined in terms of their visual representation, the discussion by photographers, editors and visual experts structured around a carefully chosen group of images.)

This edit has been particularly interesting to build because of the number of photographers or editors on the panel. That’s because our format calls for inclusion of at least one photo in the discussion taken or edited by a participant. How did I end up writing about George Bush and 9/11 this morning? In this case, it’s because we were studying photos edited by Mike Davis, the Alexia Tsairis Chair For Documentary Photography at Newhouse School, Syracuse University, a member of Sunday’s panel, and most significantly, the Bush Administration’s Lead Picture Editor from 2001 – 2004.

I was very familiar with Eric Draper’s 9/11 photos on the Bush White House website, I was also familiar with Bush White House photographer Eric Draper’s slideshow at TIME Lightbox last year, coincident with the release of his book, Front Row Seat, several of those images published also by the Bush Library.  What I hadn’t seen until the last few days, however, were the Bush Library’s (additional) 9/11 images featured in their online 9/11 retrospective photo gallery.

With the Salon in mind – and thinking about White House photo access from the larger standpoint of what images a White House chooses to make available, and not only why but when, I was very surprised to discover the image above in the Bush Library gallery, one of four from Booker Elementary School shot that morning.

I imagine there are few readers of this site who aren’t thoroughly familiar with the historic photo, popularly labeled “The Pet Goat,” known for the book the President was reading to the children upon being informed by Andy Card that a second plane had struck the World Trade Center.  If I was quite familiar with the photos taken in a empty classroom after Bush finally left those students, what I never expected to see was an official White House photo from the reading lesson.

One of the gifts of studying the imagery from that morning is the existence of thorough timelines – minute by minute accounts of everything that happened. Fortuitous, also, are the presence of clocks in the different classrooms allowing us to determine exactly when different scenes occurred. In this case, we can see that the photo was taken at about 9:13 a.m. We know from the published timelines that Bush entered the classroom at 9:03, was informed at 9:05 by Andy Card that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Towers, and that he didn’t finish up with the kids until 9:14. (Bush already knew from Condi Rice that a commercial aircraft had collided into the Trade Center at 8:55 a.m., before he entered the classroom.)

Here’s my question though. Given the intense criticism Bush endured for sitting there that long without leaving the children and responding immediately to this cataclysmic event, why is this photo now enshrined in the Bush Library’s 9/11 photo gallery – given its status as the president’s “legacy version” and, I imagine, his administration’s best representation of that day? It’s a vexing question, given how hard it is to see the photo as anything more than a reminder of the notorious other one.

This is pure speculation, but If I had to guess at the reasons, I would put forth two. I think there’s an instinct out there that the way to counteract one image is to float still more – the idea being that more produce a dilutive effect. My other idea is simpler. If “The Pet Goat” photo serves as an indictment, perhaps the intention of this photo is to normalize the situation, finessing the issue of whether Bush should have stayed the extra ten minutes or not. To many of us, as familiar as we are about that day, this photo might primarily remind us of a President frozen in place. Perhaps the Bush Library, however, understands that future generations will cease to know about The Goat, simply seeing instead where Bush happened to be the morning America was attacked.

(photo: Eric Draper/Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. (P7060-19A): caption: President George W. Bush participates in a reading demonstration the morning of September 11, 2001, at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida.)

  • acm

    I imagine they can’t really leave out a photo of that day, if for no other reason than a sort of “where were you when you heard…” record. Probably the 10-minute scandal will fade over time, and it will be viewed more as a glimpse of the normal morning that was turned into something so different . . .

  • black_dog_barking

    I’ve not found much to admire about our smallest president. But he was very good at projecting his internal denials, at bending the observation of those around him so they’d see him as what he thought he was and he thought they should see. Like the ranch-owning, brush-clearing cowboy Texas ranch-owner who was, in really real life, terrified of horses.

    So I accept that if GWB approves showing an image of The Pet Goat moment then that showing works to ultimately buff perceptions of GWB’s stature. Those guys were world-class at image recovery and enhancement, the very very best.

    And as telling-ly insightful as I find those 10 minutes of frozen suffering on that fateful morning, those 10 minutes are a trivial failure. I remember well where I was that day, as we all do. I remember where I was, I remember the slowly unfolding horror of the day’s events. One thing I remember quite vividly is that GWB was nowhere to be found as those events slowly became known. Not just for 10 minutes in that 2nd grade school room, the President of the United States was not heard or seen all goddamn day.

  • Stan B.

    Really? Everyone’s gonna look at that small sea of Black faces and not state the obvious? This is a “legacy” photo folks! Proof positive as to why our great leader did not rush out haphazardly to don his warrior’s regalia- he simply could not be torn from tending to the very neediest of his flock. Goddamn Christlike the man was…

  • Gasho

    Take a good look at his face. That’s not the face of someone who just got attacked — that’s the face of someone who just found out that there is no turning back. Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the other PNAC folks had just – 10 minutes before this shot – finally gotten their “New Pearl Harbor” — a necessary element to begin their campaign against the Middle East. This picture shows a man who’s complicit in mass murder, now along for the ride, destined to be the front man who will have to lie a million times, champion a war of choice, and kill hundreds of thousands of people. He knew this news was coming, but perhaps he didn’t know precisely when… and nobody told him how to react when he heard it. He literally didn’t know what to do in order to live the lie AND be the President at the same time, so he froze. We’ll see what history has to say in the long run, but I’ll never change my verdict: GUILTY.

    • Thomas

      Exactly right. The Bush Library may think a new image from a new perspective may help shape the narrative in a new light, but the truth is the truth. Bush’s knotted body and distant stare just confirm this as a moment of profound stage fright at having agreed to play the Angel of History for his family’s neo-conservative country club gang. What a catastrophe.

  • Michael Shaw

    Stan: although I wrote many times about Bush’s patronization of African-Americans, and also Rove’s strategy of skimming off a few more percentage points of black support as a key to creating that “permanent majority,” I never applied that preoccupation to the morning of 9/11.

    (Check out this interview with Mehlman in 2005, by the way, and how the Administration was looking for every chance to cultivate African-Americans and other minority groups.) This snip explains how Rove was thinking:

    As I said, from a base perspective, conservatives increased their participation level as a proportion of the electorate. Republicans were for the first time ever equal to Democrats in their participation level of the electorate. At the same time, 44 percent of the Latino vote, the highest ever.

    We improved our performance among people that live in big cities by 13 points, from 26 to 39 percent. African Americans go up, Jewish Americans go up, women go up. Across the political spectrum, we not only appealed to the red areas, making them redder, but we turned a lot of blue areas purple. …

    Looking at the photo again with that in mind, it brings a whole new dimension to the question of what kept Bush in that room. If it was one part fear, maybe it was two more parts politics and that always (at least, visually) troubling obsession with Rove’s agenda. Remember all this?

    • Stan B.

      “the Administration was looking for every chance to cultivate African-Americans and other minority groups.”

      Yes, but always by doing it on the sly and easy: a few choice words of Spanish here and there with a couple of tacos on the side, a few choice photo ops with a captive audience that can’t challenge and confront (like above)- priceless! Their bogus “cultivation” never made any real attempt at inclusion, to actually
      sit down, discuss the problems at hand and seek out compromises and solutions. It was all about appearances, the very least amount possible with the most amount of visibility. Same as it ever was…

  • Scarabus

    We should never forget that while Bush was sitting there, collecting his thoughts and summoning his courage, Darth Cheney was effectively in charge and was definitely giving the orders. Scary!

    Can’t help wondering what that day was like for the kids. The place is crawling with “suits” and photographers and sound-boom holders etc. The kids aren’t quite wearing uniforms but have clearly been told how to dress. Pretty good teacher-student ratio!

    This isn’t a president reading to kids. It’s an actor on a stage set, playing the role of a president reading to kids. I’m reminded of the little set created to be a backdrop for photo-ops at the ranch. This photo is equivalent to one of those “location” stills taken to document and publicize a movie.

    (Incidentally, speaking of the ranch, I’m reminded of the documentary Crawford, which shows the effect on that quiet little town of having a president move in for a few years, bringing with him his own entourage plus an army of journalists. Highly recommended.)

  • LanceThruster

    The Secret Service at Booker Elementary: The Dog That Did Not Bark

  • Cactus

    When whatever historian of the future, or eager college
    student, does some research, most likely this photo is the one they’ll find
    first. Only if they have the time and effort to find the other and all the
    press and comments surrounding it, will their curiosity be rewarded. But
    for the young and those looking for a quick answer, this will suffice. Bush’s
    staring facade pales in the background, while the eye goes to the students and
    the teacher. Indeed, Bush almost fades into the background with his handlers. Only those of us who know can still see the ‘Will Farrell’ stare
    of panic in that face. Maybe Bush doesn’t even see it.

    Give it another ten or so years and the republican machine
    will be calling it the ‘The Ronald Reagan Memorial Photograph of President Bush
    Reading to Little Black Children to Distract Them from the Horrible Events
    Unfolding Outside.”

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