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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.)

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