The photographer who saw Barack Obama up close for the entire eight years of his presidency discussed politics, policy and the personal Thursday night, sharing images of life in the White House.
“There was a lot of fun but a lot of work. A lot of stress,” said Pete Souza, chief photographer in the Obama White House.
The presentation at the Unity Temple on the Plaza drew more than 800 people. It was the last in a series of lectures this year that, according to Truman Library Institute Executive Director Alex Burden, has given “an insider’s glimpse of life in the White House” and has highlighted the Truman Library’s special exhibit this year on the extensive renovation of the White House during the Truman years.
That exhibit, “Saving the White House: Truman’s Extreme Makeover,” runs through the end of the year. Burden singled out the library’s curator, Clay Bauske, for putting it together.
“Clay curated a really wonderful show,” he said,
The exhibit draws from the photographs of Abbie Rowe, a National Park Service photographer. Presidents haven’t always had full-time photographers documenting their days in office, but Souza said Rowe not only recorded the excavation and rebuilding of most of the White House, “but he also started documenting Harry Truman a little bit.”
Souza, also an official photographer for five years in the Reagan White House, was in the Obama White House for all eight years. His book, “Obama: An Intimate Portrait: The Historic Presidency in Photographs,” comes out in November.
He’s been winnowing the 2 million images he shot during those eight years to a few hundred for the book, and he shared several that gave a sense of the presidency in the Oval Office and often on the road: meeting with the pope, meeting with the dalai lama, meeting the resident of a demolished house after the 2001 tornado in Joplin, meeting a badly wounded soldier, filling in to coach a youth basketball game, even meeting with Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen in a suit, no less – before presenting him the Medal of Freedom.
Obama’s best day? That was when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, Souza said. Cognizant of history, he caught an image of Obama and Vice President Biden in the Roosevelt Room, with a painting of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback in the background. Later, Obama toasted his staff on the Truman balcony.
His worst day? Easily, Souza said, that was Dec, 14, 2014, when a shooter killed 20 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
“It was a tough day,” Souza said.
The president went to Connecticut.
“He went and met with all the families,” he said.
Souza also favors a picture of Obama holding the heavily marked manuscript of an important speech.
“He’s basically his own speechwriter,” Souza said.
Working on that speech, didn’t do what other presidents generally would do – jot out revisions and send it back to his chief speechwriter. Instead, he sat down with the speechwriter for an hour and a half to walk through his thinking and the rationale for the changes he wanted, “which I think just tells you a lot about him as a person,” Souza said.
Several of Souza’s photos are well known, including the one of Obama and the top members of his national security team after he has given the order for a Navy SEAL team to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. (They killed him.)
In a small room, Obama and his team – Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and others – look anxiously at a screen for the latest word.
“And there is not a damn thing they can do except watch what’s happening,” he said.
Souza offered plenty of lighter moments, too. In one photo, Obama towers over Russian President Vladimir Putin and clearly gives him a piece of his mind.
“This is how you should talk to the Russians,” Souza said, getting the loudest applause of the night.