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.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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