- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

When President George W. Bush left the Oval Office for the last time as his term came to an end on Jan. 20, 2009, he didn’t even glance back.

“I was thinking this was going to be emotional, people crying and hugging. And it was so the opposite,” said Eric Draper, who spent eight years peering at the president through a viewfinder as the official White House photographer. “He just calls for his coat and says, ‘I’m going over,’ and turned and walked out without looking back.”


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For a man who spent eight years in the public eye as president, Mr. Bush’s private side remains a mystery to many Americans. Mr. Draper’s new book, “Front Row Seat,” gives a peek behind the privacy curtain that surrounds every president.

As the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas opens to the media this week and to the public in May, Mr. Draper’s book gives readers a look at the president unplugged, as it were.

There’s Mr. Bush in white tube socks and a gray T-shirt slouching in an office chair at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, preparing to cast a fishing rod, and driving his truck with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi riding shotgun.

All told, the photographer shot nearly 1 million frames of Mr. Bush, his family, his staff and the places they went over eight years.

That includes the momentous, the mundane and the mistakes, such as accidental shots of Mr. Bush’s feet. All of them are considered presidential records, so all are preserved for posterity.

The book has 153 photos. Together, they capture the optimism of the early days, the grief of a nation under attack and turning to the solemn purpose of war, and the second term’s end, when Mr. Bush turns over his office to a political opponent who would try to undo much of his legacy.

Sept. 11 occupies an entire section of the book.

Two photos show a stern Mr. Bush arguing with aides aboard Air Force One. Mr. Draper said the president wanted to return immediately to Washington from Florida, but his security staff was telling him the situation was too uncertain to allow that.

The real gems, though, are the ones that show Mr. Bush in his downtime moments, particularly at his ranch in Crawford, or those that show him projecting the power of his office in visits to Albania, Tanzania and India.

“What made him a great photo subject for me was the fact that his interactions with people were so personable,” Mr. Draper said. “I watched him for all these years, especially when I worked for him, to see him connect, with a janitor in the hallway to the king of Saudi Arabia. He had this gift of connecting with people, so that interaction was fun for me to photograph.”

In the White House, many of the photos are enlarged and put on the hallway and office walls. They are called “jumbos,” and they are among the things that make the White House feel a bit like a museum.

Mr. Draper said one of Mr. Bush’s favorite jumbos was a photo of the president sitting on a chair and leaning forward to peer between his legs at Barney, his Scottish terrier, who was underneath the seat.

“One day he saw this picture and he said, ‘You know, Eric, I think that’s a classic, that should stay up for a while.’ So it stayed up for four years in the West Wing,” Mr. Draper said. He included that photo in the book.

Barney appears in eight shots — the same number as Vice President Dick Cheney.

Between them, Barney, Miss Beasley and Spot, the three family dogs, grace 12 photos — two more than Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser and secretary of state, and equivalent to those featuring Mr. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush.

First lady Laura Bush leads the pack by appearing in 22 of the photos.

The book peers deeply into the Bush family life, with one particularly intriguing photo of Mr. Bush descending a staircase at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dacha. Ms. Rice plays the piano in the foreground, and Mrs. Bush is sitting in the background.

Like most portrait collections, the book is a hagiography. The former president and first lady approved the project and gave their input on the photos that Mr. Draper included.

Mr. Draper manages to capture many of Mr. Bush’s human foils from his eight years, including close ally British Prime Minister Tony Blair, close friend Mr. Koizumi, unreliable partner Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the disappointing Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin once bragged to Mr. Bush that his own black lab, Koni, was “bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner” than Barney — displaying apparently a bit of machismo that was part of the relationship between the two men. But Mr. Draper thinks Mr. Putin was a bit rosy-eyed.

“I was there. I was there in Russia when he told him that. And his dog really wasn’t that much bigger,” he said. “I think Barney could have taken him.”

The photographer wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how history will see Mr. Bush.

“To be honest, I have no clue,” Mr. Draper said. “I’m not a historian. I guess I’m a photo historian to a degree. I let the pictures be the judge, but I don’t know.”

For him, one of the most striking photographs is that of Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., visiting in 2002 with children Martin Luther King III and Bernice King. The daughter is kneeling and holding the hands of the seated president, and the entire group is deep in prayer.

Mr. Draper makes the most of the windows on Marine One, the helicopter that often ferried Mr. Bush on short flights, and through which he saw much of the country close-up.

The photographer frames one shot of the smoking World Trade Center at night as the exhausted president jets for home on Sept. 14, 2001, rubbing his eyes after a day of comforting families and rallying first responders with the famous vow that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

In another photo, he frames the Capitol receding as Mr. Bush leaves Washington on Jan. 20, 2009 — the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as president.

Mr. Draper said he was as fascinated as everyone else when he learned that Mr. Bush had taken up painting.

“I am actually surprised, because, I mean, I didn’t see any example of it during the White House. He was obviously kind of too busy for that,” Mr. Draper said. “But I’m not surprised at the fact that he’s done it 110 percent. Everything he does, I mean, he really goes in — he’s kind of a perfectionist in that way.”