Relative to the length of his presidency, no commander-in-chief may have a deeper visual archive than Gerald Ford. That's the guess of Michael Martinez, a photojournalism professor at the University of Tennessee who's studying six decades of official presidential photography, and has already spent a great deal of time sifting through the work of David Hume Kennerly, who spent two-and-a-half years capturing nearly every minute of Ford's brief stint in office.
"It’s to build a narrative," Martinez tells Washingtonian of official White House photographers' work. Having a full-time photographer only goes as far back as John F. Kennedy, who created the position when he brought in Cecil Stoughton to develop the "Camelot" narrative. Before Kennedy, most official presidential photos were taken by a string of random military photographers, Martinez says. But not all presidential visual legacies are as story-driven as Kennedy's, or as volumnious as Ford's and Barack Obama's, both of whom are photographed as much with their families as they are on official White House business.
"Sometimes they get a feel for the family, and sometimes we get the coldness of the office," Martinez says. "Nixon was very controlling, and Ollie Atkins didn’t have unlimited access, he was more of a public relations guy."
Atkins had had a long career in newspaper photograph before signing up with Nixon in 1968, including several World War II campaigns in Africa and Europe. But in the White House, he mostly captured the ceremonial moments for an otherwise media-sensitive president. That's why one of the most famous images from Nixon's presidency—a grip-and-grin shot with Elvis Presley—feels so static.
"You could subsitute a head of state, a governor for Elvis," Martinez says. "The only reason it’s so desirable is because it’s Elvis."
Kennerly, on the other hand, wound up being one of Ford's closest confidants. While Kennerly's most memorable photo might be the one of Ford reaching down to pet his golden retriever, Liberty, the former Time photographer had practically unfettered access to the Ford family's most private moments. Martinez is particularly fond of one of President Ford visiting his wife, Betty, just after her breast-cancer surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital, and another of Susan Ford preparing to sub in on ceremonial duties during her mother's recovery.
Not all presidents have been as available as Ford, and some have been even more restrictive than Nixon. Jimmy Carter eschewed having an official photographer entirely, while Bill Clinton—who had Bob McNeely—also left behind a fairly conservative photo archive. Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes were more open with their photographers, as is Obama with Pete Souza. Martinez's research also tracks changes in photography as a profession and a medium: Reagan's first-term photogapher, Michael Evans, made the switch to full-time color portraits, while George W. Bush's shooter, Eric Draper, jumped from film to digital.
One of the biggest factors determining what kind of visual legacy the public gets is whether a president gets the right photgrapher, Martinez says. These relationships can start years before a president actually enters office, and often last long after a term is complete.
"Defining the right photographer is pretty difficult," Martinez says. "Because they campaign for two-plus years before the election, you have your pick of some good ones. I think the question is more so whether they would want to grant any sort of great access, whether they’re comfortable with the photographer and comfortable with their own skin to let people around them. When you’re president you’re never alone."
Souza, the current occupant of the job, had his first White House stint during Reagan's second term, but he'll be remembered more for his work with Obama. Souza first took photos of Obama on assignment for the New York Times in 2004, and latched onto the then-senator's presidential campaign staff in early 2007. But Souza's bigger legacy will be as the first White House photographer whose work is transmitted to the public almost in real time, thanks to his big followings on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.
"He’s doing a photo stream and direct to the public," Martinez says. "The media can pick it up, but the public can just sit there and watch it. In previous administrations, they had to go through traditional media of some sort."
But there's a flip side to that progress. While Martinez credits Obama as one of the more generous presidents—"You see the interaction of Michelle and Barack and the kids," he says—Souza is also doing as much PR work as he is archival work, something that started on the first day of the Obama Administration.
"When Chief Justice Roberts screwed up the swearing in on Inauguration Day, there was a re-do private ceremony," Martinez says. "Media were not allowed in. It was a handout from the White House Press Office."
It's a tactic the White House has kept up as it has kept news photographers out of the room during many official presidential moments, much to the frustration of the current crop of photojournalists assigned to cover the president. "A government photographer is no substitute for an independent, experienced photojournalist," the White House News Photographers Association said last February when the administration refused to open the Dalai Lama's visit with Obama to news cameras, but later distributed a Souza photo for media use.
That's a bad trend for journalism, but it also damages the reputation of Souza and his fellow White House photographers through the years.
"Every once in a while that thing happens, and that’s not good, because it becomes a PR function, not a documentary function," Martinez says.
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
A Department of Homeland Security panel convened after a September incident in which a man jumped the fence around the White House and ran into the building before being apprehended says the simplest way to prevent future invasions is simply to build a bigger fence.
The report, issued Thursday, is a thorough smackdown of the Secret Service and chastises the agency for a deficit of leadership in the wake of the fence-jumping escapade of Omar Gonzalez. But, it states, the quickest fix to presidential protection is to raise the barrier around the White House from its current height of seven feet, six inches to 12 or 13 feet.
"We decline to say precisely what the optimal new fence should look like," the panel writes, although its members do actually have a few design tips. "For sure, the fence must be taller; even an increase of four or five feet would be materially helpful. Horizontal bars, where climbers can easily place feet or hands, should be eliminated or placed where they provide little assistance. The top of the fence can also be manipulated in certain ways—such as including curvature outward at the top of the fence—to make scaling it much more difficult for most."
A taller, outwardly curved fence around the 18-acre campus sounds impressive, but it presents two big questions: Will a taller fence actually keep motivated intruders away? And just how big can the White House's perimeter get without completely eroding its supposed reputation as a "people's house" (as the Homeland Security report refers to it)?
"Any kind of improvement could deter access," says J. Reid Meloy, a clinical psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego, who consults for the FBI. But Meloy says the physical reinforcements can only go so far without making the White House an unwelcoming fortress in the middle of a busy city.
"In a sense that the culture demands this be the people’s house, there should be visible access," he says. "You don’t want any kind of barrier that eliminates visible access."
But Meloy adds that even if the Secret Service replaces the current fence with a taller, curvier model, it won't stop all the potential fence-jumpers out there, especially if they're lone actors like Gonzalez or Dominic Adesanya, a Bel Air, Maryland, resident who was arrested October 22 after climbing onto the White House lawn.
"Some of the most creative attacks against public figures have been mounted by lone individuals," he says. "You can deter, you can reduce risk, but you’re never going to completely eliminate threats."
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
Although Halloween as we know it became popular early in the 20th century, it wasn’t until Dwight D. Eisenhower was president that ghosts, goblins, and witches were first invited into the White House. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower took the lead on dressing up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for Halloween as early as 1956. “I know she loved to decorate,” says William Bushong, the White House Historical Association's chief historian. “She decorated for every holiday. Any reason to decorate, and she would decorate.”
President John F. Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s legacy by embracing the Halloween spirit during his time in office. “I think the [pictures] that really strike at your heart a little bit are the Kennedy series of photographs of the President with John and Caroline in costume coming to see their father in the oval office,” says Bushong.
During the Nixon administration, Pat Nixon hosted a number of Halloween parties, including one in 1969 that included horror film Dark Shadows actor Jonathan Frid on its guest list.
Then there were the presidents and first ladies who not only dressed up the White House, they dressed up themselves as well. In 1993, Bill and Hillary Clinton dressed up as James and Dolley Madison. “Part of the reason for that was that Mrs. Clinton’s birthday fell so close to Halloween, on October 27, so I think they combined that party with her birthday,” says Bushong. Another time, he says the pair paid homage to the musical Grease by dressing as a motorcyclist and a Bobby Soxer. “I think just from the photographs you get a sense that they really enjoyed that sort of thing,” says Bushong.
During George W. Bush’s term, he and Mrs. Bush enjoyed taking photos of their two Scottish Terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, and their cat Willie posed with pumpkins and wearing costumes such as devil horns.
No president has had quite as elaborate of Halloween parties as Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. They tend to keep it very child-centric and intricate, with themes such as Alice in Wonderland and guest lists that include the likes of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.
Halloween celebrations have become a fun way to start off the holiday season at the White House, and today, the American people have come to look forward to it. “They expect the president to be just like them and celebrate holidays in a manner similar to the rest of the country,” says Bushong.
When it comes to assassination attempts, how much information is too much? Flooded by stories and reports of the White House fence-jumper, plus new information about the shots fired across the South Lawn in 2011, some psychologists say that media saturation of this political violence could spur more.
J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego who studies the assassinations of public figures, says one of the central motivators for these sorts of attacks is to gain a level of notoriety. And when someone like Omar Gonzalez, the fence-jumper, receives a storm of media coverage for his actions, other would-be assassins notice and want the same.
“They pay close attention to people who have preceded them,” says Meloy, co-editor of the book Stalking, Threatening and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis. “They tend to not only identify with previous attackers, but also, in a sense, compete with them for greater notoriety.”
One of the most comprehensive reports on assassination in the US was a 1999 study of all 83 people known to have attacked or attempted to attack a public official or public figure from 1949 to 1996. The targets could be very different—presidents, congressmen, judges, celebrities—but there was a commonality to many of the attackers. They had reached a sort-of life crisis and wanted to leave a lasting impact on the world. The attackers saw assassination and the media coverage that follows as a way to do that.
“For them, it's better to be notorious than ignored,” says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. Founder of the CIA's Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, Post spent two years in the 1960s as part of an NIH unit at St. Elizabeths Hospital interviewing people who had threatened the White House. He mentions the case of Frank Eugene Corder, who crashed his small plane onto the White House lawn in 1994. “He wanted to go out in a blaze of glory,” says Post. “It's the powerless seeking power by connection.”
Some of the attackers in the study even changed their intended victims. The killing could thus be impersonal, less about a specific target or grievance and more about the notoriety gained from the act itself.
“Typically these individuals lives have deteriorated to the point, at least in their mind, the most important alternative choice is to kill a public figure,” says Meloy. “It compensates for a life of failure and misery.”
Meloy believes the attackers shouldn't even be named by the media. He says that while an attacker's history and motivations are something the public has a right to know, photographs of them or personal comments they made at the time should be avoided. It's the same reason television networks don't show the streakers who run onto a soccer field during a game—giving them the coverage they desire will only inspire more to do the same. “They see the individual notoriety this person has gained through this act, and they want it too,” says Meloy.
Not identifying these attackers also prevents would-be assassins from forming a personal connection to their predecessors, which can also motivate them. Meloy points out that John Hinckley Jr.—who shot President Reagan in 1981—idolized Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's killer. Aspiring assassins have been known to even write or call their idols in prison.
A comprehensive account of what motivated Omar Gonzalez's mad dash to the East Room isn't fully known yet, but, Meloy says, “it wouldn't surprise me if notoriety is one of them.”
Find Michael Gaynor on Twitter at @michael_gaynor.
Among the many revelations about bungled White House security laid out in recent days by the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig, few are as jarring as the tidbit about the Secret Service’s initial assessment of the November 2011 incident in which a gunman fired a semiautomatic rifle at the presidential residence:
“By the end of that Friday night, the agency had confirmed a shooting had occurred but wrongly insisted the gunfire was never aimed at the White House. Instead, Secret Service supervisors theorized, gang members in separate cars got in a gunfight near the White House’s front lawn — an unlikely scenario in a relatively quiet, touristy part of the nation’s capital.”
During a week when the Secret Service has been flayed by public officials and the media, it's worth adding this to the bill of complaints: This theory betrays a baffling ignorance of the city where the agents work. To note this isn't to make another one of those poor-pitiful-me hometown gripes about how federal types ignore the locals. If you're in charge of protecting a guy who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue and periodically moves around the city, being an ignoramus about the environs represents a professional breach.
A gunfight near the front lawn would be where, exactly? The steps outside of DAR Constitution Hall? Not impossible, but highly implausible. As Leonnig notes in the same story, the Secret Service can’t depend on the Metropolitan Police Department’s ShotSpotter technology—the nearest gunshot monitor is about a mile away—but of the parts of the District that are observed for weapons fire, the four plots closest to the White House complex each recorded one incident between 2009 and 2013.
The area immediately surrounding the White House—historic hotels, museums, other heavily fortified government buildings—is one of the lowest-crime parts of the city. The area would, on paper, get even safer if the response to last month’s White House invasion by a man who climbed over the fence and managed to dash deep into the building before being stopped, is to fatten up the security bubble. Ironically, the security bubble itself may be part of the problem when it comes to agents being able to ignore their surroundings. Alas, the Secret Service's first reaction to the latest revelations would make that worse.
Every instance of the White House restricting more turf from the public only exacerbates the nettlesome relationship between the presidential bubble and the city that surrounds it. Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing; E Street, Northwest, followed after 9/11. The Secret Service actually staged a public forum in July 2013 raising the possibility of re-opening the two blocks of E Street south of the White House to bicycle traffic, but the matter hasn’t been touched since.
The biggest lesson the Secret Service struggles to latch onto in the District is that federal government police agencies need to be more cognizant of the fact they operate inside a city with 645,000 non-term-limited people. While veteran MPD officers tell Washingtonian that DC cops and officers working for the Secret Service or US Park Police share lots of information, there’s a fundamental difference in the types of police work they perform. Local cops patrol street corners and walk beats, federal cops—especially Secret Service officers on presidential detail—secure perimeters. Delroy Burton, the head of the union representing MPD’s rank-and-file officers, says expanding the buffer around the White House would be the wrong response.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton amplified Burton’s caution in her testimony Tuesday at a House Oversight hearing on the September 19 incident in which suspected intruder Omar Gonzalez made his way over the fence and into the White House. “Particularly troubling in light of such unanswered questions would be a rush to quick fixes such as suppression of public access to the area around the White House without a thorough investigation,” she said.
Yet the White House’s misunderstanding of its neighborhood runs deeper than just the past few years. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush gave a now-infamous press conference in which he amped up the “War on Drugs” by holding up a bag of crack cocaine purchased by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Lafayette Park. But even at the height of DC’s crack epidemic, Lafayette Park was no drug market, and it took some manipulation to get a dealer there. When the DEA called the dealer it would eventually nab for Bush’s prop, the suspect’s response was “Where the [expletive] is the White House?” the Post reported at the time. The police union scolded the White House and the DEA for mixing politics with law enforcement.
Burton is hardly insensitive to the White House’s concerns, though. District police are responsible for all presidential movements within city limits. The Secret Service works closely with MPD, but the partnership is tighter in the special operations division than it is with officers on street patrols.
The Secret Service clearly has issues to work out, as shown in Leonnig’s reporting this week, but its exposed faults seem more the results of human error. Responding by suddenly expanding the security bubble again—whether it’s more fences and Jersey barriers or bag checks on 15th Street—will only make the White House more alienated from the rest of Washington.
“They key is to educate the public,” says Burton. “When people understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing, it’s easier for them to accept some difficulty. But when they don’t know what you’re doing, it creates anxiety.”
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
With more than eight intruders making their way onto the White House grounds in the past year alone (including one toddler who slipped through the fence’s iron bars), the Secret Service is contemplating beefing up security around “the people’s house.” A timeline of the increasing fortification of the presidential mansion:
Early 19th century: The White House grounds were a very popular spot for sightseers. “[T]he iron gates to the White House grounds opened at 8 in the morning and closed at sundown. Almost anyone was likely to wander [the well-manicured gardens], along the paths,” explains American historian William Seale.
1801-1809: President Jefferson replaces the rail fence surrounding the White House grounds with a high stone wall. He then begins his own tradition of opening the mansion doors every day to allow the public to enter and freely explore it.
1817-1825: President Monroe switches the White House’s high stone wall to an iron fence. He also hires guards for his executive mansion on days when the public is allowed into the White House.
1835: After Richard Lawrence attempts to shoot President Jackson, a sentry “watch box” is put on the south grounds.
1922: President Harding creates the White House Police Force to protect the executive mansion and its grounds.
1930: After the White House Police Force allows an intruder into the White House dining room where President Hoover is eating, the Secret Service is put in full control of security.
World War II: Public access to the White House grounds is discontinued. Everyone must now check in with guards at the surrounding gates.
1974: A man affixes flares to his body and drives his Chevrolet Impala into the northwest gate. The White House’s wrought-iron gates are switched to reinforced gates.
1976: Tourist traffic increases to the point that tickets are issued, admitting only a certain number of visitors.
1980s: Following truck-bomb attacks on a Marine barracks, concrete Jersey barriers are put around the White House perimeter.
1995: After the April Oklahoma City bombing, the Treasury Department closes off two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue directly outside the White House. “I acknowledge that the security of the President of the United States is paramount,” says then-senator Rod Grams, “but . . . the need to ensure the President’s safety must be balanced with the expectation of freedom inherent in a democracy.”
2001: Immediately following 9/11, the White House is closed to the general public. Current procedure requires all visitors to apply at least 21 days before their visit to their congressional representative, who then passes their names on to the White House.
It’s possible that John Hinckley Jr. was not confined to St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital when a Virginia medical examiner ruled that former White House press secretary James Brady’s death last week was a homicide. Hinckley could have been at his mother’s gated community in Williamsburg.
Hinckley shot Brady in an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan survived, but Brady suffered brain damage. A jury ruled in 1982 that Hinckley was not guilty by reason of insanity on 13 charges, including attempted assassination. He’s spent most of the past 33 years at St. Elizabeths, on a hill in Southeast DC overlooking the city. [For more on Hinckley’s case, read the October 2011 feature “Free John Hinckley.”]
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have been battling over Hinckley’s status before US District Judge Paul L. Friedman for more than a decade. Hinckley’s lawyers argue that he is recovering from the mental illness and should be allowed to live outside St. Elizabeths; prosecutors are adamant that he should remain confined.
James Brady, the White House press secretary who was critically wounded in the 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and became an advocate for gun control, died Monday in Alexandria at the age of 73, his family announced. The cause was not disclosed.
Brady barely survived a bullet fired by John Hinckley Jr., whose attack outside the Washington Hilton left Brady with permanent brain damage, partial paralysis, and short-term memory loss. While Reagan left the hospital within two weeks, Brady’s convalescence took a nine-month stay followed by years of physical therapy. As recounted in the March 1983 issue of Washingtonian, Brady’s life was very likely saved because of an argument between another White House staffer and an ambulance driver over which hospital he should have been taken to.
The driver insisted he was taking Brady to Washington Hospital Center, four miles away. [White House advance man Rick] Ahearn wanted George Washington University Hospital, less than a mile from the hotel. The driver refused to change direction, and then suddenly admitted he didn’t know the way to Washington Hospital Center. Incredulous at this news, Ahearn, with the backing of a Secret Service agent, prevailed, and the ambulance sped off toward GW.
The doctor who operated on Brady told Washingtonian that Brady, who was in the GW emergency room ten minutes after the shooting, would have died on the longer drive to Washington Hospital Center.
He returned to the White House on a very limited basis by the end of Reagan’s first term, although he could never resume his press-secretary duties.
Instead, Brady and his wife, Sarah, became tireless promoters of enhanced gun control, particularly concerning handguns like the $29 revolver Hinckley used. The couple became the leaders of the gun violence-prevention group now called the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and pushed for a federal law, also named for Brady, that requires computer background checks on handgun purchases.
“I wouldn’t be here in this damn wheelchair if we had some commonsense legislation,” he said on Capitol Hill in 2011 after needling Congress to improve federal gun-control measures. Sadly, Brady’s message to Congress went unheeded, as Congress neglected to pass gun-control measures following mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Newtown, Connecticut; and DC’s Navy Yard, among many other incidents.
President Obama pleased many District residents today by publicly stating his support for statehood for the nation’s capital.
“I’m in DC, so I’m for it,” Obama, an Illinois resident who’s worked in Washington for the past decade, said Monday during an event at the Walker-Jones Education Campus in Northwest. “Folks in DC pay taxes like everybody else. They contribute to the overall well-being of the country like everybody else. There has been a long movement to get DC statehood, and I’ve been for it for quite some time.”
That’s an encouraging statement, but Obama’s record as President isn’t exactly one that shows longtime support for the District’s goal of self-determination. Obama has been rather squishy on the topic over the years, famously trading away DC in 2011 to get a budget deal with House Speaker John Boehner, who insisted on banning the city from funding abortions for low-income women. The president’s concession—“John, I will give you DC abortion.”—is a sore memory for many District residents.
Obama has made many statements since then in support of DC’s goals of budget autonomy and voting seats in Congress, including last week when he threatened to veto a House-passed appropriations bill that contains an amendment aimed at canceling the city’s newly enacted marijuana decriminalization law. The White House also slapped District-issued “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousines last year. But some statehood activists still feel Obama has fallen short.
“Those are both parts of statehood but not the whole thing,” says Josh Burch, who runs a group called Neighbors United for DC Statehood. “Statehood is the only thing that protects us from our enemies and our friends. Barack Obama is our friend, but he’s willing to sell us out.”
In fairness to the President, Burch says there are plenty of members of Congress who voice support for DC statehood but still vote for measures that limit the city’s autonomy, such as Democratic Representatives Jared Polis and Timothy Walz, who cosponsored a statehood bill but also voted last week for an amendment that seeks to overturn local gun laws.
“This problem is not unique to Barack Obama,” Burch says. “It’s something our entire national leadership is willing to be a party to.” Still, Burch says he’s happy to hear the President’s newly vocal support statehood, even if his record is lacking.
One possible reason Obama’s affinity for DC is growing: He might stick around town for a few years after his second term ends so his younger daughter, Sasha, can finish up high school here, as he told ABC News last fall.
“It’ll personalize him to the city,” Burch says. “We’re not just a city with good sandwich joints. Talk is sweet, action is better, and thus far his actions haven’t been that supportive of us.”
Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.
John Ficklin met his first President in 1939, shortly after his brother Charles got the 20-year-old John a job as a part-time pantry boy at the White House—an elevator opened and there was Franklin Roosevelt. The son of a former slave from Rappahannock County, John Ficklin would go on to serve eight more Presidents and rise to be maître d’, as the top White House butler is officially known—often the first person the President or First Lady sees in the morning and the last person he or she sees at night. Ficklin’s personal effects from the time, says Duke Blackwood, director of the Reagan library, “offer a rare insight into the social and cultural history of a national institution.” Ficklin retired in 1983 and died the next year. Here’s a remembrance by Alan DeValerio, one of his former servers.
This article appears in the July 2014 of Washingtonian.