Letter from the Editor

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Finally capturing Mr. Clinton

I might have been the happiest guy in the whole gym when former President Bill Clinton showed up out of the deep pea soup last Sunday night.

Not because I'm particularly enamored with the idea of spending another of my weekends listening to political speech-ifying, but because I needed him to keep my streak alive. I've now photographed the last six presidents covering 33 years of office collectively (thanks to an early start as an underclassman high school journalist and a couple lucky breaks catching a prez here and there years after they left office.)

With the glut of candidates in Storm Lake this season, odds are good I've got number seven, and who knows, possibly an eight, in the bank.

Gerald Ford patted me on the head and called me "son" once in an airplane hangar in Ida Grove. I liked him - he seemed earthy and honest and real - and I was sad to hear of his passing recently.

Jimmy Carter was a freedom lecturer at BVU some years ago, a warm man who is passionate about his humanitarian work - but I must say, a tough guy to catch in an expression or gesture. I'd first met him years ago when I was in school and he was trying to get re-elected - what I remember most is that his son Chip was seemingly quite tipsy, and we conned him into signing a formal decree declaring our school rag as "The White House's Official Best Newspaper West of the Mississippi." I still have that.

Reagan was an interesting shoot back when I was a college freshman - he wasn't all that well liked then in Iowa, at least not by war-fearful younger voters. Our campus cartoonist dubbed him "Ray-Gun" and drew him on a Star Wars spaceship. He had an undeniable presence, though. He grew on us - one of my favorite possessions is a little hunk of the Oval Office, pieces Reagan passed out when it was being restored during his tenure.

I was lucky enough to get invited to the White House by Barbara Bush for a ceremony during George H.W.'s presidency, and also got to photograph him when I was just out of college, starting my career in Storm Lake. What I remember most of that shoot was the crazy security. Here's a tip - never carry Snickers bars in your camera bag if it is going to be searched by (hungry) Secret Service dogs. Not unless you want to make a federal case of yourself. And it was weird to see snipers perched atop Storm Lake college buildings with powerful scoped rifles trained in the general direction of your genetalia. I scratched no itches that day! And I can't recall a thing the man said.

My first meeting with George W. Bush was in front of a hog barn at the Clay County Fair. He was standing on top of a picnic bench in a cowboy-style white shirt. I asked him what I thought was a lob of a question about whether he would support conservation farming - it was a county fair after all - and he got a glazed over, deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes. Gov. Branstad stepped out of the posse to rescue him and answer the question on Mr. Bush's behalf. Still, cameras love the man. He's the best posing stance-striker I've shot in politics since Jesse Jackson.

Somehow, Clinton had evaded my lens all these years, so I'm doubly glad he pulled through that quadruple bypass and I would have paid to watch the guy shank golf balls if necessary. Like they always say in baseball, you gotta respect the streak.

Mr. Clinton was clearly in his element back on the campaign trail, so much so that I wonder if he could fully exist without people mobbed around him. I know the man has had his serious shortcomings, but there is no denying that he somehow fills the room when he steps in, as few other leaders have ever been able to do - it's like turning on a super-high wattage lightbulb.

As a sidenote - listen to the music that politicians play before they get introduced. It's as carefully orchestrated as the speech. Bill's soundtrack was so clearly intended as a resume for Hillary, I had to smile as I wrote them down in order: "A Change (Is Gonna Do You Good)," "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," "Read to Run" by the Dixie Chicks, "Takin' Care of Business," "Working 9 to 5" by Dolly Parton, "American Girl," "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," and finally Bon Jovi trilling "Who Says You Can't Go Home"... to the White House, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, hmmmm?

Every politician I've covered likes to yell when they hit their big points - Bill Clinton whispers them. He knows the crowd has to lean forward to get them. They have to really listen, and that makes his sandpaper whisper much more impactful than a shout.

He is a genius at reaching out to people - and he honestly seems to revel in wading into them. Other politicans shake hands and pose in photos when necessary, but Clinton befriends.

I got my photos and watched all this Sunday with a somewhat jaundiced eye, from having seen dozens of candidates shake it and fake it, gripping and grinning over my years.

Then I snuck around to where I could peek behind the big blue secret curtain after the speech, to see a little of what the man was about when there were no TV cameras, wealthy donors, potential Hillary caucusers or PR spinners around to see it.

What I saw was a man who had to be dead tired, running way late, listening to a young MS sufferer in a wheelchair and the young wife who cares for him. He had all the time in the world for them. Impulsively, Clinton reached out and hugged the woman, surprising her a bit, I think, then practically got down on his knees to put his hand on the young man's painfully thin arm and share some encouraging words at close range (remember, not for the benefit of cameras or image, this.)

I've had the opportunity to take stacks of photos of powerful leaders and presidential wannabes. One carried a pig as a PR gimmick and kissed it while I snapped her photo; another wore a white George Washington wig and sat on top of his car for a portrait. A few impressed; honestly, many bored or repulsed me.

But watching a president kneel down beside a wheelchair, trying so clearly to give away some of his spirit and his energy to someone who needed it more... this was the first time one of them had ever touched me.

The light was awful, my focus was shaky, the composing and backdrop were all wrong. But to me, that sneaky picture is gonna be a keeper.