Front Row Seat: Eric Draper on George W. Bush

Eric Draper
Eric Draper
Jan. 17, 2001. President Elect George W. Bush greets and audience of friends and family in downtown Midland during a send-off rally before leaving for Washington D.C.

Official White House photographs are often democratic in two ways. Some pictures take an everyday man and elevate him to the status of Commander-in-Chief, making a mere mortal seem titanic by capturing him in action against the implicitly powerful backdrop of the West Wing or Air Force One. Others bring the titan back down to earth, showing the man behind the podium as a regular guy who likes to play with dogs and goof around.

The photographs taken by President George W. Bush’s official White House photographer, Eric Draper, do both of those things. In Draper’s new book, Front Row Seat, A Photographic Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush, published by the University of Texas, Bush is seen standing alone in front of the stately windows of the Blue Room, lost in thought, or emerging from the doors of Marine One. Elsewhere he’s seen playing with his two Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, or spattered with mud in work clothes at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Courtesy Eric Draper

Courtesy Eric Draper

Jan. 21, 2001. A never before seen photo of Eric Draper with President George W. Bush and his family a day after the Inauguration in 2001.

Sometimes Bush seems to be in on the enterprise. In formal photos, Bush alternately puts his feet up on the desk or adopts a particularly presidential look. Bush is also aware of his audience when Draper catches his goofy side. Riding a bike through the West Wing or struggling to put on cowboy boots, Bush seems directly addressing the camera and his audience, eager to showcase an inner everyman or make fun of his formal surroundings.

“A lot of those moments he knows I’m there and he trusts my presence,” Draper says, “That’s really him.” Which is the point: whether his subject is self-aware or spontaneous, Draper’s portrait of Bush is authentic. Bush was impatient with pretense and known for letting the air out of moments with a joke. He also loved to “surf” the mood in the room, and was a famously talented retail politician, instinctively aware of who was watching him. Draper saw his role as watching the watcher for the telling moment of presidential connection. “My job was watching who he’s looking at and who he’s connecting with,” Draper says.

Draper’s particular advantage, though, comes with his reportorial pictures. A former Associated Press photographer who covered Bush’s 2000 campaign, Draper has an eye for action. In prayer with Coretta Scott King or reacting to the attack on the World Trade Center, Bush is captured as events unfold around him. Of the moment with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Draper says, “That picture is one of those powerful moments that are totally unscripted and surprising.”

The reportorial pictures are most evocative in the long section on 9/11, when Draper had exclusive access to the president as events unfolded. Here Bush is no longer a man in the spotlight, aware of his audience. Rather he is focused on preparing his public statement, so much so that he doesn’t even look at the video of the attacks on a TV in the decidedly unpresidential setting of a classroom in Sarasota, Florida. “He never really acknowledged what was happening on TV,” says Draper, “He was so focused on delivering his response.” Draper captures Bush as he first turns and sees the burning towers, a reported moment as democratic as any could be.

Eric Draper‘s book, Front Row Seat: A Photographic Portrait of the Presidency of George W. Bush, is available now.

Massimo Calabresi is a Washington correspondent for TIME.

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