BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BARACK OBAMA Voters are divided, it has now become a contest where issues, facts, policies, persay don't matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's former President Barack Obama on 60 Minutes this week, one stop on a long press tour for his new 701 page memoir. Until the latter days of the election, Obama seldom weighed in on the divisiveness of his successor, though some of his former White House staff made new careers trolling Trump.
PETE SOUZA I'm going to throw some shade tonight, if that's okay. But I want to tell you first how I how I got there. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD There is a lot going on in the documentary, the way I see it, about the work of Obama's chief White House photographer and latter day Instagram influencer, Pete Souza. The film, now available on Peacock, chronicles Souza's journey from photojournalist to in-house documenter of history in progress in the Reagan and Obama administrations to, let's say, photo polemicist. There is the showcase of Souza's work that ranges from capable to poignant to poetic. There is the nostalgia for presidents who, whatever their policies, understood the gravity of their office. And there was the sort of history porn, the vicarious thrill of proximity to proximity to power. Pete Souza is here to talk it all through. Pete, welcome to On the Media.
PETE SOUZA Thanks for having me on, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD These pictures kind of get your heart racing. Hey, you are there with Reagan and Gorbachev.
[REAGAN AND GORBACHEV TALKING]
BOB GARFIELD With Obama meeting Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai and hugging the Sandy Hook families. Did you feel yourself getting goosebumps?
PETE SOUZA Oh, for sure. I would say mostly during the Reagan administration, because, you know, I was a young guy who just kind of basically starting out my career and suddenly in the room where it happens.
BOB GARFIELD The whole thing, I gather, is always to be around the president, but scarcely to be noticed. Not like some human security cam, because your most compelling photos capture drama, pathos and sometimes just raw humanity. There's one iconic image of President Obama bending over near the resolute desk for a five year old visitor so that the little boy could just touch his hair. What was going on?
PETE SOUZA The little boy was Jacob Philadelphia, and he had come in with his family. His dad had worked for the national security staff and he was about to leave the White House. And President Obama invited the family and for keepsake photographs standing in front of the desk, the grip and grin, we call it. Jacob's mom said that Jacob had a question and Jacob's question was along the lines of that his friends had told him that his haircut was just like President Obama's. And with that, President Obama bent over Jacob, touched his head. It was one of those unexpected, fleeting moments. My composition is not that great, but fortunately, I caught the precise moment when he did touch President Obama's head. I only have one frame. That's how quick it happened.
BOB GARFIELD This wasn't like Bill Clinton playing sax on Arsenio. It was a casual, impromptu and just very touching instant of surrender of presidential majesty that you were lucky enough to catch.
PETE SOUZA Well, I was lucky enough to catch, but I've prepared myself for moments like that my whole life, and when these fleeting moments happen, you have to anticipate them. And fortunately, I didn't screw it up because I think the picture is important not just to that kid, but to all kids of color that they see a young African-American boy touching ahead of the president, United States that looks like him. And I think that's why that picture has resonated with so many people.
BOB GARFIELD So many such fleeting moments. Near the beginning of the film, we see you during your first White House tour with Ronald Reagan, I think, on his ranch in a silly exchange with the first lady.
REAGAN And you want us on the other side of the tree, or what?
PETE SOUZA Well, for relief purposes to be better, have you doing something. And my suggestion with watering the three, we have to shovels, we have a chainsaw.
NANCY REAGAN No, please. It's too hot.
REAGAN Did you get that, Pete?
PETE SOUZA Yeah. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD When you worked for him, you weren't particularly caught up in politics at the time, but you also weren't a Reaganite and he was a hard president to be neutral about. When, for example, he was ignoring the AIDS epidemic or during the Iran-Contra scandal or when he was demonizing supposedly welfare queens. Were you able to compartmentalize and just put your whatever personal political feelings you had entirely aside as you went about your business?
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I think so. You know, I sort of feel that I was not as educated as I should have been about the AIDS crisis. And I think that's probably true of Reagan as well. I did think during the Iran-Contra scandal that he had done something wrong.
BOB GARFIELD But you kept your trap shut and kept on shooting, right?
PETE SOUZA Yeah. Yeah. During the Iran-Contra scandal, I was always pushing to be in the room when it was going down. And I do think that I made some pictures during that scandal that really elevate the imagery for history. I mean, I've got that picture before he announces to the public that they had found that proceeds from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras. And you can see the pained look on everybody's faces. And then months later, when the tower commission made their report to him in person and you see that anguished look on his face as John Tower concludes that Reagan, in fact, did trade arms for hostages. I did as best I could for history under the circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD I'll ask you the same questions about Obama. His eight years in office did leave some things to answer for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, prosecutions of journalists, many extrajudicial drone strikes. Your body of work, not literally, but essentially has a kind of gauzy filter to it, not unlike the Camelot vibe of the Kennedy years. It's definitely not warts and all - right?
PETE SOUZA I disagree 100 percent.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me.
PETE SOUZA Well, I mean, I think if you even go through the many pictures we posted on Flickr, photo stream every month behind the scenes pictures, I think you see him anguishing about these decisions. So much so that many of the photographs that we posted publicly on on Flickr were years later used out of context in attack ads by the GOP because it made him look as if he was not the Camelot that you describe.
BOB GARFIELD But there was a bit of a paradox about him documentation wise. He gave you almost total access not only to his work time, but even a great deal of his family time. But equally, he was very stingy with the press corps, not just for answering questions, but even photo ops. Did that occur to you at the time?
PETE SOUZA The administration made it made a mistake on the very first day where they didn't allow news photographers to be president when Obama walked into the Oval Office for the first time, that set people off right away. That's not my role. But I should have said something to the press office. And I can only think of like a couple or two or three other times during the eight years where they made mistakes like that. I think the complaint more was that I happened to be the photographer and President Obama happened to be the president. And when social media exploded and the administration took advantage of social media by using my pictures. And I think that pissed off a lot of the press corps.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about the flip side and not to trigger you were anything but. One thing you can say about Donald Trump is that he has constantly been available to the press. He lies to us, and he calls us traitors, but, you know, he's available. But he has no Pete Souza fly on the wall of his presidency. There seem to be hardly any candid presidential photos to document his term in office.
PETE SOUZA I mean, he does have a chief official White House photographer and they have three or four other White House photographers that are documenting his presidency. I have no inside knowledge of what their access is like. We don't see hardly any behind the scenes moments or human moments of him interacting with other people. But you're right, although he has in the last two weeks made himself available for questions, ironically. But when it fits his advantage, you do see him spouting off quite a bit. And I think you can make the argument that that diminishes the presidency to be out there every day spouting off. I can remember during the Reagan administration where there'd be three or four or five days would go by and the press wouldn't see Reagan. And I remember I ran into Helen Thomas running between my office in the Oval Office outside the press office one time.
BOB GARFIELD This is the UPI correspondent who was in the White House briefing room for decades.
PETE SOUZA For decades. I mean, she was that considered the dean of the White House press corps. She cornered me and she wanted to know if I had seen President Reagan and had he had a heart attack or something, why haven't we seen him? [LAUGHS] It'll be interesting in years to come how people reflect on Trump's press conferences and the lies that were told during them. But I think it keeps the press happy that he, up until two weeks ago, made himself available quite a bit.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Now, this gets to the reason I said triggered in my previous question. It gets to the whole raison d'être behind the way I see it.
ALICE GABRINER When I first met Pete, his politics were not at all evident. I always wondered, what did Pete Souza get from President Obama? Like, how did he change? The feeling that he could no longer be this fly on the wall? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That's photo editor Alice Gabriner, who for two years was your colleague in the Obama White House in this film, talking about a new Pete Souza, a transformation in you that did not go unnoticed elsewhere.
[CLIP] NEWS REPORT Pete Souza is a very unlikely Instagram superstar. Attracting millions of followers after he started applying to President Trump's tweets, but posting Obama White House photos. Along with snarky captions, it's earned him the moniker the "king of shade."
PETE SOUZA Yeah, there had been things stirring up inside of me between Election Day in 2016 and the inauguration. I felt that Trump was a vigarista. That's a Portuguese word, that loosely translated means, con man. You know, my initial posts on Instagram showing pictures from the Obama administration contrasted with somewhat subtle and humorous captions, caught a lot of attention. And then as the months and years went by, my commentary became even more pointed as I could see the disrespect and the lack of dignity that he was showing to the office. And I was really offended by it.
BOB GARFIELD And three million followers nearly offended right along with you. From fly on the wall to nine hundred pound social media gorilla.
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I mean, it's funny, I was talking to David Axelrod, former political strategist for Obama, and he said that I was the least likely person working at the Obama administration, that he would have expected to have gained the kind of attention that that I did. You know, because I was like this behind the scenes guy never gave interviews. I didn't really want to be known, and then suddenly, you know, now.
BOB GARFIELD Those early scenes with the Reagans in the film seem to serve a purpose. They demonstrate that your disgust with Trump isn't about policy or politics necessarily, but character or the lack thereof.
PETE SOUZA It's not about partisanship. I wouldn't have been doing this if someone like John McCain or Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or John Kasick or a whole host of other Republicans had become president. I may have disagreed with them fundamentally on some of their policies, but I don't think I would have been as outraged about them as human beings as I am about Donald Trump.
BOB GARFIELD You were offended by Trump as as a human being, but also more specifically as a photographer. In the film, you showed the picture of Barack Obama and his national security team huddled in The Situation Room as they waited for the bin Laden. Operation to unfold, the tension in your images is palpable. You compare that to the Trump Situation Room in similar circumstances, the fatal drone strike on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
NEWS REPORT Breaking news that the world's most wanted man has been killed in a mission led by United States special forces. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT President Trump laying out what he watched as he started to view this operation in The Situation Room. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD You look at the photo that the White House released, which seems to mimic your iconic Obama photo, but something looks fishy to you.
PETE SOUZA Well, I mean, to me, it looks posed. Looks like they're looking at the camera. And, you know, if you look at the timeline, you can tell in the embedded information that the picture was taken like 40 minutes before the Special Forces guys even landed to conduct the raid. Thus, I question the caption as well.
BOB GARFIELD Can we go back for a second to a moment with much lower stakes? I want to ask you about the photo that day on the Reagan ranch where the president and the first lady were clowning around about the president trying to chainsaw down a tree. It's cute, but the whole process was also staging a photo.
PETE SOUZA Mhm
BOB GARFIELD I cringed when I saw it. Should I have?
PETE SOUZA Yeah, I cringed, too. I cringed, too.
BOB GARFIELD Was that some previous version of Pete Souza?
PETE SOUZA No, I don't think that was a previous version of Pete Souza. I think that it was sort of just a different outlook for the Reagan administration than it was for the Obama administration.
BOB GARFIELD So what is the White House photographer's job to begin with? It isn't journalism. You work for your photo subjects and in your work is released by the White House as it sees fit to advance its narrative. But you also don't see yourself as a PR guy, and you're also not quite a historian, again, because the photo history is curated by the government. What breed of animal is the chief official White House photographer?
PETE SOUZA The job is to document, visually document the presidency for history. And we'll call whoever does become the new White House photographer. And I will offer some advice and counsel to this person about making sure that he or she needs to have a conversation with Biden directly about making sure that he or she has access to every meeting, whether it's a national security meeting or not, that they have the right security clearance to be able to be in those meetings when they're talking about real stuff and to not lose sight of all your pictures end up at the National Archives and your job is for history. You know, the administration is going to want to use this person's pictures for social media and whatnot. That's not the most important part of the job. Most important part of the job is to make sure you're documenting what's taking place for history.
BOB GARFIELD Pete, I want to thank you very much.
PETE SOUZA Oh, thanks, Bob. Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD Pete Souza is now a freelance photographer, former chief official, White House photographer, author of Shade: Tale of Two Presidents, and star of the documentary The Way I See It.
And that's it for this week's show on the media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, our Engineers this Week, were Adrienne Lily and Josh Hahn.
Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.
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