An Obama Book That Cuts Obama Out of the Picture

On Barack Obama’s last day as president, Pete Souza climbed to the top of a ladder and snapped a startling photo of White House aides rummaging through drawers at the Resolute Desk to make sure the outgoing CEO hadn’t left anything behind. .

The resulting shot captures one of the most complicated presidential transitions in American history in one intimate moment. It is one of many remarkable images in “The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw Inside the Presidency”, a new book by Souza, the official Obama White House photographer, that takes readers behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The trade from Obama to Donald Trump, now widely documented, was fraught with tension and hostility, and not just between the two men’s teams.

For Obama aides who went out of business, those final months between Election Day and the inauguration were filled with tears and apprehension. On his last foreign trip as president, Obama privately told Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, that Trump’s victory made him question whether he really understood the country that elected him its first black president. “What if we were wrong?” Obama asked Rhodes during a stopover in Peru, according to a recollection Rhodes included in his book “After the Fall.” “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe,” he explained. “Sometimes I wonder if I was 10 or 20 years ahead of time.”

Trump, a real estate baron with no political experience and little understanding or respect for American traditions and laws, was sui generis in the modern history of the country. And Obama, a constitutional lawyer by training, was nervous about the turmoil.

“President Obama thought it was in the best interest of the country to get him there as soon as possible,” Souza said of arranging a visit for the president-elect. “And Trump arrived two days after the election”, exploring the new digs of him and, it later emerged, listening to the pressing concerns on Obama’s mind.

On the day of the inauguration, Souza received frantic calls from his counterpart in the new White House, Shealah Craighead, in an anecdote that underscores the impromptu nature of Trump’s inauguration.

Craighead had been hired as chief photographer days before and “was blown away by the logistics,” he said. “She had no credentials or, you know, anything for the inauguration.”

So Souza called Anthony Ornato, a Secret Service official who later became involved in the Jan. 6 investigation, to secure his access.

Souza, a former photojournalist for The Chicago Tribune who served as the White House’s chief photographer for eight years, was present at some of the most sensitive moments of Obama’s tenure, both triumphs and tragedies.

With carte blanche in the White House and even a maximum security clearance, Souza captured many of the iconic images of the presidency: the famous shot of the Situation Room in which teary-eyed homeland security officials watched Osama bin Laden’s raid in real time, a baby crawling across the carpet in the Oval Office, attendees dunking basketballs into a miniature hoop just outside where the president sat. A well-known photograph of Obama sitting at his desk with his head bowed during a meeting with his national security teamhe then appeared in Republican attack ads.

One of Souza’s first meetings with Obama, which took place in a temporary office on Capitol Hill on the future president’s first day as a senator, set the tone for their relationship, an unusually close relationship between subject and photographer. Between the ceremonial events, Souza watched Obama gobble down a huge sandwich while his two young daughters, Sasha and Malia, looked on.

“I’m, you know, this far away from him, quietly photographing,” Souza said. “And he has a big sandwich, and Sasha is looking at the other half.”

And he added: “And it is as if I were not there. From a photojournalist’s point of view, that’s the kind of topic you want.”

But for his new book, Souza tried something different: remove Obama from the picture. It is meant to document the quieter moments between the permanent White House staff, the butlers, valets and administrators who make the building run regardless of who is president, and the few dozen, mostly political aides, who They work in the west wing.

In a photograph Souza proudly showed me, he deliberately placed the president between two pages in the gutter of the book, obscuring his profile.

It’s been nearly six years since Trump shocked the political universe by defeating Hillary Clinton, and Souza has processed a lot in that time. Now semi-retired (“bad knees,” he said) and living with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin, he also published an anti-Trump book, “Shade,” in 2018.

“I turned it on because I thought I was disrespecting the office,” Souza explained. “I felt liberated, so to speak, to be able to speak. I felt compelled. And that put the idea of ​​this book on the back burner.”

Souza’s work and instagram account they have made him a celebrity in the extended Obama universe, whose members recently gathered for the unveiling of the official White House portrait of their former boss. It was a kind of family reunion, Souza said, the first time many of them had been together since that last emotional day cleaning their desks.

Obama, however, still has a way of outshining his successors and their staff, many of whom, like Souza, have become brands in their own right. And so even the cover of a book meant to ignore No. 44 still bears his distinctive silhouette, a concession Souza said he grudgingly made to satisfy the publisher.

His preferred cover image, a montage of different photos that do not contain Obama, was relegated to the inside cover of the book.

They want a good dramatic cover,” he said as he showed me the collage. “So my idea to do this just didn’t work. But this is what I like the most.”

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Thank you for reading On Politics and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. —Blake

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