Presidential Tales- 4 May 2023


Joe Biden’s announcement that he’s running again for US president and the visit, if that’s what it can be called, of former President Trump prelude the start of the race for the White House.

My old friend Harry Benson has the distinction of having photographed every president since Eisenhower and along the way he’s gathered some tales and insights. His favourite is Richard Nixon (it’s not political as Harry’s certainly not a Republican).

 The reason is that he, along with other photographers, captured Nixon’s resignation speech when he announced his resignation with his wife at his side, tears in her eyes and his kids looking forlorn and lost.

But Harry spent time thereafter with Nixon at his ranch in California where he found a man humbled and humiliated. He doubtless experienced a different side to the “Tricky Dickie” the rest of the world saw, and it changed his opinion of him. There was a human side to the man.

His take on photographing George W Bush and Barack Obama was also insightful about the men behind the Oval Office Desk. The former, a “good old Texas boy” chatting to the camera pack about the ball game or asking after their families. Easy-going and relaxed. Quite the opposite from Obama, who sent staffers out to say the president would appear in the garden in ten minutes and be available for ten minutes for shots. He strolled in the park studiously avoiding the pack, never mind even interacting with them.

Travelling with Bill Clinton on the campaign trail, he also got a behind-the-scenes view of the very charismatic president at work. A fiery temper and a tirade of expletives at staff as he prepared to disembark from the presidential plane could be suddenly replaced by bonhomie and radiating sunshine as the door opened to another state and its people to be charmed.

Trump, he’s pictured with a million dollars. The Donald wasn’t president then but capturing him at his casino, he told the future leader he’d never seen a million dollars, and Trump obliged. The photograph shows the venality of the man hugging wads of cash. A shot of Trump with his first wife lying over him also epitomised the phrase “trophy wife”. Sometimes pictures don’t lie.