Conversation: Public and Private

November 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Diana Walker has been a photojournalist for Time magazine since 1979. She’s photographed five presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.

Her new book is “Public and Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency.” Her pictures offer glimpses inside the security bubble that often seems to isolate the presidency and the presidents.

Diana Walker, welcome.

DIANA WALKER: Thank you, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: In this book, this elegant volume, some pictures are in black and white, some are in color– why?

DIANA WALKER: Well, the earliest ones of President Ford were in black and white because that’s what Time magazine was publishing at that time. Then we went into color.

But we began to ask for permission to photograph the presidents behind the scenes, so we decided to sort of headline that by shooting in black and white, so that when you looked at the magazine, you knew they were different and you also knew they were exclusive to us.

TERENCE SMITH: Got you. All right, let’s take a look at some of them. The first is… involves Gerald Ford, President Ford then, and obviously Bob Dole.

DIANA WALKER: Bob Dole had been chosen to be his running mate for the election, and that looks as though it’s a private picture, but I think there was an enormous number of White House press corps in the oval office that day.

TERENCE SMITH: And then there’s another with Gerald Ford, and this is a much sadder, and maybe wiser…

DIANA WALKER: Yeah, that was the morning that… after he’d lost the election. And he came out with his family, and he’d lost his voice in the last days of the campaign. And Betty Ford went to the microphone to concede the election for him.

TERENCE SMITH: And he looks utterly exhausted.

DIANA WALKER: And it was an extraordinary moment.

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. The next, we go on to the Carter administration, and a big moment.

DIANA WALKER: Oh, and that was a big moment for me, too. It was by far the biggest media event at the White House I’d ever seen. And President Carter told me, when I went to talk to him about the book, that this, you know, was the greatest moment of his presidency.

TERENCE SMITH: And this is, of course, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. And is this the actual signing…

DIANA WALKER: That was the signing of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, to this date, has not been broken.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s another picture of Jimmy Carter, and an exuberant Jimmy Carter.

DIANA WALKER: ( Laughs ) that was the day he went out to Spokane, Washington, for Earth Day, and the audience was full of environmentalists, and they were very friendly to President Carter, and he loved it.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. You know, it’s dangerous to interpret these things, but he looks awfully happy to be out of Washington.

DIANA WALKER: I think he probably was.

TERENCE SMITH: Now this next picture, somebody has cracked a joke and cracked everybody up. What’s the story?

DIANA WALKER: Well, the story is that was the last time Walter Cronkite interviewed a sitting president, and it was Ronald Reagan.

And afterwards, there was a little sort of a champagne pour in the room next door to the Oval Office, and they were telling jokes. And of course when I shoot, I can’t hear.

This is one time I wish I could hear, because I’ve asked every single person in that picture what the joke was, and no one will tell me.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. We should say that you went back to many of the principals, the presidents, and first ladies, and got their comments on the pictures, but still nobody could remember.

DIANA WALKER: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: Is that right?

DIANA WALKER: And President Reagan wrote to me, which I’ve included in the book, that he couldn’t remember the joke either. And I’m just not sure. I think they all were tell some pretty funny stories.

TERENCE SMITH: You think it was a little off-color or…

DIANA WALKER: Oh, probably. Don’t you? It’s a good bet.

TERENCE SMITH: The next picture is poignant in a different way.

DIANA WALKER: It is. We photographed the presidents getting on and off the presidential helicopter all the time. And this day, the president came out with two things.

One was a basket of cookies in one hand, and in the other was a huge “get well” card because he was going to visit Mrs. Reagan who had had cancer surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. There was something very sweet about that picture, all alone walking across the grass.

TERENCE SMITH: Which is Nancy Reagan’s comment to you in the book…


TERENCE SMITH: …That it was a very sweet picture and that she had never seen it before.

DIANA WALKER: That’s right.

TERENCE SMITH: This next one is a very funny picture.

DIANA WALKER: You know when we’re out taking pictures in the press corps, we have to keep our eye on the subject all the time.

And this was the night before the inauguration, and it was at some festivity at the Lincoln Memorial. And I was watching the president closely, and… the president-elect. And his grandchild crawled up on his lap and she had this little penlight flashlight, and she must have said, you know, “say ahh, Gampy.” Just… and, you know, this is the kind of picture, I think, that tells you something about the character of these presidents.

TERENCE SMITH: And humanizes the office, or at least the people who were in the office.


TERENCE SMITH: This next one is remarkable in a different way.

DIANA WALKER: Well, that picture was taken in the desert with the troops in Saudi Arabia on the eve of Desert Storm.

And it was towards the end of the day and the president had been visiting the troops on thanksgiving. I didn’t really have a picture that showed the drama of that situation, and I was getting upset about it.

And suddenly, as the sun went down, the president stood up above the crowd and started throwing souvenirs to the troops. And oh, boy, I knew…

TERENCE SMITH: Cufflinks and things like that.

DIANA WALKER: Cufflinks and key chains.

And I knew, when I pushed the shutter, I just knew I had a picture, if everything went right; if I had exposed it correctly and if I held tight, I knew it was going to be beautiful.

TERENCE SMITH: We move on to the Clintons, and the next three are in a sequence here. Showing the President, the first lady, where are these?

DIANA WALKER: These are behind the scenes. I was on a boat on the Chobe River with the Clintons when they went to Botswana, when they went to Africa.

DIANA WALKER: The whole trip I was there. And this was a series of pictures that just simply happened. I was on the deck quite far away from them, and the press was on a boat miles away, and suddenly… there are many more than just these three pictures that they…

TERENCE SMITH: And this, I mean, certainly shows the most genuine affection between these two, and this is right in the middle of the controversy involving Monica Lewinsky?

DIANA WALKER: Yes, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken four months before this trip to Africa.

TERENCE SMITH: And was far from resolved.

DIANA WALKER: Far from resolved.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now this next one shows Bill Clinton. What is he doing?

DIANA WALKER: This was just before he went up onto the stage to accept the… to make his nomination speech at the convention in 1996.

TERENCE SMITH: His acceptance speech.

DIANA WALKER: His acceptance speech of the nomination in 1996 in Chicago, and I was lurking in the… behind the curtain there. Suddenly he just stopped and took a huge deep breath as he was announced, and I thought, “Wow, someone that practiced, you know, has to take a deep breath, just like you and me?”

TERENCE SMITH: Right. This next one is hysterical, but what’s going on?

DIANA WALKER: The president told me, when I talked to him about this picture, because I… again, I see, but I don’t hear.

And I don’t know how it happened, but he says they were all sitting there kind of bored in a waiting room before an event, and the president sort of said, “Well, look at us here sitting here all in a row. We look like those monkeys,” and then they simply did it.

TERENCE SMITH: And so that’s Defense Secretary William Cohen, the president, obviously, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.


TERENCE SMITH: And Sandy Berger.

DIANA WALKER: And it was Sandy Berger who said, “it’s hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. I guess I’m just plain evil!”

TERENCE SMITH: This next one, we have Bill Clinton alone in the oval office. And this final picture, I must say, shows the ravages of the presidency. Where is he at this point?

DIANA WALKER: After he left the capitol and the swearing-in of George Bush, he went to Andrews Air Force Base for a rally where he said good-bye to everyone who had been in the administration, really.

And he walked out into the cold and the wet and the rain to get into the plane. And granted, it was cold and it was wet, which has something to do with what he looked like at that moment, but I think that picture shows what it’s like to end a presidency.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed it does. Diana Walker, thanks so much.

DIANA WALKER: Thank you, Terry.