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Dirck Halstead, White House
photographer for Time Magazine.
Interviewed June 15, 1996


FL: What are the special challenges of President Clinton's face to you as a photographer?

HALSTEAD:

Bill Clinton is probably the least rewarding President that I've ever covered from a visual standpoint. It's interesting because every year, at the end of the year, there's a competition for the White House news photographers. And there is a category for presidential photography. I have basically given up now on trying to come up with pictures for this category. And when you talk to the judges for the last couple of years, what you'll find is that this category has become very weak.

And I think the reason is because President Clinton is in such control all the time, he's in such control of how he represents himself, how he presents himself to the public, to the photographers. That those things that you look for as a photographer, which is those moments where a photographer can catch the subject revealing himself, and it's like 'That's him, that's where that person is, that's where he lives on this given day. This is what he's facing. This is the challenging or the joy that he's experiencing'.

It's totally missing with Clinton, because all you ever get is, you know, a degree to the left, a degree to the right of this extremely centered person when it comes to the visual image. And so, as a result, when it comes time to pick pictures for contest, there's nothing to pick.

The closest I can come to something that I consider interesting is a picture I made when Clinton went to New Jersey, and Hillary was trying to sell the Health Care bill. And it was during that period when that bill was having a very difficult time. And there were also all sorts of problems going on related to Whitewater. And there's this moment when Hillary reaches over, and she's in very intense conversation with Clinton. That turned out to be the cover of the magazine that week. And that was as close as I have come to getting a moment to that was something that was real.

FL: Can you paint a picture of his face as a photographer.

HALSTEAD:

In the beginning, [I hadn't covered Clinton at all during the campaign. He was really unknown to me. And the first month that I covered him was when he was President] And... I would be amazed, because I hadn't been a part of that campaign. when I first saw Clinton's face, there was an intensity and a sincerity which I thought was great. But as a photographer what I realized as time went on, was there was always the same degree of intensity, of caring, of sincerity. And it didn't change that much one way or another.

There is an ability, for example, to tear up. And we've all seen this. And he can do it at the drop of a hat. Now, I'm not saying that he doesn't mean it. But what I'm saying is he can do it in such a facile way. He can make his face really conform to whatever moment it is that how he should look. And again, if the first time you see it, and the first time you take the picture, it's a revealing moment. The problem is when you do it over a period of four years, and you see the same moment, the same visual cues time after time, and there is nothing that is...no real change, no dramatic change -- as opposed to, for example, Gerald Ford's face the night he lost the election. As opposed to Nixon as he was resigning. Or as opposed to some of the goofier moments with George Bush of which there are so many. All of these represented just moments where their face revealed how they felt about things.

But with Clinton it's a very tightly controlled expression. It's always appropriate, it's always appropriate for the moment. But it's always within such narrow parameters. So it makes you wonder. You know, what is really going on in that mind, what is he really thinking at any given moment. Or does he think these things so often that... I can't get inside his head, tell for example, the intensity that is going on in his mind about what he's thinking. But maybe it is that we miss something. Maybe it is that he believes so deeply, and maybe he is so intense all the time that we just see this appearance all the time. I don't know. I can't tell whether it's because he is so deep or he is so shallow. All I can tell is that there's very little change, there's hardly any surprise in that face.

This difficulty of trying to see that moment that reveals itself is not new just to Clinton. Jack Kennedy was very, very similar to Clinton. Photographers who covered the Kennedy White House use to call him "Jack, the Back". And the reason they called him Jack, the Back was because he was famous for keeping his back turned. He always knew where the cameras were. And he was famous for keeping his back turned to the camera until he was ready, until he knew exactly...was composed in such a way, that he was always able to present himself the way he wanted to. And Clinton is very, very similar to...it's amazing, because Clinton is similar to Kennedy in so many ways. But there's this same control.

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was an actor. But he was an actor who was very comfortable with himself who loved to laugh. you know, Clinton says he can feel people's pain....I really feel because I would listen to Reagan sometimes...he really could feel people's pain. I mean, he was a touchy-feely person. He reacted to people's plights in visceral ways. Or he reacted to funny stories in a way that a human being would. You know, it's interesting, in the motion picture industry, they say there are actors and there are stars. An actor makes you believe in the character. A star makes you care about him. And I think, Ronald Reagan is an example of a star. You really cared...I mean the American people really cared about Ronald Reagan. I mean...my God, from the political standpoint, I mean alot of the things he did were appalling, but people forgave him. He was the teflon President because people cared about him. They liked the idea that Ronald Reagan was their President. They werecomfortable with that idea.

With President Clinton, at any given time, half the people in the country aren't quite sure who this person is. It's amazing. Four years into his administration, there is still an enormous amount of doubt who finally Bill Clinton is. I have to tell you as somebody who covers him and sees him everyday...I don't know finally who this person is. He has confounded me and I think, most photographers. It's very frustrating.

Just to give you an idea of the difference. I think almost every President has those moments where he reveals himself visually. In the case of George Bush, I had started photographing George Bush in 1976. And I got to know him very well. I spent time with him down in Houston. And he is a wonderful person to be around. He was goofy; and he was funny; and he liked the photographers. And I thought I knew everything about George Bush. And then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And I was at the White House when Marine One came back from Camp David on the Sunday that Saddam Hussein had invaded. And the George Bush that got off of that helicopter that day I had never seen in all the years I'd known him. There was this face which was a total stranger to me. And he strode up to the cameras. And some correspondent asked him, "Well, so Mr. President, what can you do about Saddam Husseim? He's invaded. He's already there." And George Bush looked at this person, and he says, "Watch. You watch and you wait."

And I was afraid. I had never seen this person before. And I...that was a moment that George Bush defined himself as President of the United States. It was [a] moment where you could see that that office had taken hold, and this was now the President. And everything that, you know, for a long time people were skeptical. 'Will Bush really invade Kuwait?' Well, there was never any doubt in my mind because I had seen that face. I had seen those eyes. And a couple of weeks later, I was talking to his son Jebb up in Martha's Vineyard. And so, I said, "So, Jebb, what do you think that your father's gonna do?" And he said, "I'll tell you what he's gonna do. He's gonna turn Baghdad into a parking lot."

And so, that was one of those moments before it ever developed, before the reporters really had written about it. There was that moment where it was so clear. Just as it was clear with Reagan when, for example, he walked out into the Rose Garden. And it was during the air traffic controller's strike. And everybody said basically the same thing they said to George Bush during the Iraq crisis. They said, "So, what are you gonna do about the air traffic controllers?" And Ronald Reagan, with a look in his eyes that was unmistakable said, "I'm gonna fire 'em." And he did, and he ended the air controllers' strike, and basically changed the labor picture in the United States for a long time to come.

So, I have seen so many times in the eyes of these people who occupy the Oval Office, that moment. And you can see him reacting to the pressures. But, with the present guy, we can't figure out yet where he is, we can't figure out what it is that's going on in his head . I'm sure that this is a very....I know that he is a very right person, and he has great ideas. But what you can't define is where is the conviction. I guess that's what I'm trying to say, you don't see the conviction in Clinton. You don't see the conviction in his eyes. It's an interesting problem.

FL: What about Dole?

HALSTEAD:

I think that Bob Dole is one of those people who was born before the whole business of image-shaping came to be. He comes from the old school. And there was that wonderful moment when Bob Dole resigned from the Senate to start campaigning full time. And it was something that the advanced people had put together. Where he could come out and stand with all the members of the Senate. And he spoke...what was interesting, was it was one of the most emotional speeches I've ever seen, but he didn't cry. He came close to it, but the fact is he'd done his crying in private, back in the office. And when he got to that camera, he didn't need to cry, he was on the verge of tears. But there was no doubt in the mind of everybody who was there looking at that face that this was an incredibly meaningful moment to this person who had spent his life in Congress. And was now was giving up to start off on this quest. And it was real. There was that real moment. I think [we] will probably see alot more of that sort of thing this year.

FL: What are you trying to capture in your work?

HALSTEAD:

I think almost any photographer regardless of whether he's covering the White House or whatever, essentially, we are looking for the essence of the person as represented by what we see in that person's face. And what we see in that person's eyes. We don't make our judgements based on some academic criteria. We don't make our judgements based on what a press secretary says. We don't make our judgements based on what the spin is on the given day. You know, if you're a reporter, essentially, you are making the case for a person in your mind, intellectually. And that has to do with how smart the person is, or how that person can represent himself many times through the printed word.

But with a photographer, what you're looking at is..everything is a gut reaction. It's a visceral reaction to the person. And what we look for is that moment of truth in the person's face.

I remember back to the period of Watergate. And during that time, especially during the first two years. The White House press was very slow to pick up on what was going on. Remember Woodward and Bernstein were almost out there all alone. And if you're a reporter on the White House, you really have to pay attention to the daily releases. You depend on press secretaries. You depend on cabinet officers. You depend on senior staff people to give you the inside on what the President's thinking is at any given moment.

Well, we don't avail ourselves of that. All we have to deal with is the person. And we have to deal with the truth that we see in that person's face, and the eyes, and the mannerisms. And I just remember during that two years leading up to Watergate, the photographers, by and large, had said this guy's not gonna make it. And the reporters were much later to come to that same conclusion.

FL: What are the challenges of looking at the lens...what invites you in and keeps you out?

HALSTEAD:

You know when photographers get a particularly dramatic photograph of a President. A lot of people say, well that was a cheap shot. That wasn't really the moment. What I'm looking for when I'm photographing the President, and I'm constantly looking for it, is that moment of truth. That moment where you see the person revealed. David Kennerly revealed Nixon on the eve of his quitting in such a dramatic way that in the Congress, that maybe it was too late, that maybe Nixon was going around the bend. And it was a moment that few photographers caught, but David Kennerly was looking at a face that was in such pain. And as it turned out Nixon said later on that that was the morning after he'd been told about the smoking gun. And he knew the game was up. And Kennerly saw that moment. The photograph was not one isolated moment, because the entire 36 frames of his roll showed virtually the same moment.

You know, I don't look for a cheap shot, I don't look just because everybody has a moment where they blink or they're off. But what you try to see is you try - it's a constant quest, to find the character, to find the character of the person and especially, the character of the person as it is being shaped by the Oval Office. I'm a student of history. I like to see how each person as he comes through makes an impression on the Oval Office. And I like to see what the Oval Office does with that person. It's the constant quest.

FL: Do you see faces change a great deal as they go through the gauntlet of the presidential race?

HALSTEAD:

Yea. I hate to say this. But I go back to Lyndon Johnson. And, I mean he was a wonderful subject for a photographer, because he loved to reveal himself. He took great pleasure in it. And just do extraordinary things like pull up his shirt to show the scar on his belly. He would invite his presidential photographer, pull his presidential photographer into the toilet to take pictures. He was just a remarkable person. But you could see Johnson's face change as he got closer to the period where he realized that he couldn't win in that race, that Vietnam had defeated him.

Certainly, in the case of Gerald Ford, as Gerald Ford wrestled. I mean he was thrown into this office with very little preparation. And it was fascinating to watch on his face how he changed. I photographed him in the first week of his administration. And he behind the Oval Office desk, and it was classic Gerry Ford - he had his coat off, he had his shirt sleeves rolled up, he was like the new kid in the office. But he was a grown up, sitting behind the desk. And then as his administration wore on, you could see that face grow older and wiser and sadder, until finally when he lost the election, he was a wreck. We all were. But it was there. It was so clear.

While Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, he looked better the day he left the Oval Office than he did coming in. Because he was totally comfortable in that role. And yet the moments when Ronald Reagan were angry, when he was sad, those moments were real moments. He had no problem, and he never had to disguise how he felt. It was always a genuine reaction - which was honest.

Jimmy Carter was a mystery, just like President Clinton. The closest thing to Carter revealing himself came at Camp David, unfortunately, when he ran out of wind, on that jog. And unfortunately people remember Jimmy Carter for two pictures. These are the moments that stand out in people's mind - exhausted, running at Camp David and then with the killer rabbit in the swamps of Georgia. And other than that, you're hard pressed to think about...when you think about moments with Ronald Reagan, you think of Ronald Reagan holding up his boots, the Cowboy. The French used to call him Le Cowboy, holding up the boots with a big smile. You see him holding kids up. Or you see him, when uh, there was a... guess it was when the Korean airliner was shot down, in the Oval Office really angry. And there was never any doubt whatsoever.

FL: Talk about your experience as a photojournalist concentrating on politicians...

HALSTEAD:

Well, I've been covering the White House off and on since 1960. I am a White House photographer forTime magazine. And I've covered everybody from Kennedy to Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and now, Clinton. So, I've been watching these faces for a long time.

FL: Does a politician's face present special challenges?

HALSTEAD:

There was [a] great quote, I read in the paper last week. That 'Politics is Hollywood with ugly actors.' And I think that's true. I really look in so many ways to the similarity between Hollywood and between Washington. Because essentially, you have, in both cases a star. And everything is focused on that person, unlike corporate life or normal life where nobody really stands out that much.

In Hollywood, and when you get to the top ladders of government, you tend to focus down on one person. And so at any given moment, basically what you're talking about is that that person represents, in the case of the President,the United States. And so he's carrying the star role. And there's no place else you can find anything like that except in Hollywood.

FL: Give us a little of what you're privy to.

HALSTEAD:

Well, one of the things that we always try to do is we try to get as much inside as we possibly can. And some Presidents have allowed us to do that to a much greater extent than others have. But what we're trying to do is we're trying to somehow, find the visual manifestations of what that person's character is. Or how the story of the given day or given week can be represented in visual terms.

During those last days of Nixon, you could see on his face, day in and day out, what was going on. You could look at the eyes. There's a series of pictures I have, that I made. I started doing Nixon for Time magazine in 1972. And the very first picture that I had as a cover was Nixon jubliant because he'd just won the landslide. And he was happy. But then as we got into that whole Watergate period. You could see the change in his face. First there was the combative Nixon, the Nixon who was standing in a military yard, looking at a flag, and shaking his fist. And then, as the impact began to hit him more and more of what was going on, you saw the worry you saw the confusion. And finally, in those last six months, there's a series of pictures, you can see in those last three months how quickly he was coming apart. And as he was coming apart, his administration was coming apart. But it says it much more eloquently, I think, than the written word does. Because you really see this angst, this pain, this very complex person, but it was in his face all the time.

FL: Nixon's face as a gift to a photographer...why that's so.

HALSTEAD:

From the standpoint of a photographer, there was never anybody more fascinating or better to photograph than Richard Nixon. Because there was so much boiling up in the sky, and he didn't [know] how to present an appearance. He was not in control of the way he projected. So, there was also a weird thing that was going on, and I think, it was really a key to the conflict in the guy. There was something different going on with his eyes than was going on with his mouth. You know we used to say our worst nightmare was that Richard Nixon would want to be an airline pilot. Because he was totally out of sinc with himself. He would keep saying things like, 'You don't want to come with me.' And that same contradiction was in his face. And, of course, always that moisture above his lip.

But, everyday it played itself out in a different way. You know, watching the movie, "Nixon." Anthony Hopkins is a wonderful actor, but he couldn't get Nixon. And the reason why was because... I think Anthony Hopkins saw Nixon as this tragic figure, but in reality, there was more there. To say that he was a tragic figure would make him one-dimensional. When, in fact, he was goofy. Sometimes, and emotions never manifested themselves the same way twice. The anger wouldn't be the same on any two days. If he was laughing...there was always, there was always a contradiction. His mouth would be laughing, and his eyes would be sad or vice versa. And there was this sort of whimsical thing about Nixon because he was never really in control of himself. And I think, you saw this. And so, as his administration unraveled, it was so clear in his face, this confusion, this ability to lose control. And at the same time, he was constantly trying to seize control and never making it.

To contrast him, for example, with Ronald Reagan. Because Reagan was so comfortable with himself, he was always Ronald Reagan. He knew exactly who Ronald Reagan was. And people'd say he was an actor. Well, that may be true, but he was a very good actor. And he had a sense of himself as an actor. And he was comfortable in his own skin.

Nixon, on the other hand, was never comfortable in his own skin. And to the point where the first time I really spent any time with Nixon...he invited the press to come to a cocktail party in Key Biscayne right after the '68 Convention. And I'll never forget going over to this little house that Bebe Rebozzo had. And Nixon decided that he was going to make martinis for people. He was very proud of his martini-making prowess. And through the whole party, Richard Nixon was either behind the bar stirring martinis or he was serving people on a tray. And it wasn't until later I figured out what that was all about. Because he didn't want to have to talk to anybody. He didn't want to have to be with these people -- the press-- that he invited to the cocktail party. So, if he spent all this time making martinis and serving martinis, he wouldn't have to do that. It was just a little indication how strange this man was. And it, you know, it is such a shame because in so many ways he could have been a great president. But, as a photographer, looking at that face, you knew that there was such a flaw, such a deep flaw within this person, so many divisions within that character, that you knew that it was gonna blow. And it was in the face for everybody to see.

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