The Calm Before Desert Storm

Two months before the Gulf War began in 1991, President George H. W. Bush greeted U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia

I remember being struck by this photograph of President George Herbert Walker Bush when it first came out, in Time magazine, in January 1991. I had spent several years writing speeches for Bush when he was Ronald Reagan’s vice president, and though I knew him to be athletic and nimble, I had never seen him strike such a graceful pose as the one you see before you. It begs to be cast in bronze.

What, I wondered at the time, is going on here? Was he waving farewell to someone outside the frame? His body language suggests vital kinship with whomever he’s gesturing to. Something seems to be going on. Then I read the Time magazine caption and smiled and thought, Well, I’ll be damned.

The picture by Diana Walker is among the 135 in her new book, Public & Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency. The book offers intimate portraits—fascinating, poignant and often amusing—of the presidents she has witnessed. Here is Gerald Ford the morning after he lost the election, Bill Clinton backstage preparing to accept his party’s nomination, Clinton and members of his cabinet and staff mugging for a "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" shot. Only Walker, who is known for being adept at setting the powerful at ease, could have gotten those pictures.

President Bush had spent the Thanksgiving holiday visiting among the 240,000 American troops then stationed in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf preparatory to driving Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. Bush is a deeply spiritual man, and yet, bowing to Saudi religious delicacy in the matter of non-Muslims holding a religious ceremony on Saudi soil—even if they are there to protect a Muslim nation with their lives—he chose not to share a Thanksgiving blessing with the troops. He performed that particular office offshore, in international waters, aboard the USS Nassau, an amphibious assault ship.

Saudi sensibilities notwithstanding, Bush managed to visit with a total of about 6,000 U.S. members of the armed forces on the holiday. The last visit was to an undisclosed Saudi location some 75 miles from the Kuwait border, within range of Saddam’s Scuds. Diana Walker, who was in the press pool, recalls being frustrated. "He’d been with different troops, and now it was the end of the day," she says, "and I was desperate because I didn’t have a picture of him that conveyed how vast it was out here. There were some nice photographs of the Bushes having a meal with the troops, but nothing that showed the drama of where we were."

The other problem, photographically, was that Bush was continually surrounded by a delegation of high-ranking members of Congress. These are people who are, by nature, not exactly camera shy. Indeed, they tend to cling like abalones to their host on such occasions, knowing that images of them with the commander in chief are being transmitted back home. But they finally peeled away, perhaps having decided that they had been sufficiently photographed with the president for one day. (You can see Speaker of the House Thomas Foley at the lower left, making his way offstage through a sea of desert camouflage.)

Walker aimed her camera. "Suddenly he was alone," she says of the president. "And he stood up on a box. The light was starting to go, but it was beautiful. You just couldn’t believe it. It was one of those times when you hold on tight and hope to God you got it."

As a deadline news photographer, she says, you never know for sure until you see the photograph printed: "You’re always worried. Was it in focus? Will they tell you, ‘Hey, Diana, next time shoot it at a faster shutter speed’?"

As it happened, Walker knew she had gotten the shot when her editor called and said, "You have to explain this photo to me. It looks like he’s Moses, parting the waters. Tell me what was going on." Walker told her editor: "It could look like that, calling the troops to battle. But that was not what was happening. He is, in fact, tossing souvenirs to the troops. Tie clips and key rings and stuff like that."

The photograph took first prize at the World Press Photo Competition for the "People in the News" category in 1990. It also pleases Walker, who has left the White House beat to photograph other subjects for Time, that the World Press still sells a postcard with the photograph bearing the caption: "Bush tossing souvenir tie clips into the troops in Saudi Arabia."

I asked my former boss, whose son has engaged in his own confrontation with his father’s old Iraqi nemesis, about the photograph, and what it means to him now. "This photo could be about today," he replied. "A different president, and different troops; but the readiness and determination by the president and the troops are exactly the same today as they were back at Thanksgiving 1990."

Commenting on the moment in Walker’s book, the former president recalls: "I had my mind set that we were going to have to go to war, and the irony is that troops we talked to were saying, ‘We’re ready. We want to get it over with and go home.’ And nobody in the United States believed that they could get it over with such speed and such efficiency and with so little loss of innocent life. But when I looked out at these faces, at this point I know I was thinking, ‘How many of these kids are going to have to die for their country?’"

Bush Senior had gone to war himself as a young man, so he knew what it was like to be one of these soldiers. Perhaps this explains his stance, the look on his face, the bronze thing, as he might put it, because no one looks that majestic just tossing tie clips.

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