Shutters clicked and flash units sparkled recently as photojournalists snapped image after image of the inauguration of President Bush. But White House photographers also capture U.S. presidents in leisure moments when they are away from the public eye. Now the National Archives in Washington is displaying 40 photos from that unique archive of presidential candids.
"We wanted to find images of the presidents that were unexpected…that gave us a sense of what they were like as people," says Kenneth Walsh, White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. The weekly news magazine organized the new exhibit, titled "The American Presidency: Photographic Treasures of the National Archives." A team of eight photo editors from U.S. News selected the images from among the tens of thousands of pictures on file in the nation's presidential libraries and in the National Archives in Washington.
Most have never been seen before. And, while none of the photos are scandalous, "some may have been kept from the public to protect the image of the President," according to Mr. Walsh. "For instance, there is a picture of President Kennedy smoking a cigar," he says. "Even though there was not the sensitivity to smoking [in the early 1960s] that there is today, that may have seemed too informal to him, not presidential."
Although President Truman enjoyed an occasional game of poker, he likely would not have been pleased that someone took a photo of him playing cards with friends on the presidential yacht. "When he took over after Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945," says Kenneth Walsh, "people wondered if he was going to be able to fill the shoes of this historic President Roosevelt. So President Truman was always sensitive to looking presidential, to trying to look dignified and a statesman. So he didn't want the country to know how much he enjoyed poker."
Franklin Roosevelt had his secrets, as well. Although Americans were well aware during FDR's administration that he suffered from the crippling muscle disease, polio, few realized that he couldn't walk. His handicap is apparent, however, in a photograph in the exhibition that shows the President at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia.
"He had to wear these very heavy steel braces, one on each leg that ran from his ankles up beyond his knees," says Kenneth Walsh. "He was very sensitive to this, because he didn't want to show weakness. He couldn't really walk, but he would make it appear he was walking by having two burly men on each side of him holding his elbows. He was very strong in the upper body, so he could move his body to make it look like he was walking when he was actually being carried. He never wanted that seen. But in this photograph, it shows Franklin Roosevelt working, and you can see very visibly the braces on his legs. At Warm Springs, he could be himself, and he often wore the braces on the outside of his trousers. When he was in public, he wore them on the inside so people couldn't see them."
Not all of the photographs in the exhibit at the National Archives reveal an aspect of U.S. presidents that was intentionally hidden from the public. Some merely reveal a playful side. Lyndon Johnson howls a duet with his dog while his young grandson looks on in amazement. Jimmy Carter races his daughter Amy to the presidential helicopter.
Ronald Reagan tosses a paper airplane from a hotel rooftop in Los Angeles. Kenneth Walsh notes that Mr. Reagan did that frequently. "One wonders what happens," he says, "when somebody down on the street finds one of these airplanes, probably just a blank piece of paper, not knowing that the President of the United States had thrown it from the top suite."
Moments of leisure are generally brief for presidents, who are always on call. The exhibition includes a photograph of Gerald Ford holding a meeting with his staff while still in his pajamas. It's an image Kenneth Walsh believes Mr. Ford probably would not have minded the public seeing at the time. "Ford was a pretty candid, straightforward guy," he says, "especially in contrast to the Nixon era,
when there was so much secretiveness in the White House. He wanted to project that image of him being an everyday guy. Part of that was to be more open than other presidents had been, letting people see him in private moments."
U.S. News and World Report correspondent Kenneth Walsh was surprised by the number of pictures White House photographers have taken over the years of presidents in their private moments. He says he and the team of editors who worked on the current exhibit are already planning future projects to share more of these unusual photographs with the public.