The official White House photographer captures in images what words often cannot — the stillness of history, the tensions of lawmaking, the humanity of the president.
It was a job treasured by David Valdez, a Texan hired in 1983 to follow George H.W. Bush first as as vice president and then president. With mostly unfettered access, Valdez photographed Bush’s wins and his losses. But most of all, Valdez remembers the intimacy of moments shared between the former president and his family — a sentiment surfacing in the wake of Bush’s death on Nov. 30.
Through his archives and reflections, Valdez took us back in time to the Bush White House.
“Family, faith and friends is really the defining statement for the family. The family was a critical, critical element, and really one of the most important things to George Herbert Walker.”
On his first day of work, Valdez traveled to Miami where Bush was meeting his newest grandchild, “Jebby,” son of Jeb and Columba Bush. At the hotel suite, Jeb Bush asked “Grampy” to babysit. Everyone, even staff, left the room.
“Here’s the vice president of the United States with his new grandson,” Valdez recalled. “There was nobody to tell me what to do. Should I stay, should I go?” He thought back to the intimate moments other White House photographers had captured. Valdez decided to stay.
Weeks later, Valdez received a note from the vice president’s wife, Barbara.
“As long as you take good photos of my grandchildren, you can go anywhere and do whatever you need.”
— Note to Valdez from Barbara Bush
It was Barbara Bush who invited Valdez to the family’s Maine home in 1987, where he took his most famous photograph, the one that ran in Life magazine and is credited with launching Bush’s presidential campaign. The magazine wanted to send its own photojournalist, but Bush said no — his family was vacationing. Valdez went instead.
“You oughta just come by the house at 6 in the morning,” Valdez recalls Barbara Bush saying. “Just see what happens.” So he did, walking through an unlocked front door and into the couple’s room, where he sat at the edge of the bed as their grandchildren poured in.
Food was central to life with the Bushes, Valdez recalled. Together, they would cook and eat — often tamales.
Once, Valdez remembers gathering in the kitchen with future President George W. Bush and future Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Hunched over a large pot, the three men pulled out freshly cooked tamales and ate them standing over the stove.
Then Barbara — whom they called “the enforcer” — barged in, slamming her hand on the counter and declaring: “I don’t feed animals in my house.” Valdez scrambled to the table and sat down.
“I’m a staffer. I’m horrified.”
— Valdez on being dressed down by Barbara Bush
White House staffers were treated like family, Valdez said, and he was no exception. The Bushes often stayed in Washington for the holidays so staff could, too. Secret Service agents loved him, Valdez said.
Most of all, the president was known for his personal, handwritten notes — to the chief of police of a foreign city or the aides who organized his trips abroad.
“He wrote me a note thanking me for getting him elected president, and he made me a gavel with the wood from the inaugural platform. It’s one of my most prized possessions.”
In 1992, Bush lost his presidential re-election bid to Bill Clinton. Valdez witnessed that, too, the defeat of the moment and the sorrow of the days that followed. The president’s primary concern, Valdez said, was the well-being of his staff.
In the eight years he served as the personal photographer to Bush, Valdez documented the political history our the country and the personal history of the president. He was there for the highs and the lows; inside the Oval Office and along for family vacations. Valdez photographed the president’s grandchildren during their first moments and his mother as her life ended.
“I probably spent more time with them than absolutely anybody. The only constant there was me. What an honor for a guy from south Texas.” — Valdez