Behind That Viral Photo of 4 Presidents and 4 First Ladies

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Four presidential families, one photo.
Four presidential families, one photo. Photo: Paul Morse/Office of George W. Bush

It’s a picture for the history books, literally. Convened for the funeral of former First Lady Barbara Bush on Sunday, the most influential people in modern American political history gathered for an instantly iconic photo that went viral for both its importance and apparent mood. There’s President George W. Bush with his arm around Hillary Clinton while President Clinton’s head pokes up behind, President Obama grinning next to Michelle Obama, who has her arm interlocked with Melania Trump’s, and a wheelchair-bound President George H. W. Bush the centerpiece, having lost his wife days earlier. It was all in a day’s work for Paul Morse, the man behind the camera. A White House photographer under President George W. Bush who has since done freelance work for both Clinton and Obama, parlaying his experience into his current gig as a wedding photographer, the New Orleans–based Morse was on hand to capture the event for the Bush family. Morse spoke to New York about what it was like to document the gathering.

I guess the question that’s on everybody’s minds is: What was it like being in that room?
It was really special and it was really an honor. I’ve been around the Bush family and President Bush for 15 years. I worked as one of his photographers from 2001 to 2007 at the White House. After that, I started my own business as a freelancer and have continued to do work for him with the Bush Center while he’s been out of office. I’ve also worked with President Clinton for about nine years, and photographed both of President Obama’s inaugurations and met him a couple of times. I’ve also met Bush 41 a few times. So I felt very comfortable in that environment. It was just really special to be asked to be there and document it. I felt totally at ease, but I also realized the historical significance of all of these people coming together to show their respects to 41, as we call him.

Where exactly was the photo taken?
The photo was taken at a reception that was held right before the service. President George H.W. Bush was greeting the dignitaries, former heads of state, past presidents and family members in a room kind of off behind the chapel itself. It was arranged so everyone could get lined up in the right order so they can be walked out to the service. When I was there, there were people coming in and greeting him and I was capturing those moments. But the picture was put together by President [George] H.W. Bush’s chief of staff Jean Becker, who mentioned to me that she wanted a shot of all of the former presidents as well as the current First Lady. Rather than me kind of getting everyone together, they were pairing down who was in the room as people were going into the service. The former presidents were the last ones there and she asked if she could do a group picture with President Bush. It all kind of naturally came together. All of the characters were there except President Clinton, who was talking to someone. He was the last one who joined the picture and he kind of scooted in there, which is why he’s partially obscured by Mrs. Clinton.

Getting any group of people together for a photo at an event is near impossible, let alone a group like this. How long did it take to get everybody together?
I’d say it took about a minute at most. The one thing I know from working with President Bush 43 is that he’s fairly impatient. When things are coming together and people are lining up, he doesn’t like to wait too much longer. He lets people know when it’s time to get going. It happened very quickly. All of the former presidents knew it’d be a special thing to do for him, they’ve shown him a lot of respect over the years at other events like that One America Appeal for hurricane relief. Taking a picture together was kind of expected, I think, and they took no time to kind of fall right into place.

How many different versions of the photo are there? Did you take alternates?
I think I took a total of five frames. What I’ve found through wedding photography is when you have a group shot, because there are more people there’s a better chance someone’s going to blink, so you take more frames just so your odds for a good shot are better. I took maybe one frame a second and that was it. People have said there’s someone in the background, but I didn’t even see her at the time. I was more concerned everyone was looking at me and that President Bush 43 was not going to chew me out for taking too long, which I was ready for. Maybe I should have worked it a little more, but I knew I was ready and the time was right, so I took it. I know from working with President Bush and President Clinton that you only have a few seconds with people like that.

What was it like amongst everyone, considering there are bitter political rivals in the photo. Melania Trump and Michelle Obama are arm in arm, for example.
The mood was very upbeat. A few days prior, President Bush 43 said he was at peace with his mom’s passing. So at the service, it was more of a celebratory atmosphere. It wasn’t a very down environment. People were more there to pay respects to 41 and to celebrate Barbara Bush’s life than to mourn. She had a life well-lived and it was a time to celebrate that. My main goal was to watch the people coming up to Bush 41, but I was also looking to see how everyone was interacting.  I saw Michele Obama talking to Melania Trump in a very animated way, a very friendly way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it seemed very personal and intimate just by their body language. Everyone was getting along really, really well.

What was it like when you went back and saw the photo for the first time? For a photographer, it must have been like hitting the jackpot.
When I took it, I immediately looked at the photo on my camera to see if it was okay technically; that the camera fired and that people were all looking at me so I didn’t have to redo it. It was only after the funeral and service, and another small service at the president’s library in College Station, that I had time to put it in the computer and actually look at it. Bringing it up on the screen, I was immediately struck by how natural everyone’s expressions were. The smiles were authentic. Everyone seemed very, very comfortable around each other. They felt very comfortable being together like that, which I thought was very remarkable. [Even after] photographing President Bush 43 and Clinton for so many years, there was a twinkle in everyone’s eye that caught my attention. It’s something I haven’t seen in a long time. Our current First Lady, Melania, looked really, really happy to be there. I was wondering what she was thinking and she seemed very, very happy to be included as part of that group.

After it went viral, the photo brought up a lot of emotions from people who are looking beyond it for some deeper meaning. They’re thinking of our current polarizing situation and reminiscing about American political history of the ’80s, ’90s and into the 2000s. When you look at the photo, what do you see?
I see a group of people who are part of a really exclusive club in not only American history but world history. They’ve all been through the same thing. They’ve all raised families in the White House. They’re mothers, fathers, kids, and have gone through that difficult life. So I see families coming together, and not so much political rivals. Thinking of the bitter defeat of President Bush by President Clinton, even that whole relationship has warmed over the years. I think it all shows the true nature of the presidents in the office. It’s an impossible job to make everyone happy; they have that bond and that shared experience. Once they’re out of office without the stress of making these decisions, they’re real people.

Where does this photo rank in your career? This has to be one you’ll include in your portfolio.
I’ve made a career of capturing moments, whether in news, sports or behind the scenes moments at the White House. For me, maybe I look at it too lightly. It’s not that hard of a picture to take, but actually, it is a hard picture to take. It was something I was ready to do and was probably the best prepared to. I feel really good when people see the subtleties in photographs, because you try to capture that: the nuances of relationships between people. It’s a group shot and a remarkable one, one that’s never really been taken in our history. It’s incredible how something so simple turns out to be something very remarkable.

Behind That Viral Photo of 4 Presidents and 4 First Ladies