For the past two weeks, an exhibit entitled "The American President" has been on display in the rotunda of the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.
The exhibit showcased the Associated Press photos of the President of the United States throughout the decades, the earliest photo being one of President Lincoln meeting with military officers in the field.
The exhibit itself was a series of display stands arranged in a circle. On each stand was a series of pictures, usually preceded by a description of what these photos had in common, and below the photos were details on the context behind each photo. The topics of the display stands were numerous, ranging from elections to war to scandals to assassinations. One photo was of Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, as he walked to the podium to make a statement on the Monica Lewinsky fiasco. Clinton looks solemn, his head looking down in thought and his face troubled. He would go on to announce his apology to America. On the next display stand, we see Bill Clinton again, nearly a decade earlier and only a candidate for the presidency, playing his signature saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show.
In another photo, President Lyndon B. Johnson sits at his desk with his collar open, tie undone and hand on his head. He is deep in contemplation writing a speech. The photo is raw, and it appears president hadn't even noticed the photojournalist's presence. Johnson would announce in the speech he was writing that he would not be seeking the presidential nomination from the Democratic Party because of the controversy surrounding his presidency. Johnson looks like a defeated man, someone who didn't want to make the announcement he knew he had to make. He was also gravely worried about his health, unsure if he would even survive another four years as president. In the end, the Democrats lost the election to Republic candidate Richard Nixon.
Some of the more striking photos are taken before major events in history, at a time when no one knew what the future would hold. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president, issues his famous command of "Full victory, nothing else" to the paratroopers that would be the first into Nazi-occupied France for Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day. His entire demeanor is serious, and it is clear on the faces of the paratroopers that they understand how much rests of their shoulders. His fame from being Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe would lead him to be elected president in 1953. In an earlier picture, an AP photojournalist quickly got onto the ground and shot a photo between the feet of a Secret Service member of John F. Kennedy walking and talking with Eisenhower about the recent Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed attempt at invading Cuba. The photo would win the photojournalist, Paul Vathis, a Pulitzer Prize.
Another photo shows The Big Three of WWII, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, sitting together having a laugh. They were meeting to discuss plans for how to take down Hitler and Nazi Germany, as well as various other plans for WWII. This was the first of their meetings, and a little over two years later the Second World War would come to an end. Almost immediately afterwards, the Soviet Union and the United States, the two world superpowers formed by the war, would begin a nearly five decade long Cold War.
Walking through the exhibit was like walking through history. American history is so closely tied to the president and, in the case of history after the mid-1800s, to the photojournalists brave enough to try and capture him in his most pivotal moments, as well as when he is enjoying himself and in moments of tragedy. Few can do it better, and no one has done it longer, than the photojournalists at the Associated Press.