AUSTIN — Only 11 people in the history of the United States have held the title "Chief Official White House Photographer." David Valdez is in that elite group.
He served as photographer for President George H.W. Bush. He sat down with Ashley Goudeau to discuss his time with the former president.
Ashley Goudeau: Do you remember the first time you met George H.W. Bush?
David Valdez: "Yes. It was December 1983 and his photographer was leaving, he was vice president, his photographer was leaving and I was on an assignment to photograph Barbara Bush and I was the chief photographer for the United States Chamber of Commerce in Washington. And Barbara Bush was putting the, decorating the National Christmas Tree. And I was there waiting and I found out that Vice President Bush had an opening for a photographer. So, I did a little research and found out that the vice president's photographer reports to the vice president's press secretary. That person was Shirley Green. I wrote her a letter and introduced myself. She called me in and interviewed me. Then I had a second interview with Admiral Murphy, who was the vice president's chief of staff. That interview was very difficult. He was pushing my buttons and when I left there I thought there's no way, this guy hates me and I'll never get this job. And then I got called back to interview with the Vice President of the United States and up until this point, all of this was kind of an abstract. And then when they called me in to go meet with the vice president, into his office, in the old executive office building, it was the first time it really occurred to me that David Valdez from Alice, Texas, was going to meet the Vice President of the United States. So, I go into his office, and he's showing me around his office and showing me some photos of the grandchildren, and telling me that we're going to be together in public and private and we have to have this trust and in my mind I was thinking, 'oh, he thinks I've been offered a job' and in reality, no one had really said, 'Yes, you have the job.' So we had never discussed salary. So I had to ask him, I said 'well, do you know what the salary is?' And he says, 'You know, I have no idea. Let's call Admiral Murphy, and check.' And so he did that and in the old executive office building the walls were all thin and Admiral Murphy is the next office over and I could hear him screaming through the walls, 'What? He's talking to you about salary?' And I thought oh, boy. But I got hired and then when he was elected president, we were at an event at the National Geographic in Washington, D.C., and so he's president-elect but he's still vice president and we're going back to the vice president's house. And he asked me to ride in the vice president's limo and he offered me the job to be the president's photographer and run the White House photo office. And so then I did that for four years. And after that, I went to head up photography at the Walt Disney Company in Florida."
Goudeau: I would imagine that over that time that you all spent together you developed a very close relationship with him.
Valdez: "We had a lot of fun. I'll never forget my first time in Kennebunkport, Maine. He was walking me around Walker's Point where their house is, their family home. And he was saying, 'You know, as a little boy I used to go swimming here' and he said, 'You and I ought to do that.' And I said, 'Well, you know, I'm dressed and I have all my cameras and that's the Atlantic Ocean' and, you know. And he said, 'Nah, it will be fun.' So he said, 'Well, look, I have some swimming suits,' so we walked back up to the house and walked into the bedroom and we both put on swimsuits, we walk back down to the pier and he said, 'On the count of three, we'll jump.' So one, two, three, I jumped and he walked back to the house. And so from that point on, he had me and we became good friends. But you know, when we would travel around the world, we made it to 75 countries and all 50 states, every once in a while, he'd just kind of hit me with his elbow and he would say, 'Can you believe this? Us two guys from Texas, here doing this?' And I'm thinking, wow, you know. When you think about George Herbert Walker Bush, you think about his life and his career. When he was 18 years old, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and he said, 'I'm going to sign up.' And he went into the Navy and became the youngest Navy fighter pilot in World War II. And we he got out, he zipped through Yale University in three years, and on his own initiative moved to Texas, the Midland-Odessa area, and started in the oil business. As time evolved, he became a Congressman from Texas and moved to Washington, D.C., and then in his career he was the liaison to the People's Republic of China. He was our ambassador to the United Nations. He was a congressman, vice president, a chairman of the Republican National Committee, and countless other things. But then when he became President of the United States and Commander in Chief and had to go to war, he could remember back to the days when he was a young man in combat himself. And so, he had an incredible worldview, but when you think about him as an individual, he used to say that his favorite title was husband and father and grandfather."
Goudeau: For you, personally, to have served in this role for someone who you consider to be the last great statesman of our country, what is this like for you? This is hard.
Valdez: "Yeah it is hard. You know, I documented everything that he did. All those photos are at the Bush Presidential Library in College Station on the campus of Texas A&M University. And they're a part of history. I'm also a part of the Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas, and so the images will live on and on and on throughout history, long after I'm gone. And as a photographer, that's a great thing to have that life; to have documented someone who I think will have a bigger part in world history as one of the last great American statesmen. I'm just fortunate and blessed to have been a part of that. You know, when you're working day to day, you know, it's a job and you're kind of grinding through it and long hours and no sleep, but you're kind of just watching it and saying, 'Wow, you know, look at this guy. Look at how he interacts with people.' I mean, he would pick up the phone and call the President of Egypt or the Soviet Union or the Prime Minister of England or anybody and say, 'I'm calling just to say hello and how are you doing.' And when he had to lead the world coalition to remove Iraq from Kuwait, it was pretty easy to pick up the phone and people he had talked to and known for decades to say, 'Now's the time that we need to make this right.' And he famously said, 'This will not stand' and sure enough it was an incredible victory. And the people of Kuwait love him to this day for what he did for their country."
Goudeau: For you, what is the legacy of President George H.W. Bush?
Valdez: "You know, he's a man of class and character. A great family man, great statesman, you know, he bragged about being a husband, a father and a grandfather and I think that's the most pride he had in anything he ever accomplished. And he was in awe of the presidency and he was president but there was something bigger to him and that was the presidency itself, and he respected that."
To honor former President Bush, the Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin is displaying images from the Valdez archive. On Dec. 12, Valdez is speaking about his time with Bush in the Williamson County Courthouse on the Georgetown Square at 6:30 p.m.