With the current state of the football, baseball and basketball programs at the Forty Acres, the time has come to ponder the once-unfathomable: Is there any reason to keep the University of Texas open?
I think I’ve found one. If you’re a fan of photography, get thee to the LBJ Presidential Library and see the Briscoe Center for American History’s “News to History” exhibit of 130 photos that will remind you of the unparalleled power of a still image. You’ll see photos from 13 presidential administrations, from FDR to Barack Obama. I guarantee you’ll linger at many of the photos as you take in the faces and the interaction and the moment.
You’ll wonder what’s going in the looks exchanged by Lyndon Johnson and JFK in a photo of the two of them in a convertible. You’ll learn the truth about the famous loneliness-of-the-presidency shot of a silhouetted Johnson in the Oval Office. It’s not what you think.
And you’ll wonder what made Ronald Reagan, Walter Cronkite and others laugh so heartily at a White House event honoring the then-retiring CBS news legend. The cause was a Cronkite joke that Briscoe Center Executive Director Don Carleton, at a recent Headliners Club program about the exhibit, said can’t be repeated in anything remotely approaching polite company.
Diana Walker, who snapped the photo, said at a UT program back in 2003 she didn’t hear the joke. “So, I have asked every single man in that picture what the joke was and no one will tell me,” she said.
Also on display is one of the all-time great news images: Bob Jackson’s photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Almost a half-century later, the photo still fascinates. And in an interesting aside, Carleton can identify just about every cop in the photo because, as a boy growing up in Dallas, he played baseball with their kids.
Perhaps the only thing more fascinating than gazing at the snapshots of history would be doing so with somebody in one of them. Some of us got to do that recently at the Headliners event when Carleton showed a photo taken at Sarasota’s Emma Booker Elementary School on Sept. 11, 2001. It shows President George W. Bush — seated at a table, aides around him, phone at his left ear — in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.
Aide Dan Bartlett, next to Bush, is pointing to a TV showing one of the burning towers. Others, including Harriet Miers, are in the background. Next to Bartlett is Karl Rove, looking at the TV. The photo was taken by Eric Draper, then the official White House photographer. Draper’s recently published book, “Front Row Seat,” includes his great work from the unique perspective he had during the Bush years in the White House.
Like all the photos in the exhibit, this one invites you to ponder exactly what was going on at that moment. Rove, who was at the Headliners session, can tell you.
“The president is sitting in a chair designed for a kindergartner at a table that is hitting his knees because all the adult furniture, with the exception of the desk to the side, had been taken out of the room,” Rove recalled. “There were no adult chairs in the room.”
“He has just finished writing a statement he is going to give to the media and he is talking to (Vice President Dick) Cheney in the PEOC, the presidential emergency center under the White House,” Rove noted.
He said he can’t recall why Bartlett was pointing at the TV at that moment.
“The first plane went in at 8:48. … The second plane had already gone in and the towers have not started to fall,” Rove said, gauging that by a clock on the wall in the photo.
“The history happens in the next moment, about 10 seconds after this,” he said. “Eddie (Marinzel), who is the head of the Secret Service detail, puts his finger up to his ear, listens, comes over the president and says, ‘Mr. President, we need to get you to the motorcade and to the aircraft as quickly as possible.’ And what had happened was they had determined that everybody knew where the president was and somebody had called the Secret Service headquarters and said we’re going to attack Air Force One.”
As that word moved up the Secret Service chain, somebody mistakenly reported the caller had used the Air Force One code word. “Angel is next,” was the message.
“So by the time it got two levels or three levels up the Secret Service this made them vibrate at a very high level,” Rove recalled. “So their attitude was the president’s whereabouts are known, somebody is going to be flying an airplane into the school. So literally about 10, 15 seconds after this photograph was taken Eddie comes in and in a voice that was about as cold as an ice cube said to the president, ‘We need to get going.’”
And they did. It was during that 85-mph motorcade to the airport that Bush got word that the Pentagon also had been attacked. Rove was in the presidential limo. Bush, he said, wanted to return to Washington but was told there was no way to guarantee that was a safe choice.
“(Bush) tells them we’re going to Washington,” Rove said, adding that those trying to dissuade him from that said there was no guarantee he would not be met on final approach by somebody with a shoulder-launch missile.
“The president — he’s not an angry guy, he doesn’t manage by anger — but this was one of the two or three times in 39 years that I’ve seen him angry,” Rove said.
At some point, a military aide told Bush the plane did not have enough fuel to get back to Washington because it had not been refueled prior to Bush’s earlier-than-expected return to it. So Air Force One headed to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Barksdale had gone on lockdown a day earlier for a training mission “so there was nobody strange on the Air Force Base and they used this to sell it to (Bush),” according to Rove, who said Bush “knew he was being conned and didn’t like it.”
“We fly into Barksdale and nobody is supposed to know where we are,” Rove said in wrapping up, “and some local enterprising (TV) reporter at the local Shreveport TV station had sent a camera down to the flight approach. We only had television (on Air Force One) when we got over a local signal. So we got the local Shreveport TV station and there was Air Force One on final approach.”
You have until Oct. 1 to go see “News to History.” You should, and you should try to get Rove to go with you.
If you go
What: “News to History: Photojournalism and the Presidency”
Where: Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, 2313 Red River Street
When: Sunday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., through Oct. 1
Admission: Suggested donations; $8 adults, $5 seniors, $3 children 13-17.