Telling Portraits

White House photographer Robert McNeely's groundbreaking book focuses on 'The Clinton Years,' yet is a tribute not to the man but to the presidency.

November 30, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

When the visual history of the Clinton administration is toted up, one indelible image of the era surely will be that of the gregarious 42nd president's reception-line embrace of a certain beret-wearing White House intern.

But that's not a picture you'll find in "The Clinton Years," photographer Robert McNeely's fascinating pictorial account of the day-to-day life of an American presidency published last month by Callaway.

The book arrives in stores just in time for Christmas and for the inauguration of Clinton's successor in January, whoever that may be.

And guess what: You won't miss Monica. Haven't we seen enough of her already?

McNeely, 55, a masterful photojournalist who between 1992 and 1998 served as Clinton's official White House photographer, set out to document the office rather than the man, and the portrait he paints of the Clinton presidency ultimately is a tribute to the institution rather than to the individual.

Yet he also manages to show that the Clinton White House was a place of seemingly indefatigable energy as well as high drama, a hotbed of ideas staffed by bright, incredibly hard-working people who were well aware that they were making history.

During his tenure, McNeely was granted unprecedented access to the president and the behind-the-scenes daily workings of his administration.

His book, the first ever published on an American president while he was still in office - the White House retained final approval for the book's 227 pictures - should serve as a timely reminder during this uncertain election season of the elation and awesome responsibility that attends the nation's highest office. (About 100 photographs from "The Clinton Years" are also on display at the Gowinda Gallery in Georgetown, which is selling prints signed by the photographer at prices starting at $600.)

On the evidence of these photos, the presidency under William Jefferson Clinton was largely successful, despite the man's flaws. McNeely offers glimpses of private moments the president shared with his closest confidants, including first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose presence permeates the book like a leitmotif for the Clintons' strangely troubled marriage.

It's difficult to view McNeely's many photographs of Bill and Hillary holding hands, laughing together and mugging for the cameras without wondering how much was real, and how much was just an act.

On balance, McNeely's pictures argue that these two really were crazy about each other, and that the affection they showed in public was genuine. Clinton comes across as a smart, big-hearted guy, and it's easy to believe his wife adored him.

Knowing what we now do about the president's peccadilloes (McNeely insists nobody around Clinton knew about Monica until the scandal broke in early 1998), viewers may find themselves torn between empathy for the wronged wife and indignation at her wayward man.

Though Monica appears nowhere in the book (there's just one shot of the White House interns with the president, but it was taken a year before The Beret arrived), her absence nevertheless forms an inescapable subterranean narrative of the Clinton marriage.

For example, a 1997 shot shows Bill, Hillary and Betty Currie, the president's confidential secretary, eating bagels just outside the Oval Office. The president has his hand on Currie's shoulder, and one can't quite help reading a conspiratorial meaning into that seemingly innocent gesture, as if the president were cementing a bond of secrecy.

But hindsight almost always embues circumstances with an aura of purpose.

Consider McNeely's choice of a career. In retrospect, the steps he followed to the White House may appear carefully planned, but in reality he got into photography almost by accident.

cmhereWhile serving in the infantry during the Vietnam War, a friend bought an inexpensive Japanese camera at the base PX. McNeely bought one for himself and immediately fell in love with taking pictures. After his discharge, he returned to upstate New York and announced to his startled parents that he was a photographer.

In 1970, he took a summer course in Aspen, Colo., where his teachers included the photographers Nathan Lyons, Bruce Davidson, Cornell Capa and Paul Caponigro. It was the only formal photographic training he ever had, but it served him well.

McNeely's first big break came in 1972, when he became the campaign photographer for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern and some of his photographs were picked by the wire services and distributed around the country. Another milestone came in 1973, when McNeely photos of the Nixon impeachment case were published in Time magazine.

In 1976, McNeely joined Walter Mondale's staff as the vice presidential candidate's campaign photographer. When Mondale and president Jimmy Carter won the election, McNeely went to the White House as Mondale's official photographer.

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