Doc on White House Photographer a Reminder of President Reagan, President Obama and Common Decency

“There’s no substitute for empathy. It is a foundational relationship between human beings.”

Pete Souza

One hundred ninety thousand people have died from Covid-19 in the United States – so far. On September 11, our country will honor and mourn the 2,977 lives lost on that horrific Tuesday in 2001. The coronavirus pandemic is equivalent to 9/11 happening every day for 64 days: 190,000 people are dead. Donald Trump is using the promise of a vaccine for political leverage after last week’s Atlantic article revealed he called Americans who died in war “suckers” and “losers.” Still, many American’s believe it’s fake news and proudly show off their Trump signs on their front lawns: Make America Great Again. 

If you are an empathetic human, a person with a soul and a shred of sanity, Dawn Porter’s documentary The Way I See It will remind you that you’re not wrong in feeling disgusted. We weren’t always this way: polarized, hateful, selfish. We weren’t.

Pete Souza, former photographer for President Barack Obama, at Capitol Theater in Madison, Wis. Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Lauren Justice

Inspired by the New York Times #1 bestseller, the documentary follows a “historian with a camera,” White House Chief Photographer, Pete Souza. The film is a glimpse into his career as a proverbial fly on the wall of the Oval Office, capturing Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Barack Obama in their eight-year terms as Commander-in-Chief. While opposites in their political ideologies, both men had something in common, according to the one person who followed their every move: they were decent. In the visually stunning look-book of two political leaders, The Way I See It captures all the highs and lows, professional and personal, that the top job demands.

2/6/1984 President Reagan and Nancy Reagan in the limousine waving to the crowd in Dixon Illinois

There’s President Reagan, who inherently knew his angles from his career in Hollywood, knew what “looked good,” and took all the steps necessary to maintain the appearance of being in control, whether or not that was actually the case. But it’s the candid moments that Souza captures that show who Ronald Reagan was, and who he was to his beloved wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan. The most endearing and beautiful moments are snapshots of him spraying her with a garden hose, kissing her at the hospital and wrapping his arm around her; and the most heartbreaking, her standing beside his casket. These still images capture not only what it means to be president, but what it means to be human. All the happiness, all the grief and everything in between.

President Barack Obama participates in one in a series of meetings in the Situation Room of the White House discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Perhaps the most “human” moments of Souza’s career are captured throughout his years photographing President Barack Obama, when he was invited to capture both the marvelous and the mundane; the situation room and the family room. The all-access pass for the respected photojournalist allowed Americans to see through Souza’s lens, an authentic window into a life of their country’s leader.

Images on the day of the Sandy Hook mass shooting are particularly haunting, cemented in time as Barack Obama prepares to address the nation as a president, while processing the news as a parent. It’s striking, more powerful than the moving image and will forever be a part of a dark day in American history. It’s images like these that history needs, however, to show who we were and what we went through, for better or worse.

President Barack Obama holds a meeting in the Oval Office to prep for a Quad Secure Video Teleconference (SVTC) in the Situation Room of the White House, Feb. 23, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“Be ready for the fleeting moments,” Souza learned, “Both big and small.” His words throughout the documentary are as keenly observant and beautiful as his photographs.

The Way I See It shows the big and small – what it looked like when the President of the United States met with grieving families, hugged people who had lost their homes, conducted themselves with dignity and class while maintaining humor and humility. “That’s the way a president should behave,” Souza says.

While it seems many have forgotten what a president should be, this documentary is a nice reminder of what decency looked like not so long ago. We have proof. We have photographs. Thank you, Pete Souza.

The Way I See It airs October 9 at 10 pm ET / 9 pm CT on MSNBC.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talk with senior staff following a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the Oval Office, Feb. 9, 2015.

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