The photo was striking: Four past presidents and three first ladies – as well as current first lady Melania Trump – standing together. The image quickly went viral – a symbol of the strength and continuity of American democracy.
I wanted to know more about the photo so I reached out to the man who took it: Paul Morse. Morse, a New Orleans-based photographer, was game to talk about how the photo came about – and what he thought about it when he snapped it.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let’s start at the beginning. Why were you at the funeral?
Morse: I was asked by the Office of George H.W. Bush if I would be available to cover the funeral service when it was announced Mrs. Bush was seeking comfort care. I was in Dallas that week photographing events for the Bush Center so it was easy to travel to Houston in time for the service.
It was really an honor to be asked. I have been working for President George W. Bush for 15 years starting at the White House in 2001 as the deputy director of photography and for the Bush Center when I started my own business. I have also worked for President Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative.
Cillizza: The photo that went viral: How did it happen? Did you organize them into that grouping?
Morse: The photo was organized at the reception prior to the funeral service by President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff Jean Becker while VIPs were greeting (Bush) 41. Jean has a commanding presence and asked all the former presidents and first ladies to come together for a group photo before they lined up to walk into the service.
Cillizza: What was the vibe among them? Had they all been talking before? Did they talk after?
Morse: The vibe was very upbeat. They were all talking with each other after they greeted 41. There were family members of 41, grandkids, former White House staff, judges, former heads of state, Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress.
Cillizza: The woman in the background! Who is she? Did you know she was there? Did you try to move her? Why or why not?
Morse: I think she is part of the extended Bush family because they were all that was left in the room when the photo was taken. Honestly I didn’t see her until after I took the photos and we released the shot. I should have cropped tighter! Normally I would ask people to move out of the background but when I had all the former presidents and first ladies waiting for me to take the picture I wasn’t going to wait for her to move.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “My first thought after taking that picture was _________________.” Now, explain.
Morse: My first thought after taking the picture was it was a nice moment of this exclusive group of people.
When I looked at the photo closer, I noticed how all the smiles and gestures were very genuine and natural. Everyone looked very happy and I think they were happy to be there to support President Bush 41.