When You’re Sitting Next to a President Chapter 3
The ballroom at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas stretched around me. Gaudy Louis XIV chandeliers hung from the ceiling and glittered against the mirrored walls. Around the perimeter of the ballroom waited a single file of participants, snaking around and out the double mirrored doors, stanchions keeping everyone in a tight neat line.
In front of me was my grey photo background, and two X marks on the floor, both in green gaff tape. Two cameras sat on a table in front of me, tethered to two laptops, and two printers. Each system was independent — if I had any problem with the primary, I could pick up the second camera and keep shooting. No one would be the wiser.
It was my typical red carpet setup, something I use for fast paced, high pressure meet and greets with anyone who makes me nervous.
My palms sweated. They always do before an important shoot. I checked and rechecked both systems. Time ticked by. I waited. The participants waited.
A Secret Service officer stood in a corner, watching me and the participants. Another was just left of the X marks on the floor, standing easy and looking less intense than the guy in the corner.
In fact, he was smiling at me. That was a little weird. Secret Service guys aren’t known for having a sense of humor or for smiling. But he was definitely smiling. Interesting. He was cute.
I was dressed in a custom tailored, black European suit I’d picked up on a recent vacation in Lisbon, Portugal. A red silk tie knotted around the collar of a crisp white French-cuffed shirt. I wore handmade, high polished leather shoes. It was the fanciest I had ever dressed on a shoot.
I figured it was important to dress sharp: I was compensating for a bleach blonde Mohawk. I figured if I was going to show up to a shoot with a bleached blonde Mohawk, I better overcompensate with the rest of the look. The red tie was my only republican tie. I thought it would help me look more conservative. Probably not.
Enter another Secret Service agent, this one from the hidden corner back door. And then in breezed George W. Bush.
“How are you, Mr. President?” I took two steps forward, extending my sweaty hand. “I’m Mike Gatty, your photographer.”
He shook my hand, bored, eyes darting around at the participants, seizing them up. Mentally calculating how long the meet and greet would last.
“Sir, you’ll stand on this X, participants will enter to your right, shake your hand, pose for the photo, and exit left. They’ll grab a print on the way out of the room. You’re not signing the prints.”
Bush looked at me. Not pleasantly.
“Young man,” he said loudly, “I have done this before.”
The entire room fell to a hush. Every single eye was on me. Did I just get snapped at?
I looked at the President. I thought, “Oh, no he didn’t!”
“Sir, I understand that. You will stand on the X,” I said, smiling through gritted teeth. “People will shake your hand,” I mimicked shaking my own hand with my other hand, “you will look at me and SMILE,” I took my fingers and raised the sides of my mouth, “and then they will exit.” I sat back on my heels, waiting.
“You have done this before,” Bush said, smiling.
“Sir I’ve done you, your brother, your father, your mother and your wife. Yes, I have done this before.”
Bush looked at me with fresh eyes.
The room continued to stare, entranced.
“And which of us did you like the best?” He asked in an exaggerated Texas drawl.
Ears perked up. Everyone listened. They practically leaned in and cupped their ears. You could hear a pin drop.
“Sir,” I said, smiling broadly and enunciating clearly, “I’m a Democrat.”
Every person in the room gasped. All the oxygen left in a huge whoosh.
I turned and went to my cameras, taking my position. I thought: “Oh, NO I DIDN’T!”
I looked at the first participant in line, and motioned him forward. Bush quietly took position on his X.
The participant advanced, and Bush guided him to his spot on the other X. Then he took his spot carefully on his X, exaggerating his caution and precision. He glanced at me, and then grabbed the participant’s hand. He pumped it up and down, smiling broadly.
“Heh, heh, he,” he cackled, “gotta smile for the democrat!”
The room let out it’s collective breath. Then, everyone giggled. Nervously at first. But it grew more genuine.
As each participant filed by, Bush laughed and joked, cracking himself up, zinging me every once in a while, and joking with the people he was meeting. The photos were great. People looked happy. Bush looked happy. Because they were. After the last participant, I went up and shook President Bush’s hand. The room had emptied except for security, Bush, me, and a few staffers off to the side, studying their shoes.
“Thank you, Mr. President, that was fun.”
“Young man, thank you. I can’t believe we’re done. Usually these things drag on.” He shook my hand, and headed for the door. The secret service guy who had been smiling earlier turned and winked at me as he was leaving.
Interesting. He was cute.
The meet and greet was followed by a private reception, which I didn’t attend or photograph. After I broke down the equipment, I was done for the night. I scurried to my room. Fun fact: after a long day of shooting, I shut myself in my room. I talk to nobody. I always feel like I can never take another photograph. I soak in a hot bath, I drink wine, order room service, and go to sleep. It’s the only way to recharge. Because, even though I feel like I can never take another picture: in eight hours, I’ll have to do it all again.
The next morning, the client approached.
“Well,” he said, “that made for an interesting evening. And, while I wasn’t sure about the whole ‘I’m a democrat’ thing, I gotta say,” he paused.
“The former President just wouldn’t shut up about the ‘funny photographer’ we’d hired for the meet and greet. In fact, his exact words were, ‘it’s about time one of those guys didn’t have a stick up his ass!’ So, yeah, good job.”
For a while I thought the client was still mad, even though the photos were great and Bush made it clear he was happy. But a few months later, the same company called, and hired me for another meet and greet. This one outside Dallas, Texas. So I guess all was right in the world.
I’d like to say that’s the end of the story, but it’s not. With the next meet and greet — the one outside Dallas — I’d realize just how much of an impression I’d left on former President George W. Bush.
…To be continued.