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George Tames Oral History Interview, June 11, 1980

 

 

Oral History Interview with
George Tames

Photographer, Time magazine, 1938-1945; and for New York Times; 1945 to present. Served as President of the White House News Photographers Association, as Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Photographers Gallery, U.S. Senate, and as Chairman of the White House Still Photographers Working Group.

Washington, D.C.
June 11, 1980
by Dr. Benedict K. Zobrist

See Also January 13 through May 16, 1988 interviews.

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 


Notice
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

RESTRICTIONS
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened June, 1984
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

 

[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]

 



Oral History Interview with
George Tames

 

Washington, D.C.
June 11, 1980
by Dr. Benedict K. Zobrist

 

[1]

ZOBRIST: You're a Washingtonian?

TAMES: Yes, I was born and raised in this city. I'm one of the rare ones, I guess, and I've seen quite a bit of history over the years. I was born in 1919, which makes me 61 ½ years old. I dropped out of high school in 1936, I think it was in the tenth grade. I had to get out and earn some money. I went to work for Time, Incorporated, as an office boy, in 1938, and then picked up the photography game about 1939-40. I covered Roosevelt's third campaign in 1940, and also the campaign of '44.

 

[2]

When I say "covered," I mean "limited coverage." I was in Chicago in '44 for the Democratic convention, but I did not go to the convention as such. I worked in the mini-bureau we had set up although I did photograph around the convention. I really started covering campaigns during Truman's first run for President, in '48. I've been to all the Presidential nominating conventions from 1948 to the present, and I’ll be going to Detroit and New York in '80. I don't know about the future, but at least I'll be doing that.

ZOBRIST: When did you first meet President Roosevelt, and what was your reaction? Earlier this evening you were discussing...

TAMES: Being a youngster, I reacted to Roosevelt as most people who have never been around a President react to Carter today. There is something about the office of the Presidency. There is a certain grandeur, a special feeling. But as far as Roosevelt was concerned, why, he was a god. In my family, a very religious family, my mother

 

[3]

had three icons on the wall, and I remember as a little boy seeing them. One was St. George; another was the Virgin Mary; and then there was Roosevelt. So, I've always thought of him as a little bit more than just a man.

ZOBRIST: Could you tell us a little bit about how the press reacted to him and how they viewed him? I think that the role of the President versus the press has changed considerably since that time.

TAMES: The press, the writing press, generally liked him. They liked the give-and-take with him. He was stimulating. But as far as the photography end of it was concerned, we had very limited access to him. It was no secret that Roosevelt was crippled and had to be carried, literally carried, into a room, or he would come in on his wheelchair. But we were forbidden to photograph him except under very controlled situations. One example is the famous "fireside chats." We would set up our cameras on tripods in positions in front of the desk that he would use, or whatever setup

 

[4]

he was using at the time, and then we'd leave the room. Then he would be asked to come in, and when we came in, Roosevelt would be seated. He’d be in command of the situation, the way he always was.

Of the Presidents that I have known, there were some who had a commanding presence, in the sense that when they came into a room, you knew they were there. Roosevelt was one, no question about that; Truman, the same, I never knew whether Eisenhower actually gave this same feeling. Kennedy definitely had it; I don't think Nixon had it. Johnson definitely had it, and Carter does not have it, as far as I can see. That was the feeling I had about them.

When I came upon the scene -- when I first started taking pictures in 1940 -- Roosevelt had already been around for over then years. I used to talk to the other photographers and they would tell me what I couldn't do and what I shouldn't do, and what could be done. Well, apparently, when Roosevelt was elected and he came to Washington,

 

[5]

his press secretary at the time -- what was his name?

Z0BRIST: Early.

TAMES: Yes, Steve Early, that's right. He called the photographers into his office. At that time there was such a limited number of photographers -- I guess 15 would be the total -- and that included the theater newsreels and the still photographers. They had a little meeting with him and he said, "President Roosevelt is crippled; there's nothing secret about that. And he has a favor to ask of his friends in the media, his photographic friends, and that is not to photograph him when he's being carried, or when he is in some of the more compromising positions. In return, the President pledges to make himself more available to the photographers." Up to that time photography was very limited; there are very few pictures of Hoover in action, or in the White House. So the photographers agreed to his request, but something happened. Within two or three years, what had been

 

[6]

a request had the effect of law. By the time I came on the scene, all of these restrictions about photographing Roosevelt had become a condition of covering the President. We were not to get his picture while he was being carried. We were constantly being told and reminded by the agents, and everyone around him, what pictures we could take. That could never happen today, but at the time we went along, because we didn't know any better. Besides, I thought it was the law. I didn't know.

ZOBRIST: Well, in a sense your photographic results perhaps turned out better in that we do have a much better visual record of Roosevelt, wouldn't you say?

TAMES: Oh, yes, but I think...

ZOBRIST: Well, it's a limited type.

TAMES: Also, I think he would have made himself available anyway, even if pictures had been made of him in the wheelchair or being hoisted over the

 

[7]

side of a ship, or things of that type that were restricted. I think he was such a good showman that he was able to use the seat of the Presidency to promote, not only himself, but his ideas. In other words, he was the first President to really use the media as an instrument of his own. And you can use them. There's no question about that. These reporters keep talking about how independent they are and so forth. Yes, they're independent until the President bends his little finger and calls them in and gives them an exclusive. You know they will print it no matter what. Of course, it's highly competitive. But, yes, we did get a lot of good photographs of Roosevelt.

I'll mention one of the things that I was most struck by about Roosevelt. Like most good showmen and most good politicians, he had his own gimmick, what the old vaudeville fellows used to call a "shtick," and his "shtick" was the cigarette lighter and the tilt of his head. He would always

 

[8]

come into a room with prearranged positions. Typically, an agent would be standing next to an empty chair so that when Roosevelt came in the agent would move, and Roosevelt would be able to grab the chair. He would come in on the arm of either his son or an aide, and the moment he would hit the door, back would go the head, a smile would come across has face, and up would come the cigarette lighter, or the arm. And like any good conjurer on a stage, who wanted to distract you so you didn't see what the other hand was doing, he’d have you looking at his head and face, while he’d walk in with his braces, this stiff-kneed walk. He'd also have to stop and rest. But he’d always stop at prearranged positions, and as a result, people would leave the meeting, or the banquet, swearing that they had seen Roosevelt walk. You could put them on a lie detector and they would swear that they saw this person walk, not realizing the whole time that they were being distracted by a good showman. So that's a point of history I have always wanted to emphasize.

 

[9]

Likewise, when he would walk into the joint sessions of the Congress, up that special ramp, he'd never go all the way up at once. He’d take about five steps and then held turn around and acknowledge the members of Congress; then he would go a few more steps and acknowledge the members again. As a result, you never noticed the fact that he was struggling. He was able to project an image of strength and vitality. This held right up until he became ill. We knew he was ill. Any photographer around him knew he was ill, but we kept telling ourselves he was not ill, trying to convince each other that he was okay. Of course, we went along with it. He was heavily made up. We could see that; his face was very sallow.

ZOBRIST: But the photographers went along with this pretty much, you would say, in terms of what they were getting in return. Could you think of any examples of anyone who violated the trust and how such things were handled?

TAMES: Oh, yes. Life magazine wanted to make a point of showing Roosevelt being carried. I think it