From Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, Doug Mills has had a front row view of the American presidency. And, as a photographer working for international wire services and The New York Times, his work has been sharing that view with the world. Mills brought his long career in high places to life yesterday in a fascinating lecture/slideshow in the Davis Center, the latest in UVM’s Burack Lecture Series. Iconic image after iconic image—a smiling Reagan and Gorbachev, Monica Lewinsky, George W. Bush sitting in front of an elementary school classroom as he learns of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Barack and Michelle Obama striding joyously down Pennsylvania Avenue after his first presidential inauguration—flashed across the large screen in the Davis Center as Mills spoke.
While many of the images were familiar from newspaper front pages and magazine covers, the stories behind them and the glimpses MIlls offered of life in the press corps were not. Mills talked of Ronald Reagan’s legendary garrulous charm and the deep friendship that Reagan shared with Mikhail Gorbachev. He recalled the abrupt shift in spirit at the White House when it went from “smelling like a florist shop” due to Nancy Reagan’s love for decorating to flowers to the first morning of the George H. Bush administration. “It smelled like a country breakfast was cooking—there were kids, footballs—I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my god, this place is alive,’” Mills said. The photographer would strike up a friendship with the senior Bush over horseshoes.
The Clinton years were another burst of energy Mills said, from the moment he showed up at the vice presidential mansion for a photo shoot and found Tipper Gore practicing on her drum set to President Bill Clinton’s morning jogs around Washington, D.C., very worried Secret Service agents at his heels.
Mills was in the classroom that day when a feel-good photo shoot turned into a defining moment for George W. Bush and the world. The photographer captured that moment, the looks that played across the president’s face as he learned the news, with images that are part of our national consciousness. Recalling the motorcade to the airport, Mills said, “Everybody is completely on fire.” For the first time ever, security dogs sniffed the bags of everyone before boarding Air Force One. Later, the entire press corps had to empty out their bags in flight. When Bush flew later that day from Louisiana to Nebraska, Mills was selected as the lone still photographer aboard that flight.
Mills began to cover Barack Obama early in his campaign. The first day on the trail with him, Mills was struck by the crowds and the vibe. He called his wife that evening and told her, “This guy is going to win.” Full circle from his 9/11 coverage, Mills was there the night Barack Obama walked down the corridor on the red carpet to announce that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces. Moments before, Mills had been tipped by a senior official who would only tell him “OBL” in reference to what the Sunday night announcement could be about.
In addition to his political work, Mills is a highly skilled and deeply experienced sports photographer. He finished off his talk with images from the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and the PGA Tour, among other events. The last several years, he’s also turned his lens to the soccer field when the Catamount women’s team is playing—his daughter Ellie is a senior on the squad. Quite a boon for the UVM Athletics Communication operation to have such a talented dad on the sidelines with camera in hand.