President George H.W. Bush, the CIA Memorial Wall, and Photograph I’ll Never Forget

In January 2016, the Central Intelligence Agency invited former President George Herbert Walker Bush back to the agency he led exactly 40 years before. It was a special occasion. John Brennan, CIA Director from 2014-2017, wanted to create an award that recognized the hard-working, consummate intelligence officer, who embodied an “intelligence officer first” mindset, a CIA officer that did not concentrate on his or her directorate or office silos, but an officer that focused on being a well-rounded, professional intelligence officer, someone who embodied the spirit of George H.W. Bush.

While only at the helm of CIA for about a year, Bush was credited with doing something no CIA director had ever done before: professionalizing the service. George Bush was not only a different Director of Central Intelligence (DCI); he was a different kind of DCI, as the CIA’s website puts it. He was the first to defend Agency officers from politically driven inquires, and his warm and sincere cheerleading support for CIA’s professionals helped them accept his leadership of the agency.

The award was called the George H.W. Bush Intelligence Officer Award, and the first presentation of the award would be given in January 29th, 2016, just one day before the 40th anniversary of Bush’s confirmation as CIA Director in 1976. The President, although he used a wheelchair, and his wife Barbara were in good enough health that they could travel to Langley, Virginia so the President could be on stage with the award’s first recipients.

Immediately prior to the awards ceremony, D/CIA Brennan met President Bush and the others in the President’s group in the lobby of the CIA Headquarters building. As a member of the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and one of two photographers for the event, I was lucky enough to be in the lobby with them. After greeting the President, his family, and his assistants, D/CIA Brennan escorted President Bush to the CIA Memorial Wall, a hallowed, sacrosanct place that was the most important place in the CIA to John Brennan. D/CIA Brennan took all his visitors there. The former President was no different, especially as George H.W. Bush was a man who knew what sacrifice meant, always remembering the two men of his flight crew who died after their plane was mauled by Japanese anti-aircraft guns in 1944.

At the time, there were 113 stars etched into the wall, each for an Agency officer who died in the line of duty. Engraved above the stars, it read: “In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country.”

As D/CIA Brennan, who was using a crutch as he had recently injured his leg, spoke to the President about the wall, I realized I had an incredible opportunity. This would be a beautiful picture, I thought. I positioned myself about 20 feet behind the two men and faced the wall, sitting on the floor while using my knee to hold steady my Nikon D7000 camera. The President was almost directly in front of the wall, and D/CIA Brennan was on his right, turning toward him. The American flag was on the left, and the CIA flag was on the right.

I carefully framed the picture. I zoomed in just enough to get everything in the frame to provide as much detail as I could and ensured I was in focus. I carefully pressed the shutter release and captured the image. I did it a few more times just to make sure.

I took the camera down from my eye, clicked the view button on the top left of the back of the camera, and looked at the photo. It looked good, from what I could tell. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me over my left shoulder.

“Can I see that?”

Started, I looked up over my shoulder. It was Evan, a US Navy sailor dressed in a civilian suit and tie, the President’s personal assistant.

“Sure.” I lifted the camera and angled it toward him, so he could see the screen.

“That’s the picture I need,” he said as he handed me his business card.

“Sure thing.”

After the awards ceremony ended and the President and his party left, I went back to my office to process the pictures. The one of the two men at the Memorial Wall was the first picture looked at. While I was proud of my work, it needed some retouching. I wasn’t the greatest photographer, so the light in the photo was a bit too much. Using Photoshop, I adjusted some of the highlights and sharpened the image. I was happy with it, and so were my supervisors and managers in the Office of Public Affairs. With their approval, I emailed the following to President Bush’s staff and my management at around 6 p.m. that night:

Team,

Here are the two photos for posting we have available so far. We will aim to get more on Monday, once we can get a few others approved for release. Please let us/me know if you need anything else in the meantime.

Parker

When I returned to work on Monday, I checked my official CIA unclassified email. I received a response from Kristan, one of the others of the official party and close friend of the Bush family:

Parker, a HUGE thanks to you for making these available so quickly. I’ve had many people comment on the one of 41 and the Director at the memorial wall. Gorgeous photo and still resonating even while competing with the Alfalfa Club activities.

We look forward to the other digital copies, but I wanted to express my appreciation one more time.

Best, Kristan

And a response from another…

AMEN from Houston! – Jim

I felt great knowing that they liked the picture. The next day, I received another email, but this time, it was from the chief of the media relations branch in OPA:

Parker, I just spoke with President Bush’s aide. He told me that President Bush would like you to sign two copies of the picture you took of him and D/CIA Brennan at the Memorial Wall. He’d like to hang them in his office.

I was floored. A President of the United States wanted me to sign a picture? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t I be asking for the President to sign the picture for me? It was an incredible feeling. And according to the email, the President was the one who requested it, not a staff member. President George Herbert Walker Bush wanted Parker Schaffel to sign a picture I took of him, so he could hang it in his office.

As an emotional person, I started to cry. It was so humbling, and I felt so grateful that something I did could impact somebody in such a deep way. But moreover, this man was not just a “somebody,” he was a former President of the United States. He was a man revered for his character, his sacrifice and service to his country, and his ability to make all Americans feel like Americans, no matter their political affiliation. People taken millions of pictures of the President. But he wanted this one, and he wanted my name on it.

I ordered six copies of the picture from our printing office, and they arrived the next day. After practicing a legible signature for what seemed like 15 minutes, I took a fine-point Sharpie and signed my name in the bottom left of the photograph. Then I did it again. Two copies for the President, as requested. I packaged them carefully and mailed them to the address his staff provided. I kept another copy for myself and hung it in my bedroom.

While I always wanted to see the picture on the President’s office wall, I never had the courage to ask for it. But my gut told me it was there, and I was sure that the President and countless others had looked at that picture, perhaps even in his last few days. It was my tribute to a man who gave so much to a country for as long as he could.

Thank you, Mr. President, for all you did to make this world a better place.

George HW Bush and John Brennan Memorial Wall

President George H.W. Bush and CIA Director John Brennan at the CIA Memorial Wall on Friday January 29th, 2016.

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