On August 19, 1991, when Communist hard-liners attempted to depose Mikhail Gorbachev, signaling the imminent implosion of one of history’s most powerful empires, David Valdez was in a golf-cart motorcade in Kennebunkport, Maine, with George H. W. Bush. “The military aide to the president came up to him,” says Valdez. “ ‘Mr. President,’ he said, ‘the Soviet Union has collapsed.’ ”
During the decade that Valdez spent as Bush’s official photographer, he was a witness to—and recorder of—many such private moments, ranging from the world-historical to the mundane. But his path to that role was largely unplanned. As a young man, the Alice native joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War, only to be selected, seemingly at random, to be trained in photography. “I turned to the guy next to me and said, ‘What does that mean?’ ” Valdez recalls.
By 1983, when then Vice President Bush’s photographer stepped down, Valdez was working for a U.S. Chamber of Commerce magazine. He applied for the Bush job and, after a series of interviews, was offered the gig—thanks in part to his Texas birth. On his first day, he was sent to Florida, where he had breakfast with the Bushes, shot photos of the vice president driving a race boat, and took pictures of George and his newborn grandson, John. A week later, Barbara sent a note delivering a benediction: “As long as you take pictures of my grandchildren, you can go anywhere and do anything you want to do.”
The Bushes have described Valdez as a member of the family, and he fondly recalls the intensity of their bond. He was there in 1987 when Polish shipyard worker Lech Wałęsa told Vice President Bush that Poland would one day be free and that Bush would one day be president. He was there in 1989 when President Bush returned once again to visit Wałęsa, who would soon be elected president. And he was there for Bush’s painful electoral loss to Bill Clinton, in 1992, which brought Valdez’s job to an end.
By early 2000, he was working in Orlando as Disney’s general manager of photography when he walked into George W. Bush’s central Florida campaign office and offered his services. A supervisor set him to painting signs—until, at a campaign stop, George W. and Jeb came over to bear-hug him in front of a throng of mystified volunteers. Once the hanging-chad days were over, there was talk of his taking his old job back, but Valdez says, “My wife was not very excited about me doing that.”
Instead, W. appointed him to a position with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He stepped down in 2010 and is semiretired, but he’s still part of the family. These days, he lives outside Austin and is photographing George P. Bush’s campaign for land commissioner. As he travels around the state with one of the grandsons of his old boss, he sees many of the photos he has taken over the years hanging in GOP offices. He’s become something of a senior statesman himself.
“I’m the oldest guy on the bus. I probably have more campaign experience than the rest of those guys put together,” Valdez says. “One of P.’s first speeches that I shot, he finished it and turned to look at me. I kind of thought he might be saying, ‘Did I do okay?’ ”