The Loneliest Job

George Tames covered Washington D.C for four decades (1945-1985) and is best remembered for one, “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph of President John F. Kennedy looking out of the south window of the oval office. Tames took the photograph through the door of the Oval Office, after Kennedy thought he had left. From behind, it looks as if he is carrying the weight of the world. Kennedy – who had a bad back – simply was reading the newspapers standing up, as he often preferred to do.

Tames remembered: “President Kennedy’s back was broken during the war, when that torpedo boat of his was hit by the Japanese destroyer. As a result of that injury he wore a brace on his back most of his life. Quite a few people didn’t realize that. Also he could never sit for any length of time, more than thirty or forty minutes in a chair without having to get up and walk around. Particularly when it felt bad he had a habit, in the House, and the Senate, and into the Presidency, of carrying his weight on his shoulders, literally, by leaning over a desk, putting down his palms out flat, and leaning over and carrying the weight of his upper body by his shoulder muscles, and sort of stretching or easing his back. He would read and work that way, which was something I had seen him do many times. When I saw him doing that, I walked in, stood by his rocking chair, and then I looked down and framed him between the two windows, and I shot that picture.

Although the photo was taken on Feb. 10, 1961 — just a few months into Kennedy administration — the image would later take on a more symbolic meaning as the Kennedy presidency waded into difficult waters. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the New York Times christened the photo, “The loneliest job in the world.” The photo was a favourite of President Clinton, who hang it in the Treaty Room, the presidential private office on the second floor of the White House. The West Wing recreated it for its opening segment (below).

23 thoughts on “The Loneliest Job

  1. The photo was also semi-re-created in the TV movie The Missiles Of October. William Devane played Jack and interestingly Martin Sheen played Bobby. I say “semi” because in the film it was a profile view but so tremendously easily recognizable. I think I had read once that it was just Jack reading the newspaper but it sure does oh-so-unbelievably fit into those 13 Days in October ’62.

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