The West Wing and Beyond

What I Saw Inside the Presidency


By Pete Souza

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Go behind the scenes of the West Wing—into the Oval Office and Situation Room, aboard Air Force One, and beyond—with #1 bestselling author and former presidential photographer Pete Souza.

Pete Souza has spent more time in the Oval Office than almost any person in history. During the Obama administration alone, Souza was inside the presidential bubble for more than 25,000 hours and made nearly 2 million photographs. The result is an unprecedented view of how our democracy really works.

Now Souza invites you into the inner sanctum of the American presidency, sharing rarely seen photographs and untold stories of life and work in the White House and traveling with the President around the world.

The West Wing and Beyond takes you behind the scenes of consequential moments and traditions with the people who define our nation’s highest office—from the senior White House staff to the Oval Office valets. It delivers new insights into the role of the Secret Service, the seriousness of decisive meetings in the West Wing, and even some fun moments aboard Air Force One.

Brimming with gorgeous photographs paired with fascinating storytelling, The West Wing and Beyond offers a one-of-a-kind look into the personalities, intrigues, and fascinating details that comprise the modern presidency. It is an essential book for every citizen who believes in American democracy.



1986: In my West Wing office, with Reagan’s photo editor Carol McKay (photo by David LaBelle).

2009: In my West Wing office, the old barbershop, during the Obama administration.


It’s not as majestic as one would think. Don’t get me wrong, the West Wing does have historic rooms like the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Situation Room. There are a few grand, expansive staff offices—those of the White House press secretary, the national security advisor, and the Vice President, for instance. The chief of staff’s office even has a patio (paid for by President Reagan’s chief of staff Don Regan) that is several times larger than the President’s patio.

But by and large, the offices used by most staff members in the West Wing are small and ordinary, many with low ceilings and without windows. Some hallways are so narrow that they should be one-way. In a couple of places, there are double swinging doors that can be a hazard. One set of the swinging doors was around the corner from my office, which I’d have to pass through every time I walked upstairs to the Oval. You had to pay attention to not whack someone coming up behind you and to not get whacked yourself going the other way, which once led to a staff member’s concussion.

I’ve spent much of my life in the real West Wing, but the portrayal of the West Wing on the 1990s TV show The West Wing describes a place I don’t know. The real office space in the White House is not where you’d want to film a TV show. And yet, having an office in the West Wing is the ultimate status symbol, even if you don’t know what time it is because you never see the sun streaming through windows that you don’t have. But—and it’s a big but—if you have an office in the West Wing, you do have proximity to power: Just down the hall, or up or down a flight of stairs, is the President of the United States. And despite the odd and sometimes cramped workspaces, this is where so much important work is done on behalf of the American people.

In the photo above, Director of Communications Dan Pfeiffer stands outside a colleague’s office in one of the wider hallways, while Sarah Fenn, special assistant to the deputy chief of staff, works in her windowless office. At the far end of the hall, just to the left of the chair, is the formal front door of the Oval Office.


I’ll boldly say that I’ve spent more time in the Oval Office than any person in history, other than maybe some of the two-term presidents.

I have witnessed history in this room. I know the most famous office in the world in extraordinary detail, having looked at it through a camera lens for hundreds of thousands of photographs.

Because of its many windows, the light in the Oval Office is constantly changing. Depending on the time of day. Depending on the time of year. My senses were always heightened in the early morning and late afternoon of the winter months when sunlight streamed through the bulletproof windows behind the Resolute Desk. The desk, constructed from the timbers of the HMS Resolute, was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes. (Above, you’ll see my shadow on the desk during the President’s daily intelligence briefing.)

It wasn’t unusual for people to become overwhelmed the first time they stepped into this office. I felt my knees shake the first time I walked into the Oval in June of 1983 to meet President Reagan. Along with many others who entered the Oval with regularity, I eventually got over that feeling. Yet I still felt the sense of history tugging at me every time I was in that office.

I’m sure Dan Shapiro, pictured below, felt this way when he met with the President before a head of state call in 2009. “When briefing the President in the Oval Office, you want to make every word count,” recalls Dan, who was a senior director of the National Security Council at the time. “Before calling a foreign leader, President Obama would have read and absorbed your memo, so there was no need to repeat what you wrote. You had to bring something new, an update that would help him achieve his goals in the call. If you did, he was all ears.”

Personal Secretary Katie Johnson leans on the Resolute Desk while listening to the President in 2010.

Folders and the President’s teacup on his desk in 2014.

During phone calls with foreign heads of state, the secondary phone in the Oval was used as a speakerphone. A Situation Room staffer would be present to monitor the volume control: lowering the volume to avoid echoes when the President spoke, and raising the volume when the head of state was talking, as happened here during a call with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia in 2009.

Aides gather around the phone listening to President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia as he spoke with the President in 2009. At the time, Vladimir Putin was the prime minister, before he ran for the office again and returned as President of Russia in 2012. Putin’s phone calls with President Obama, and there were many, were not quite as cordial as this one.

Advisors during the daily economic briefing in 2009.

A reporter takes notes in shorthand during a Q&A with the President and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009.

Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall leans on the President’s desk chair during a delegation meeting with President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon in 2009.

Lipstick on National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s coffee cup during a prep session before a meeting with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey of Spain in 2014.

OVAL OFFICE VALETS Presidential valets have been a presence since our first president. According to the White House Historical Association, George Washington’s valet William Lee was enslaved. He was also a confidante of the President, and the only enslaved person specifically freed in Washington’s will.

During the Reagan administration, most of the valets were Filipino, partially a result of a 1947 Military Bases Agreement between the United States and the Philippines in which Filipino citizens could be recruited into the U.S. military. One of the Reagan valets, Eddie Serrano, had enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1946. He was well liked by the staff as well as by Nancy Reagan. Amazingly, he worked for six presidents and retired in 1993.

Today, presidential valets are specially selected members of the military. There is a valet in the White House residence who cares for the presidential clothing as well as all personal matters related to the President’s “home.” This valet also travels on every trip.

The Oval Office valets deal with the President’s needs while at work in the West Wing. During the Obama administration, the two Oval valets were Quincy “Q” Jackson (shown above and below) and Ray Rogers (see here). They would station themselves in the dining room adjacent to the Oval, ready to serve the President and his guests water or juice before each meeting. (They were once caught unprepared when Speaker of the House John Boehner asked for a glass of merlot wine during an early evening meeting with the President.) They would also prepare and cook lunch for the President every day in a closet-size kitchenette. The President often said to me he was amazed by the meals they were able to create in that tiny space.

Ray and Q were also ready for tasks like preparing cupcakes for a staff member’s birthday during a meeting, or when a member of the press knocked a glass of water over onto the Resolute Desk in the crush of a photo op (above).

The President’s choice of ties prior to an address to the nation from the Oval Office in 2010. The bowl of Gala apples was replenished daily by the White House florist’s shop. I ate at least one a day unless there was a mealy batch, a rare occurrence.

Positioning lights before a presidential videotaping in 2009. In addition to sporadic video recordings, President Obama addressed the nation live only three times from the Oval Office. By contrast, President Reagan delivered a live address to the nation 29 times from the Oval.

Signing pens ready for a presidential memorandum in 2009. It was customary for the President to use multiple pens—using one pen for each letter or half-letter of his name—when signing a bill, executive order, or memorandum, so the pens could be given to those who sponsored the bill or helped push it forward. This tradition dates to at least the FDR administration. President Obama used 22 pens to sign the Affordable Care Act. During the commotion onstage afterward, one of the pens became unaccounted for, and it was never determined who had taken it.

Chief speechwriter Jon Favreau holds the latest draft of the 2012 State of the Union speech. The President edited speeches with a black Uni-Ball Vision Elite rollerball pen.

Weekly luncheon with the Vice President in the President’s dining room adjacent to the Oval Office in 2010.

Lunch with Colin Powell on the Oval Office patio, just outside the dining room, in 2011. I had known General Powell during the Reagan administration, and the first time he came to see President Obama, a film producer working on a documentary had asked him if he remembered me. Powell replied, “Of course, I still have one of his jumbos hanging over my hot tub,” referring to the large photographs we displayed on the walls of the White House.

Personal Aide Ferial Govashiri and Brian Mosteller, Director of Oval Office Operations, look inside compartments and drawers just before President Obama stopped by the Oval Office for the last time on the morning of January 20, 2017. Standing in the doorway is a Secret Service agent waiting for the President’s arrival.


“Renegade in secretary’s office.” A Secret Service agent called that phrase over the radio every time President Obama stepped into the reception area outside the Oval Office, using his code name.

In most diagrams of the West Wing, this area is labeled “President’s Secretary.” During the Reagan administration, we called it the “Oval Office reception area.” During the Obama administration, we called it the “Outer Oval,” though the Secret Service continued to refer to it as the “secretary’s office.” Whatever the official name, the Outer Oval is the main entry and exit point into the Oval Office for any staff meeting with the President. In addition, it is the entry/exit point for the President’s special guests (U.S. Senators or Congressional leaders coming for a sit-down meeting), close friends, or family. Foreign heads of state have come back and forth through that space. President Obama even escorted Pope Francis into the Outer Oval to meet his personal staff.

It was also a working office for three people. There were two desks and a tiny sub-office. Closest to the Oval was a desk for the President’s personal secretary (later known as his “personal aide”). The other desk was for Brian Mosteller, the Director of Oval Office Operations. In the cramped office was the President’s “body man.”

I was the unofficial fourth person who frequently sat in the Outer Oval, though I didn’t have a desk. But I did claim a place to sit, which Brian called “Pete’s chair.” From that position, I was ready to head into the Oval Office at any time, and I could also keep an eye out the door for anything interesting in the Rose Garden or on the South Lawn. On some mornings, I’d walk in to find that “my” chair had been hijacked by Bo, the family dog (above), and I’d be relegated to the chair next to it.

General James Jones, national security advisor, confers with Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before entering the Oval Office in 2009. Admiral Mullen is holding a folder marked “top secret.” Seen through the doorway is Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Katie Johnson, left, works at her desk.


  • "Throughout, the author uses his unprecedented access to create up-close and personal studies, informal moments dressed up in formal clothes, of the powerful people who populate the presidential bubble. Fascinating, in-depth portraits within the halls of power."

  • "Souza's photos steal the show... This unique offering is bound to be popular."—Booklist
  • "Remarkable"—The New York Times

On Sale
Sep 27, 2022
Page Count
256 pages

Pete Souza

About the Author

Pete Souza was the Chief Official White House Photographer for President Obama and the Director of the White House Photo Office. Previously Souza was an Assistant Professor of Photojournalism at Ohio University, the national photographer for the Chicago Tribune, a freelancer for National Geographic, and an Official White House Photographer for President Reagan. His books include the New York Times bestseller The Rise of Barack Obama, which documents the president’s meteoric ascent from his first day in the United States Senate through the 2008 Pennsylvania presidential primary, and the #1 New York Times bestseller Obama: An Intimate Portrait. Souza is currently a freelance photographer based in Washington, D.C., and is a Professor Emeritus at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication.

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