Hair like mine: New book contains heartwarming photo from Obama presidency

Posted 1/18/18

May 8, 2009, was a big day for 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia.

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Hair like mine: New book contains heartwarming photo from Obama presidency


May 8, 2009, was a big day for 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia.

His father, Carlton, was leaving the White House after serving as an aid for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

On such occasions, the outgoing staffer and his or her family are brought to the Oval Office for a photo op with the president.

Mr. Carlton and his wife also encouraged their two sons to come up with one question each to ask the president.

When the moment came, Jacob looked at the president and said in a near whisper, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.”

After asking Jacob to repeat his question, Obama bent his head so that Jacob could reach it and invited him to see for himself.

Neither Jacob nor Pete Souza, Obama’s Chief Official White House Photographer, had anticipated this reaction.

As Jacob hesitated, perhaps wondering if he would be punished later for rubbing the president’s head, Obama assured him that it was okay.

“Touch it, dude!” the president said.

Souza raised his camera just in time to take a single picture of Jacob’s wide-eyed expression as he placed his hand on the back of the president’s head.

In “Obama: An Intimate Portrait,” Souza’s new book of photographs from the Obama presidency, he admits that the composition of the photo is not idea. (Mr. Philadelphia’s head is cut off, for example.)

However, the image struck a chord with White House staffers. While other photos came and went from the walls of the West Wing, it remained on display until it captured the attention of New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes.

Calmes tracked down the Philadelphia family and wrote a story about the photo in May 2012 titled “When a Boy Found a Familiar Feel in a Pat of the Head of State.”

“It captured something that we had begun to take for granted with Barack Obama having been elected president, and that is the power of having a black man as president for a black child,” Calmes told David Axelrod, Obama’s former chief advisor and chief strategist, in a March 2017 interview for his podcast The Axe Files.

According to Calmes, some readers and perhaps fellow journalists accused her of having been spoon-fed a feel-good story by the administration when in fact she wrote the story three years after the photo was taken and had to fight to get any information.

By the time the story ran, Carlton Philadelphia was serving in Afghanistan for the State Department and 8-year-old Jacob was debating between being president of the United States or a test pilot when he grew up.

Calmes reported that copies of the photo were on display in the Philadelphias’ living room as well as in Axelrod’s office.

“This can be such a cynical business, and then there are moments like that that remind you that it’s worth it,” Axelrod said in the Times story.

Souza’s book includes several photos of Obama interacting with children: coaching his daughter’s basketball team, sharing strawberry pie with a boy in Ohio, getting zapped by a pint-sized Spiderman on Halloween in 2012.

However, the photo “Hair Like Mine” appears not only in the book but on the back cover as well.

Souza wrote that he tried to replace the photo as Obama began his second term but left it at the request of several White House staffers —

“When they gave friends and family a West Wing tour, they said, the photograph and the story behind it had become the most important stop. So back up it went and remained in the West Wing until the final days of the Obama administration.”

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle’s features editor.