Sunday, February 24, 2008

It took over 25 yearsafter President Gerald Ford left office for the nation to fully appreciate him. Unfortunately, only in death, when the eulogies poured in and the passage of time allowed more comparisons to be made, were his finer qualities recalled so clearly.

Close students of White House history will know that among his first official acts as president was naming David Hume Kennerly as his official personal photographer. From his earliest days in office Ford realized the value of recording his presidency on film.

His goal was to clear out the fumes of mistrust from the Oval Office, and because this request for a visual record of his administration came from such a down-to-earth leader, it was clear to everyone that this was no act of vanity. By establishing his accessibility and through the clarity of Mr. Kennerly’s ever-present lens, the president was able to reassure the public. This was transparency in government at its best, and president and photographer shaped it together.

Young Mr. Kennerly, only 27 at the time, proposed his own terms before taking the job. He did not want to become lost down the long food chain of deputies, assistants and special aides. He asked to report directly to the president, with no one standing in between them. He wished to be free to come and go whenever he chose.

Ford accepted these conditions but had to renege on rare occasions, once when he was about to chew out a high-ranking military officer. Mr. Kennerly later agreed that the tension in the room would have become “excruciating,” twice as humiliating for all concerned if pictures of the dressing down had been taken for posterity.

Throughout the 125 exquisitely printed photographs in this oversized book, a few shown here in public for the first time, quite a few worthy footnotes have been added to the American story. We see the very first visit by an American president to Japan. As the U.S. Embassy in Saigon is being evacuated, the commander-in-chief agonizes because for the first time America was losing a war. For the first time ever, five living presidents assemble. The last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, said of Mr. Kennerly’s work: It is “more than photography, it is history.”

Mr. Kennerly’s greatest achievements depended on the invisibility and trust that he seemed to earn so easily. Would it be okay if he joined the president at the breakfast table, even with the brand new First Lady still in curlers? No problem. Or right after her surgery for breast cancer? Sure. Laughter is the best medicine. From nearly close enough to be in his lap, we see Dick Cheney as chief of staff having a little bit too much fun behind the wheel of a bumper car in Dallas.

Through these photographs, we can huddle with the president, still in his pajamas one night when Chief of Staff Don Rumsfeld came knocking with urgent plans. A young George H.W. Bush points at the latest CIA maps from southeast Asia, and “Hot Shot” as the Secret Service nicknamed the president’s photographer, became the only non-member ever allowed inside National Security Council meetings.

During the two and a half years of the Ford Administration, Air Force One crossed 300,000 miles — all of the United States and 19 other nations. Mr. Kennerly’s disarming style shows all the distinguished visitors who came face-to-face with the president, including a young-looking Queen Elizabeth II, Deng Xiaoping, Leonid Brezhnev, Anwar Sadat and the Shah of Iran. Plenty of American icons waited around the corner, such as Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, John Connally, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Candice Bergen and Andy Warhol.

Mr. Kennerly worked as a journalist, but also as a historian. Some found his level of familiarity with the First Family a bit too familiar, but that was just as much the result of the Fords’ personality as it was the Kennerly style of shooting. Neither Republicans nor Democrats reminisce much about political life in the Seventies, what with all of its bruises; but even amidst this denial, for the first time, we have a full visual documentation of the leader of the free world taken from one consistent point of view.

The history of presidential photography up until that point is skimpy. Abraham Lincoln remarked that one speech at Cooper Union combined with a few portraits taken by Matthew Brady had won him the highest office in 1860. The vitality of Teddy Roosevelt was best preserved by the invention of motion picture cameras.

President Kennedy had a rotation of Navy photographers recording his moves, along with high-profile magazine photographers such as Richard Avedon, but no one stayed throughout the whole 1,000 days of Camelot.

Later, Yoichi Okamoto became the first person hired by the White House to become a personal photographer to the president. His pictures of Lyndon Johnson stand as some of the least known but most forward-looking examples of photojournalism ever made, but his opportunities came sporadically. The president even banished him for a while back to the U.S. Information Agency. Ollie Atkins joined the Nixon White House after resigning from The Saturday Evening Post, but remained under the thumb of Press Secretary Ron Ziegler.

Richard Nixon dreaded his encounters with the camera, dating back to his famous five o’clock shadow during the Kennedy/Nixon debates. Then, of course, there was his stiff posture, that un-photogenic sweaty lip, those dress shoes on the beach.

Even though Mr. Kennerly had won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for the quality of his war coverage in Vietnam, and had assembled four other books combining photos and memoirs, the big traditional publishers did not seem interested in a Ford chapter from the 20th century. It finally took the University of Texas at Austin, and a blue-chip list of Washington insiders, to sponsor the publication of this volume.

The book enjoys a closing chapter by the historian Richard Norton Smith that sums up President Ford’s life, joined by the full eulogy Vice President Cheney gave at the Capitol Rotunda on Dec. 30, 2006.

An unusual credits page thanks the “generous assistance” of Alan Greenspan, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Shrum, Washington Mutual and 23 other conspicuous benefactors, including several who are featured personalities in the book. This makes for another kind of footnote in mass media history: Nowadays, presidents have to raise money to build their own libraries, and their former staffers have to pony up big bucks to appear in the books.

Mr. Kennerly’s best skills are as much social as they are creative. At its best, his work shows great intimacy, proving that an empathetic camera can always — and most properly should — be present anytime, anywhere. Mr. Kennerly had the daunting task of going first, in effect inventing this style of presidential documentary. It is all the more shocking that no one has done it again since, or at least been able to publish it.

The candor of Mr. Kennerly’s photography was a perfect fit for his boss. What made Gerald Ford great was his ordinary nature, one tested and burnished by extraordinary times. This book captures his moment and sets the standard for how the days of our president’s lives should be immortalized.


A fine, archivally boxed, limited-edition release of this book, featuring one signed photographic print by Mr. Kennerly, can be viewed at the website

J. Ross Baughman is director of photography at The Washington Times.

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