Covering 50 years of presidential politics
Covering 50 years of presidential politics

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Covering 50 years of presidential politics 02:51

A witness to history: 50 years of presidential politics

Updated 9:44 AM ET, Fri July 1, 2016

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Editor's note: CNN has partnered with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly to cover the 2016 election. Kennerly has spent 50 years photographing U.S. politics. At age 27, he became the youngest chief White House photographer when he started working for President Gerald Ford. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

(CNN)Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was the first national politician I photographed, and I hold him directly responsible for my interest in what makes the world tick! When I covered Kennedy in 1966 as a 19-year-old news photographer, I was entranced not only by him, but by the notion that so many people were transfixed with the persona and words of a single person.

That was my first exposure to major-league charisma.
As a sophomore in high school in Roseburg, Oregon, I vividly remember when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Along with most people, I was shocked into tears. When RFK showed up in Portland three years later, I was curious to see if he had the same kind of aura. He did.
Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy campaigns in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1968. Kennerly said it was "a brave act by a white politician to appear in the predominantly African-American section of town that so recently had been torn apart by riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But that was the Kennedy strength and family philosophy on display. A few weeks later, like MLK, he would also be struck dead by an assassin's bullet."
That night, after his speech in a crowded labor hall, I followed him to the airport to cover his departure. As I watched his plane disappear into the foggy night, it was as though I had been hit by lightning. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be on that plane, or one like it, to document the people who made the world go around.
That wish has come true a thousand times over. Metaphorically, the idea of being on Kennedy's plane became my magic carpet, and what a ride it has given me. A year later I moved to Los Angeles and joined United Press International, and less than a year after that I covered the 1968 presidential campaign, my first.
Supporters of Robert F. Kennedy wait for their candidate to show up at Los Angeles International Airport. "I felt the spirit and enthusiasm of these young supporters," Kennerly said. "To them, Robert Kennedy had picked up the fallen flag carried by his brother, and they thought he would carry it into the White House."
Kennedy at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel during his 1968 presidential campaign. "This image has haunted me since his assassination," Kennerly said. "What was he thinking in that moment?"
In 1971, the magic carpet dropped me off on a two-year adventure to cover the Vietnam War. I had to go. Vietnam was the biggest story of my generation, and four of my classmates from West Linn High School had died there. I went for them, for the story, and to see for myself the war that was tearing our country apart.
Vietnam changed everything for me, but not exactly in a way that I would have thought. I was seeing the real-time result of what happened when politicians sitting in a room thousands of miles from the action unleashed forces of death and destruction with just a few meetings and some phone calls. I had never thought of it that way, and it provided me another idea for a slight change of professional direction. I now wanted to be in the room where those decisions were taken, and to document what that looked like.
    My chance would come sooner than I ever could have imagined. I left Asia in 1973 to head back to Washington to cover a political storm that was reaching typhoon-like proportions: Watergate.
    U.S. President Richard Nixon waits to enter the East Room of the White House for an event in 1974. A few weeks later, the Watergate scandal would drive him from office.
    One of my first assignments when I returned to Washington was to trail Vice President Spiro Agnew when it became clear he was under fire by federal prosecutors. He ultimately resigned, and Congressman Gerald R. Ford was chosen by Nixon to replace him. My picture of Ford became his first Time magazine cover and mine also. Time assigned me to photograph him regularly after that, and I became friends with all the Fords.
    The night he became President, sitting in his living room in Alexandria, Virginia, Ford offered me the job as chief White House photographer. I was worried that the job would be like Nixon's photographer with very limited access, and I didn't want it under those circumstances. I looked him in the eye and said, "I'd like to do it, but with two conditions: I report directly to you, and I have total access to photograph everything that happens in the White House."
      He stopped smoking his pipe and didn't say anything. I thought to myself, "Oh great, I just told the President of the United States to take his job and shove it." My next thought was, what was I going to tell my parents? There weren't that many kids from Roseburg, Oregon, who ever had that kind of an opportunity, and I thought I just blew it.
      But he started laughing and said, "You don't want Air Force One on the weekends?" The job was mine, and my "negotiation" a success. At 27, I became the youngest chief White House photographer in history, which wasn't saying too much because I was only the third to hold that job!
      President Gerald R. Ford talks on the telephone in the Oval Office shortly after replacing Richard Nixon. "The empty shelves in the background are a clue to how fast the transition occurred with all of the former President's things taken out with no time to replace them with Ford mementos," Kennerly said.
      Ford, right, defeated Ronald Reagan, left, for the Republican nomination in 1976. "It was one of the closest conventions ever and came close to being a brokered affair," Kennerly said. "The looks on their faces accurately reflected the mood in the room."
      After President Ford's defeat in the 1976 election, I went back to Time and spent several months in the Mideast for them to recover from a very intense and emotional two and a half years.
      When Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, I returned to the White House beat and covered Reagan along with Dirck Halstead. That arrangement lasted through Reagan's first term, and then I moved to California to attend the American Film Institute school for directing. I did not, however, give up my day job as a still photographer.
      President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan stand on the Truman Balcony of the White House. Time magazine chose not to run this photo because they thought it was too "schmaltzy," Kennerly said. "I told the editors that (the Reagans) are schmaltzy and don't seem to care who knows. It still never ran in the magazine."
      Five Presidents appear together at the dedication of the Reagan Presidential Library in 1991. From left are President George H.W. Bush and former Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
      In 1991, President Bush briefs the press in the White House Rose Garden about a possible war with Iraq. "If you ever thought that people in power don't stick around Washington forever, this scene will relieve any doubt," Kennerly said. Behind Bush, from left, are National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, CIA Director Robert Gates, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of State Jim Baker. At far right is Gen. Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
      President Bill Clinton is flanked by first lady Hillary Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, after he won a second term in 1996.
      The 2000 campaign goes down as one of the most exciting and dramatic ever. I spent the first two months with Sen. John McCain as he ran against Texas Gov. George W. Bush. I was there when he celebrated defeating Bush in the New Hampshire primary, and I was in the room when he met with Bush after losing the race for the Republican nomination.
      In the most dramatic political night I've ever witnessed, I was in the room with Bush after he was declared the winner of the 2000 presidential election, and just hours later when it was called a tie. The situation went from happy to tense in no time, and the only one present who wasn't particularly unhappy was me, being able to document such an important historical event.
      Presidential candidate George W. Bush reads over the victory speech he thinks he's going to deliver in 2000. The evening ended in disarray, with Al Gore rescinding his concession after Florida swung from a Bush victory back to "too close to call."
      Hillary Clinton reacts to a comment made by President Bush minutes after his inauguration in 2001. "Customarily, the new President and first lady escort the outgoing couple to a waiting helicopter, but Sen. Clinton didn't leave for long," Kennerly said.
      I was with McCain every minute of the way in 2000, and I saw a fiery Vietnam POW with a sharp wit and a quixotic attitude win the New Hampshire primary, only to get whacked by George W. Bush in South Carolina. He was ultimately defeated in the Republican primary battle by Bush, who went on to become President.
      The 2008 campaign was different. McCain lost his maverick aura. That edgy personality was filed down by handlers so far that it erased his magic, and picking Sarah Palin as his running mate cinched defeat. McCain peaked in 2000, and if he had beaten Bush in the primaries, he would have gone on to crush Al Gore in the general election. McCain missed the boat in 2000, and along with it the Oval Office.
      Sen. John McCain meets with his advisers in a New Hampshire hotel room during the 2008 presidential campaign.
      President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama return to the White House late after attending an inaugural ball in 2009.
      The 2012 campaign featured a strong Republican team against President Barack Obama. My observation in photographing Mitt Romney on the trail was that he didn't create much excitement. He was, however, a warm and friendly guy, and I enjoyed talking with him on the campaign bus about our shared of love of '60s music and root beer floats.
      Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, ride a campaign bus with their wives Ann and Janna in 2012.
      Heading into the 2016 campaign, I covered the Republican melee as it narrowed down to one, Donald Trump, and the Democratic fight that narrowed down to ... two. The big surprise to Hillary Clinton, and probably himself, was Bernie Sanders.
      A photo session with Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in August. The photo "underscores the impression of a man standing alone against the favorite," Kennerly said. "He fought Hillary Clinton down to the wire."
      This photo of Donald Trump was taken after the first GOP debate in August last year.