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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.