Hot Shot : A Pulitzer winner at 25. White House photographer at 27. Today, David Kennerly is back snapping the pictures they’re all talking about.


You can call it California. Everyone else was calling it Waterloo, at least as far as Pat Buchanan’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination was concerned.

It was primary day in the Golden West, and as the sun set on both the state and the campaign, Buchanan was getting a taste of where he stood in the hearts and minds of his party’s silent majority.

“Mr. Dole!”

Buchanan froze.

He was heading toward a function room in Costa Mesa, to meet the press before a rally of the faithful. And outside the room stood the source of the misguided plea for that other, absent candidate--a local TV news reporter suddenly realizing in full panoramic horror what he had just done.


“Oh, Mr. Buchanan,” the reporter said quickly. “Just trying to get your attention.”

Not far away, a man swathed in khakis and Canon cameras looked on in mild disgust.

“These people are putzes,” he snipped. “Now you know the difference between local and national.”

Photographer David Hume Kennerly, 49, learned that lesson earlier than most. At a mere 23, he was happily soaring on Air Force One as part of the White House press corps. Just two years later, the fresh-faced photographer won a Pulitzer Prize for his next beat--the Vietnam War.

And at 27, Kennerly became one of President Ford’s first appointments when he signed on as the White House’s official photographer. Kennerly quickly found himself in the Washington spotlight, as famous for his brashness as he was for his bachelor ways.

He once stunned the National Security Council, interrupting a meeting to give the president advice on a foreign policy crisis (Ford took it). And he liked to troll for dates from Air Force One with the handy help of a White House operator who would first prime unsuspecting dinner partners: “Mr. Kennerly’s code name is ‘Hot Shot,’ so please use that designation when talking to him. . . . Go ahead.”

Someone wrote that until Ford brought in his rock ‘n’ roll photographer, “the only beards inside the White House were on the portraits of long-dead presidents.”

The post was so intoxicating, its straight shot to fame and easy access to history so alluring that Kennerly later wrote of the separation anxiety he felt on his departure. “Leaving the White House is like walking away from a heroin habit,” he said in his second illustrated autobiography, “Photo Op” (University of Texas, 1995).


If he’d displayed a special talent for being an insider in making an early jump to the White House, that same ability helped burnish his reputation on the outside--in photojournalism. He spent the next two decades shooting mile markers of recent history for Life and Time magazines, a run that included two dozen Time covers of such searing events as Jonestown and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986. Kennerly made his reputation in large part by taking intimate portraits of the seemingly inaccessible--the high and mighty.

“He’s one of the best shooters covering politics,” says Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker, a former Saigon acquaintance of Kennerly’s who recently hired him to cover the presidential race and the Olympics. “He has a great eye, but beyond that he can make things happen. He can get access. He can get pictures no one else has.”

Indeed, Kennerly was able to entice former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to be interviewed for the CD-ROM version of “Photo Op.” And he elicited a jacket quote for his first book, “Shooter” (Newsweek Books, 1979), from former White House mate Henry Kissinger, who noted, “Kennerly has as big an ego as I do, and more talent.”

“I think that we were kind of competitive with one another,” Kennerly says matter-of-factly, perched on a chair in his airy Santa Monica living room. “I was at Camp David one weekend, and I had a girlfriend of mine there. She was very attractive, and [Kissinger] looked at her appreciatively. He turned to the president and said, ‘Mr. President, I was a bachelor in the wrong administration.’ [Under President Nixon,] he couldn’t take girls to Camp David.”

When Newsweek hired Kennerly in January, it even made him an insider at his own magazine: He was the first photographer to be named a contributing editor, entitling him to a ringside seat at New York editorial meetings where he could help steer coverage. “If you put it in quotes, it’s kind of a ‘superstar arrangement,’ and there are so few jobs like that in the world,” Kennerly says with typical understatement.

He isn’t alone, however, in his stellar assessment of his career. “Among photojournalists, he’s considered one of the stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s,” says Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. “David is a very aggressive fellow so he sees obstacles in his path the same way other people see opportunities. The real trick with David is, he gets closer than most people.”


Kennerly didn’t waste time making news while he shot it. His Feb. 5 cover for Newsweek, titled “Doubts About Dole,” showed a grim-faced candidate whose worries were told in harsh light and merciless shadow. The issue, which appeared as Dole’s campaign seemed to be waning, helped spark debate as to whether the Republican was swift enough to win the race. It also whipped up a mini-furor over Kennerly’s black-and-white portrait of the aging candidate.

Quoting from Paul Simon, “Everything looks worse in black and white,” Newsweek acknowledged that many readers agreed with the song. “It was so blatantly obvious,” one wrote to the magazine, “that you were trying to portray him in the most negative light possible.”

“I actually thought it was a very dramatic photo,” Kennerly says. “I think if you would have put ‘Senior Statesman Bob Dole’ instead of ‘Doubts About Dole,’ everybody would have said, ‘What a great shot.’ Dole thought the picture made him look like he was dug up from the grave. He didn’t yell at me. He said it with a kind of frozen smile when I ran into him in New Hampshire.”

Kennerly learned how to court his subjects at the foot of his pitchman father, O.A. “Tunney” Kennerly. Growing up in tiny Roseburg, Ore., young David used to trail his father to trade shows, watching him hawk “Everclear, the little stick that will keep your eyeglasses from ever fogging up.”

“You essentially have to sell people on the idea of letting you into their lives,” Kennerly says of his father’s influence. “Or convince a soldier that you should be able to go by the roadblock or whatever it is. I think taking pictures in this business is only about 10% of it. The other 90% is getting in, getting out and getting the film back in time for deadline.”

By 18, Kennerly was shooting full time for Portland’s metropolitan dailies. He had dropped out of Portland State College to focus on photography, and his passion quickly earned him a berth in UPI’s Los Angeles bureau.


It wasn’t long before Kennerly was stepping up to his first bout at the White House, initially for UPI. The job was frustrating under the Nixon administration, which tended to pen photographers behind ropes. On Christmas Eve 1970, Kennerly and four other wire service reporters and photographers were loitering around the press room, waiting for the White House to issue a “lid”--the signal that the president wouldn’t commit more news that day. Instead, they received a summons to the president’s private office, where Nixon mixed Kennerly a cocktail.

“ ‘A martini?’ I said, naming my father’s favorite drink, though I don’t think I’d ever had one. . . .’ ” Kennerly wrote. “Nixon said with a wink, ‘It’s the one thing I do well’. . . . At that moment I was suddenly gripped with the sinking feeling that I had finally gotten that exclusive I’d been fighting for--and I didn’t have a camera.”

By 1971, Kennerly was bent on covering the biggest story of his generation: the Vietnam War. But first he had to got permission to leave the Army--so he could go to war. He was in the U.S. Army Reserve, which would have required service stateside.

Kennerly considers his best work there to be not pictures of combat, which required photographers to remain as low to the ground as possible, but the times in between of routine and terrible anxiety. One shot of a GI picking his way amid bombed-out tree trunks was cited by the Pulitzer committee because it “captured the loneliness and desolation of war.”

(As young as Kennerly was then, another Pulitzer recipient in 1972 was even younger--editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, who went on to do “Shoe.” The two are still friends and they created a cartoon strip called “Pluggers.”)

When Kennerly returned home, his new employer, Time, sent him to Washington, where he shot his first cover for the magazine--the newly appointed Vice President Gerald Ford. For the next several months, Kennerly was the only photographer trailing Ford on a regular basis. And on the night of Aug. 9, 1974, when the vice president became president, he saw to it that Kennerly, by then a family friend, would stick around. Ford offered him the job of official White House photographer--the third time the job would go to a civilian since the military relinquished it.


“I just told him the only way I could do it would be to have total access and just be able to run my own show. And to have Air Force One on weekends. Joke.”

Says Ford: “Betty and I decided because we trusted him and thought he was a really professional photographer with a great record, we said, ‘OK.’ So his access to the Oval Office and to the family quarters came about because of the nine months we’d gotten to know him when I was vice president.”

Kennerly was the only person outside the family who could go anywhere, any time--from the most sensitive meeting to the Fords’ private residence. He was a regular at meetings of the National Security Council, and was there when it convened to respond to the seizure of the U.S cargo ship Mayaguez by Cambodian Communists in 1975. After the military presented options that included massive B-52 strikes, Kennerly, who had just returned from Cambodia, spoke up from the back of the room. Ford wrote about it in his book, “A Time to Heal” (Harper & Row, 1979):

“ ‘Has anyone considered,’ he asked, ‘that this might be the act of a local Cambodian commander who has just taken it into his own hands to halt any ship that comes by? . . .’ Everyone seemed stunned that this brash photographer who was not yet 30 years old would have the guts to offer an unsolicited opinion to the president, the vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, the director of the CIA and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yet I wasn’t surprised, and I was glad to hear his point of view.”

Ford, who credits his photographer with helping him decide, scotched plans for massive airstrikes in favor of scaled-down attacks by Navy jets, which saved the crew (although at a cost of dozens of GIs’ lives). He thanked Kennerly for speaking up. Then he told him not to do it again.

Kennerly, never one to be shy, was being linked to a battalion of attractive women--Candice Bergen, Suzy Chaffee and others--and reports were surfacing of the president’s daughter’s crush on him. And while he cut a swath through Washington’s night life, Ford’s son Jack came along for the ride.


“[The president] blamed me for Jack Ford being a wild man,” Kennerly says. “And I just told him, ‘Jack was fully capable of being a wild man way before I ever ran into him.’ ”

Ford’s recollection is more forgiving: “They were more or less the same age so they did a bit of partying together after they put the old parents to bed. But nobody ever reported to me that they overstepped the bounds of good conduct.”

Still, stories were piling up in the press about Kennerly’s high life. “I always took it with a grain of salt, but it was tough for me,” he says. “And then I just got criticized for being this foul-mouthed, cigar-smoking egomaniac. It was all true, but nobody likes to read that.”

Jim Calio, a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Life who worked with Kennerly, says such sniping went with the territory. “A lot of photographers got very jealous because he became an insider,” Calio says. “He’s very aggressive, but all the great photojournalists I know are very aggressive and they piss people off. You have to to get the story.”


Kennerly’s homing instinct for power stood him in good stead back in real life. “He has an unerring eye for who’s important and who’s not, and for catching them in the kinds of situations that are candid and revealing and off the cuff,” says Calio, who later produced with Kennerly “The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story” for television.

In one of Kennerly’s last shots in the White House, he encouraged Betty Ford to fulfill her fantasy of dancing on the Cabinet Room table. And when he crossed over to the other side of the aisle for Time, his ease with power served him well. That year he photographed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for 1977’s Time Man of the Year cover.


“I wanted Sadat to come outside of Cairo and pose in front of the Pyramids. But here’s a man with an incredibly busy schedule. So I said, ‘Mr. President, I would like to photograph you against the background of your past, like a modern pharaoh.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I like that idea. Let us go to the Pyramids.’ It’s how you approach a request--do you appeal to somebody’s vanity or do you appeal to their sense of history?”

Even more important, Kennerly says, is earning their trust. “I think it’s easier for a photographer to have a closer personal relationship with a subject than it would be for a writer,” he says. “A lot of photographers have had close relationships with a subject, and it hasn’t gotten in the way of taking an honest picture.

“What it boils down to is, can you be trusted in a room where the conversation goes no farther than that? You don’t repeat things. That’s absolutely the first rule. Because if you do that to one person and give the story to a reporter of something that you heard inside, you’ll never get in again. Because nothing changes when I get in the room. Whatever is going on would be happening even without me there.”

Kennerly says close relationships don’t stop him from taking hard pictures. He says savvy politicians don’t freeze out purveyors of unflattering coverage because next week things could change. (Indeed, Dole’s fortunes flipped 180 degrees mere weeks after the Newsweek pre-epitaph.)

And when Ford conceded to Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kennerly says he kept shooting without trying to prettify the pain of loss. “Some of the best pictures come in times of distress,” he says. “It was very hard for me to shoot pictures in the Oval Office after Ford conceded to Carter. I was very wrapped up in that whole thing. I don’t think it’s a human characteristic to be objective. It’s like the unblinking eye. If you don’t care about something, how could you photograph it and really penetrate the surface?”

Still, he bristles at any hint of bias on behalf of his quarry. He was clearly discomfited by Buchanan’s reply when the candidate was asked whether he felt more comfortable being covered by a former Republican White House insider.


“Well, I know David,” Buchanan said. “Sure, you’re more comfortable among the folks you know.”

Kennerly quickly responded: “President Ford once asked me about three months after we were in the White House, ‘You know I never asked you. Are you a Republican or a Democrat?’ Then he said, ‘Don’t answer that.’ I never told anybody whether I was a Republican or a Democrat. It was really irrelevant.”

But Kennerly has been accused of trying to leapfrog over other photographers because of his unique access to the Ford White House. In his memoir, former presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater described his last day on the job in the Bush administration, recounting his pre-briefing chat with his deputy: “Anybody mad, besides David Kennerly? I wouldn’t let him in the press pool. He always wants special favors because he was President Ford’s photographer, but it’s not fair to the regulars.”

Kennerly denies pulling rank. “[The White House] is part of my background,” he says, “but I’ve never expected anyone to do anything for me other than the fact that I’ve made hopefully intelligent requests to do pictures.”


In 1984, Kennerly moved to Los Angeles, where he flirted with The Industry. The year before, he had married his second wife, “thirtysomething” actress Mel Harris, the mother of his older son, Byron. He studied directing at the American Film Institute and later wrote and produced a TV movie about Vietnam photographers based on his first book, both titled “Shooter.” Another project, “The Taking of Flight 847,” scored five Emmy nominations.

When he decided to try movie-making, “I’d been in the [photography] business, gosh, almost 20 years professionally. I needed a break from the reality of what goes on out there, and I think there’s no greater break from reality than the film business. It’s actually a reality that I find to be more difficult than real life in many ways. I find politicians in many ways to be much more honorable than people are in the film business.”


Kennerly decided he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” to make a film career work, although he is working on several television projects with his fourth wife, Rebecca Soladay. He left in part because he was disillusioned by what he calls a friend’s betrayal. But he also found his journalistic training to be at odds with the requirements of the fantasy business.

“One of my impediments to being a good movie-maker was the fact that as an objective journalist, almost every fiber in your being prevents you from altering something or setting something up. It was always this tug and pull between the ethics of the professional photographer vis-a-vis the reality of the movie business as a director, where everything is torn apart and put together after your own design.”

Throughout that period, Kennerly had kept his hand in photography. And by late November, the night before he flew to Washington, D.C., for a book signing, he told Soladay that he was ready to return to shooting full time. On the plane, he recognized someone in first class.

“It was Maynard Parker, the editor of Newsweek. I’d met him in Vietnam, so I introduced myself and we ended up having this terrific three-hour conversation, during which time he asked me if I would maybe consider working for Newsweek.”


These days, the once-notorious Kennerly is the picture of domesticity. If he still swaggers, he now does it as the proud dad. He eagerly shows a visitor a videotape of a “Good Morning, America” segment featuring Byron, who’s nearly 12, “interviewing” Buchanan on the campaign trail. And while he chats about his career, 11-month-old Nicholas pops in on the family’s cavernous two-level living area, presided over by Andy Warhol multiples of Mao Tse-tung (Kennerly has a passion for communist kitsch).

Nicholas’ mom, Soladay, 37, says she never expected to settle down with the much-wed photographer, who once told People magazine, “I do not give good marriage.” In fact, they met at a party for a TV movie that starred yet another former flame of Kennerly’s, Kate Jackson.


“I remember telling my mom when David and I first met that he was a fun fling, but nothing would happen between us because I would be damned if I’d be any man’s fourth wife,” Soladay says. “So much for sticking to your guns.”

They wed two years ago at Hanoi’s Grand Opera House, where Ho Chi Minh declared independence from the French in 1945. Kennerly was planning to be in the neighborhood anyway to shoot photographs for a book, “Passage to Vietnam” (Eight Days a Week, 1994). “So he said, ‘Why don’t we just get married in Vietnam?’ ” Soladay recalls. “I said, ‘Perfect. Cool.’ It fit into the weird wedding fantasy I always had.”

Kennerly says there’s balance in this marriage he hadn’t found before. And when he returned to photojournalism full time, he was also going back to his first love. He believes that even in this 500-channel era, nothing will replace still photography--even while advancing technology allows shooters to edit their work and send it to the office by cell phone, all from the campaign bus.

Says Kennerly: “Pictures bring you back to a time and place. It’s like an old tune. The beauty of still photography is that it triggers a memory. The images you remember from Vietnam are those classics like the picture of the little girl running down the road. A still picture is something to turn over, to look at, to feel, to study. You have a harder time with a moving image because you’re looking at 30 frames a second. TV brought the war into your living room, but it was still photography that took it directly to your soul.”


David Hume Kennerly

Age: 49.

Background: Born in Roseburg, Ore. Now lives in Santa Monica.

Family: Married to Rebecca Soladay. Father of Byron, almost 12, and Nicholas, 11 months.

Passions: Making more still and moving pictures, collecting communist kitsch and baseball and hockey cards, playing golf.

On being a political insider: “It’s like you’re the fox in the chicken coop every day of the week. Just being one of the people who’s supposed to be there is an exhilarating experience.”


On Pat Buchanan: “I have always liked him. Every time I need a shot of adrenaline, I go up with Buchanan for a day or two. Because the guy’s like the difference between a lighted match and a nuclear explosion. . . . With [Bob] Dole, every now and then you have to lean over and check his pulse.”

On steering clear of covering Hollywood: “I never got into photographing celebrities. I don’t think I’m very proficient at making people look good all the time. It’s not what I do. I get paid not to make people look bad, but to capture who they are.”