Prior to joining the Ford Administration, David Kennerly worked as the staff photographer for a number of newspapers and magazines, including Time magazine. In 1972 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography for the photo collection he took while covering the Vietnam War. Kennerly was appointed as Personal Photographer to the President the day President Ford was sworn in. He was only the third civilian ever to hold that position. He is a Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation.
David Kennerly was interviewed for the Gerald R. Ford Oral History Project on December 14, 2009 by Richard Norton Smith.
Smith: For starters, how did your path first cross Gerald Ford’s?
Kennerly: The day that Nixon was going to make his announcement on his replacement for Agnew, who had resigned, it was going to be in the evening, East Room ceremony at the White House, and I was the Time Magazine photographer. I had been covering Agnew. In fact, I had some really good pictures of him. I was dogging him around the country for Time Magazine.
Smith: What was he like to work with?
Kennerly: Who – Spiro Agnew? Well, actually, my first memory of Agnew was quite a good one. I think he was as shocked as anybody that he was picked to be the running mate. Unfortunately for him, if he had just stayed as governor of Maryland, he probably never would have had to resign in disgrace. But I was a UPI photographer here in Los Angeles in 1968, and Dirck Halstead was UPI’s chief photographer, so he came out with Nixon, who after the Miami convention, came out to California to Mission Bay to formulate his campaign strategy and all that. I was sent down here as a UPI photographer in LA to help Dick out, and one of the things that I did was to cover Agnew. Back then nobody cared about the vice presidential running mate.
It was a Sunday morning and Halstead said, “Go cover Agnew going to church.” I went over to where he was staying. He had some Secret Service protection – it wasn’t that heavy. I was standing there. There was no press vehicle or anything and Agnew saw me and said, “Hi, how you doing?” and introduced himself. He said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Well, sir, I’m supposed to go cover you, take pictures of you going to church and there’s no accommodations [meaning a press car in the motorcade]. Just you and the Secret Service.” He said, “That’s okay, you can just get in the Secret Service car.” And those guys flipped out. But that’s what happened; I rode with them over to the church. He was very nice, very approachable. He had some kids that were probably about my age, so that was about it. I came back to Washington and he really wasn’t a big figure back then. Anyway, he resigned.
I have a classic photo of him in the back of his limo the day after he resigned that ran in Time. But then, of course, the speculation immediately leaped forward to who was going to be his replacement. John Connally was on the list, I don’t know who all; you probably know – Howard Baker, whomever. I chose the Gerald Ford straw. We were going around trying to get pictures of all these people. I went up to the Hill on, I think it was Friday morning, and Paul Miltich was his press secretary in the House and had been forever. I called Paul Miltich and said, “I’m from Time Magazine.” He said, “Oh sure, come on up. How about eleven o’clock?” It was so easy. So I go up and I meet Ford for the first time. I think I had photographed him a couple of time during the Ev and Jerry Show [Sen. Everett Dirksen, Minority Leader GRF], which was at White House press briefings.
But I didn’t know Minority Leader Ford at all so I went into his office. He was just terrific, and I said, “I’m here for Time Magazine. You’re on the list.” He said, “Well, you’re wasting your time.” And I said, “Well, but you’ll have a nice picture for your wall.” So I took some photos of him in his office in the Capitol and one of the photos that I took, I had him by the window and there was kind of nice light coming in, I call it Rembrandt lighting. But I spent about ten or fifteen minutes and then left. Then that afternoon…
Smith: Let me stop – he did not seem to you like a man who was waiting by the phone?
Kennerly: Gerald Ford did not seem like a guy who was waiting by the phone for this call. Now, I can’t remember when he got the call; I honestly don’t know. But I will tell you another story a little bit later about when he became president. No, he was so relaxed. Do you happen to know when he got the call? Do you remember?
Smith: Well, that’s not clear because, of course, there was the call at home which was…
Kennerly: …the event was that night, though. So he must have gotten the call the night before then, I think. Actually, it’s a question worth answering, but I can’t answer it.
But no matter what, he was really relaxed and he said, “You’re wasting your time,” – very good natured. I thought, wow, this is easy. If everybody’s like him, my life would be terrific. So that night there he was in the East Room. I wasn’t there. Dick was there, Dick Halstead. But the photograph I took of him was the Time cover picture. And it was his first Time cover and my first Time cover, and John Durniak was the director of photography at Time – this is back when magazines had money – assigned me to cover Ford full-time. And that’s unheard of. Nobody had ever covered a vice president – there was the resignation…
Smith: Was it the assumption that…
Kennerly: Well, but that was an early assumption [that he would become president]. There was an early assumption on the part of some people – it wasn’t rampant speculation because that was October of ’73.
Kennerly: October of ’73. And Watergate was mounting, but it wasn’t at a critical stage. But anyway, Durniak said, “I really want you to cover him.” And I and about seven or eight or nine others, Phil Jones from CBS, Maggie Hunter from the New York Times, I think Ann Compton, to some degree, for ABC and there was another ABC person. No photographers.
Smith: Tom DeFrank.
Kennerly: Tom DeFrank of Newsweek, and Time, on and off, David Beckwith, of Time. So that became the sort of merry little band; we were traveling around with Ford. He was so easy to be around. So I got to know him and I got to know the family. They went to Vail in December of that year and I went to Vail. I mean, basically, Time Magazine was paying for me to learn how to ski.
Smith: What were they like in Vail?
Kennerly: In Vail the whole family was there. It was something they did every year, and it was really informal.
Smith: Now, did they have a condo at that point?
Kennerly: The Fords had a condo in Vail, right in the middle. It was at the hotel, like the Vail Hotel or something. It was right in the middle of the village. And it was like a two or three bedroom condo. It wasn’t particularly ritzy.
Smith: So it was kind of crowded with the whole family.
Kennerly: It was crowded. In fact, I actually stayed with the Fords the first night I got out there when they arrived in Vail. I think the Secret Service didn’t like me much back then. But there was a tradition. The whole family got together; they were all good skiers, including then Vice President Ford. But at the end of that particular trip, we went to an Asian restaurant, I think it was a Chinese restaurant – it must have been – because at the end they brought out these fortune cookies and passed them around. There were about fourteen people there, and Vice President Ford cracked open his cookie and read it and slammed it down on the table. He looked kind of shaken, so I said, “So what did it say?” And he said, “Aw, nothing.” I pried it out from under his hand and it said, “You will undergo a change of residence in the near future.” And I looked at him, and he said, “No, no, I hope not.” He was so worried that people were going to think that he was trying to force Nixon out, even then.
Smith: That brings up a large question, because we’ve been told by a number of people he really did not enjoy the vice presidency, in part because he was forced to walk this extraordinary tightrope. But also, he didn’t like the job.
Kennerly: He loved being a legislator. I don’t think he liked the job because it had no particular power; he wasn’t close to Nixon. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. Under the circumstances, the minute he went into the job, speculation basically was that he would be taking over the job from Nixon. He was almost an anti-Machiavellian type of person. He was not someone who was orchestrating and pulling the strings. Now if Nelson Rockefeller or somebody else had had that job, Nixon would have been looking over his shoulder the whole time. Nixon would have started out at the end of the plank, as opposed to just slowing walking it.
Smith: We have been told by a number of people on the staff, however, that the Nixon staff were not particularly warm toward the Ford staff – the vice presidential staff.
Kennerly: The Nixon staff basically hated the vice president’s staff because they were so totally different. Bob Hartmann came with him. He was his chief of staff as the VP. [He] was this gruff old newspaper guy and had a lot of enemies. I always found him to be an interesting character because he was kind of the last of the good old days type – double-fisted drinking…
Smith: Straight out of The Front Page.
Kennerly: Oh, yeah. He was a character. My background was really that, too, in a way. I don’t know if Jack Marsh was working for him at that time. Probably not.
Smith: Let me ask you, because in his book, Tom DeFrank makes a great deal out of a verbal slip.
Kennerly: Which was?
Smith: As he presents it, I want to do justice to it. There is something about the…
Kennerly: About the tie?
Smith: Yeah, something that Ford makes some reference to – I think it was an appointment or something of someone – but something about how when I’m there, or something like that. And as Tom describes the scene, there’s this kind of intake of breath and realization that I’m somewhere I don’t want to be, and he swears Tom to secrecy and – what I’m trying to get at – was that particular story the larger, in some ways, tougher conundrum that he was in? Clearly as things went downhill for Nixon, there had to be people thinking whatever the odds are, we’ve got to prepare this guy to be president. And yet, he couldn’t give the slightest indication, publicly, or apparently privately, that he was even entertaining that possibility. How virginal was he throughout this period?
Kennerly: Well, I spent a great deal of time with him, usually on the road. That was mainly where I’d be covering him, and he was almost pathological about not talking or hinting at or suggesting that he might take over the presidency. To him it would have been the ultimate act of disloyalty, more than anything. And I think that if you looked at his generation – Nixon was in the Navy – people forget these kinds of attachments for World War II. I’m a post-World War II kid, but I know a lot of people, obviously, most of them gone now, who were there, and there’s a sense of loyalty. They were in Congress together. I think he liked the Nixons. He found him to be kind of a remote guy, to a degree, but they seemed to get along fine. Nixon chose him in part because he knew he could get confirmed. He’d probably wanted John Connally, according to everything I’ve heard, because Connally was really more like him. Which is, why would you want that guy there? I don’t know.
Smith: It is also why he was non-confirmable.
Kennerly: He was un-confirmable, that was the main reason. Ford was the guy that got along with everybody, and so he picked Ford. Let’s go forward from where we are, because I think his vice presidency was really not about much of anything other than waiting around.
Smith: Walking the tightrope.
Kennerly: He was walking the tightrope, which he probably hated.
Smith: In the end, doesn’t it come down to a contest, in effect, between loyalty and maintaining one’s integrity?
Kennerly: I think at the end he had both. I think he was loyal to a fault, but he was a man of great integrity. I think to him there was no black and white. There were real grey areas about that. It’s just the way he thought: this is the way you do things; I didn’t want to let anybody think I was going after his job. I don’t know one person who would ever say that – who would ever contradict that. The fault part of it was not just calling a few advisors in, probably, and saying, “Look, I don’t want the job. I don’t expect to get the job, but I’ve got to be totally up to speed.” I don’t know how much Nixon helped him out, which is a good question. Like: did Ford get all the briefings; was he in on all the big meetings, all that kind of stuff that the modern vice president is just there as the right hand?
Smith: Again, to go back to the book.
Kennerly: DeFrank’s book.
Smith: Yeah, DeFrank’s book.
Kennerly: The book that is filled with faltering recollections of President Ford toward the end of his life.
Smith: Do you want to offer an opinion? Did President Ford know what he was doing?
Kennerly: About what?
Smith: Did President Ford bequest a posthumous legacy in a sense, knowing that Tom, or anyone else that he was talking to – was there an element of naiveté in his conversations with these people, or did he know exactly what they were likely to do in terms of exploiting those conversations?
Kennerly: That’s a good question. I think it all goes to: what did he say and when did he say it? And I think, as he got older, I noticed from conversations I had with him where his recollections were not exactly acute – I mean, he didn’t have Alzheimer’s, I don’t think, but he was getting really old – and so there were faulty memory scenarios there. I never looked at him as a naïve person, I always thought he was very politic and I thought he was always very smart, and I knew there were certain people that he really didn’t care for, but he would not overtly say something. The worst thing he would say would be – like about Jim Schlesinger – “I really didn’t like that guy.” That’s what he said. For him, that was like a stunning admission and it’s almost like he would say, “Now you can’t repeat that.” But he was always very candid with me, and one of the things I loved about him, there were many things I loved about him, really.
When I think about the age I am right now, it’s the age he became president. I’m 62 – I think he was either 61 or 62 years old. I always looked at him as a much older guy, because I was 27 – like my dad, he was older than my dad. I think he wasn’t naïve. He knew what he was doing. Sometimes I think the good natured side of him probably took him off track a little bit.
But when it came time to talk about Reagan, for instance, after the fact, we got some good stuff under extraordinary circumstances. You should get all those transcripts. I hope you can get them. And Cheney did an hour and a half interview with us. So if you could put those together…NBC has those. You should talk to Brokaw about it.
Let me just go back first. Let’s get him to the presidency. A week to the day, the night of August 2nd, I had a long scheduled dinner on the books with the Fords at the Old Angler’s Inn outside of Washington, which is a good thirty-five, forty minute drive. And considering what happened, it probably was one of those deals that seemed like a good idea at the time, but he couldn’t cancel it. So I drove with them in the car from Washington out to the Old Angler’s Inn, it was just the three of us; Mrs. Ford and I. This is the day…
Smith: …this is the day after he had been told by Al Haig about the smoking gun.
Kennerly: That’s right. The night before, apparently.
Smith: August 1st was the day he was told.
Kennerly: Then it was the next night. It was Thursday – now I remember, because August 9th is the day he became president. It was the 2nd of August, we were in the car and we were talking about all sorts of things. I don’t remember specifics. The things I tend to remember from the good old days are really important things that people said, because I hear a lot of bullshit, day in and day out, as we all do. If he would have said, “You know, I hate to say this, but I think I’m going to become president,” if there had been anything like that – but I think if Gerald R. Ford had decided to become a professional poker player, he would have been a billionaire, because the guy knew how to play his cards. He held them so close, including from his family and the closest advisers.
Smith: There are those that have said to us and they can’t prove it, obviously, but they say you’d be surprised about how much he took to the grave with him.
Kennerly: Maybe. One thing he didn’t take to the grave with him I don’t believe, was a deal on a pardon. I don’t believe that.
Smith: That’s a good point, a point worth making.
Kennerly: But at any rate – we had dinner. Roy Rowan was there. Roy wrote that book on the Mayaguez – remember? The Four Days of Mayaguez. Roy and I had been in Asia together for Time. He was the Time bureau chief. He’d been in China. He wrote a wonderful book about the revolution of 1949. He was covering that and he was living in Shanghai other when I was with Time in Hong Kong. We were having a dinner party. It was him and David Burnett, and some of my pals, people Vice President Ford liked. He knew every photographer in town by their first name because it was a small group covering the Hill. Wally McNamee of Newsweek, George Tames of the New York Times, on and on. So we had this group of ten-twelve people. It was really in honor of Roy Rowan, who had just survived cancer. The Fords stayed until it was getting later, [then] he said, “Well, I’ve got to go.” But they stayed for the dinner and the drinks and afterward and then took off. And, of course, it wasn’t a week later on August 8th when Nixon announces it – the first we know about it. And I was there.
So flash forward through that hectic week – and I think there was a trip in there somewhere and I can’t remember – where he went down to Mississippi or someplace – I can’t remember. It’s all part of the record. But obviously it’s just a matter of time; it’s like a deathwatch for Nixon at that point. And I’m inside the chicken coop, and all these other photogs are dead ducks because they hadn’t been covering him. I was like as close as you could get at that point, in proximity with the family – with the Fords. So the night on August 8th, when Nixon was going to give that speech. [I was at their Alexandra residence.]
Then Vice President Ford comes out on his lawn in Alexandria, in front of 914 Crown View Drive, and talks all about Henry Kissinger. It was like, at that point, Nixon was going to resign, it was going to happen the next day, and so I was there to watch Nixon lift off and wave goodbye from the helicopter. The Fords standing next to David and Julie Eisenhower and…
Smith: In that last week, building up to the actual transfer, were you around Mrs. Ford?
Kennerly: I spent a lot of time with Mrs. Ford.
Smith: Did she talk about what was happening? Or what it might all lead to?
Kennerly: I don’t ever recall her saying anything about it. I don’t know – I probably should remember that, but I don’t. He had that old joke, that initially when Nixon had called, can you call back on the other line? …blah blah blah. Which is what you were talking about, I think. It would have had to have been the night before because the next day is when he was announced as the VP, by Nixon.
Smith: It was that night. Believe it or not, it’s hard to believe, but it was that night. They were told to be at the East Room in two hours.
Kennerly: Well, then he didn’t know. [when I photographed him in his office earlier that same day.]
Smith: The call that came back…
Kennerly: Then he didn’t know that morning – then guess what? – of course, he wasn’t anxious about it because he hadn’t been asked, if that’s true. When I was in the office with him, he did not give – he could be a great poker player – but Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford did not give any indications that this was going to be a happening thing. He also is not a guy to lie about stuff, or even misdirect. He may have done that on the pardon a little bit, because he got caught short on that one.
But, anyway, he gives the talk on his lawn, reassuring the world and the foreign leaders that Henry Kissinger is there and everything is fine. And the next day Nixon leaves; I’m in the East Room when he was sworn in; and at that point, I was in flux. I had thought about – he had not even remotely hinted that he might want me to work for him, which very much goes in line. I’m sure Hartmann and he must have talked about it.
Smith: Would Hartmann be the one person to whom he could, during that whole period, kind of unload?
Kennerly: I think so. I think Hartmann was the single most important person to him. It later became…
Smith: Does that explain the loyalty later on, when Hartmann becomes, in many ways, not only a lightning rod, but a liability?
Kennerly: Yes. Hartmann and he were really tight. He was always like, “Oh, Bob did this…or Bob did that.” It was almost like having a Billy Carter brother scenario. And Mrs. Ford and Hartmann just were like this…..Mrs. Ford would never let him come up to the second floor of the White House.
Kennerly: Oh, yeah. Occasionally, at the end of the day, I was always the one going home and having drinks with the President and Mrs. Ford; sitting up on the couch talking about something. I mean, Dick Cheney talked about that one time. We were at Ken Adelman’s house for dinner with Cheney – this was before Dick was a VP. Adelman always liked to stir up stuff, so he said, “Well, Dick, how did you let Kennerly get away with all that stuff?” He said, “Are you kidding? You’ve got to understand, David Kennerly was the last person to see the President every day. He’d go up and have drinks with him at the President’s request – almost every night.” He said, “Kennerly wasn’t worried about me. I was worried about Kennerly.” But I never had an axe to grind. The only axe I ground was with Hartmann. I felt that he was doing the President a disservice and I wrote him a memo about him – and I rarely wrote memos.
Smith: Explain to me – one way of looking at the Ford presidency, the trajectory of someone who spent twenty-five years on the Hill, who has to learn to be president.
Kennerly: Well, it’s like the no more Mr. Nice Guy, which he was, essentially.
Smith: And part of that: here is a guy who is so loyal to Hartmann that he’s got, in effect, two separate speech operations going, and he’s perfectly willing to tolerate that. He may complain about it – but even with the State of the Union Address. Clearly, his presidency is suffering because this guy’s ego is getting in the way of a smoothly functioning professional speechwriting operation.
Kennerly: I wrote a memo to President Ford – and I’m not a memo writer. I was the last photographer – I didn’t like putting anything on the record. I did it two or three times during that whole period. I’m not a bureaucrat, obviously. I was twenty-seven years old for Christ’s sake. I came in there pretty much fresh out of Vietnam – two and a half years of Vietnam, and came back to the States and that was mid-’73 and Watergate and all this shit is hitting the fan over that. And so then, to kind of skip ahead, I got from one big-time battle into another one, was what it boiled down to. I’m not a bureaucratic person, it’s just not me. But I was very loyal to President Ford, he was somebody that I loved, trusted, admired – I don’t know how else to put it. I mean, he just let me be myself and take the pictures without any micromanagement.
I’ll tell you the story about how I got the job, but just to keep you on this track – on the Hartmann thing, I was so concerned because I had to go listen to every one of those Goddamned speeches. Photographers have a very low tolerance for this kind of thing, particularly when you hear it over and over and over again. We’re always joking about stuff and making fun of people – it’s just the way it goes – and it’s not even malicious. But you would hear President Ford go on and give one of those “give them their money’s worth” speeches of 45 minutes to an hour long as a congressman, because he had kind of an old-fashioned idea of what the people really wanted to hear. He was essentially – he had not moved the speechwriting apparatus from a congressman from Grand Rapids into the President of the United States mode. And so in a lot of the ideas and everything – basically, I got into it.
Smith: Was that hard for Hartmann, to make that transition?
Kennerly: I don’t know. We never really talked that much after we got in there, because he just couldn’t stand me now. At that point. I was a young guy, I had no real responsibility outside of taking pictures; plus I was me. I’m a little more subdued now, but not much. But what I did see was that the speechwriting operation was really damaging the President. I wrote a memo of how he should get rid of Hartmann. And not only did I write it, there was one copy of it. That’s it, I never made a carbon of it. I took it in and I talked to Mrs. Ford about it, and she thought I should talk to him. And I just said – I almost pleaded with him – to do something – not even fire the guy, but just like do something to get somebody running that show that wasn’t going to kill him. He was a matter of ridicule at that point. It was a matter of ridicule – people talking about – he was not a good speaker anyway particularly. And you combine a guy who is not a great speaker with bad material and you’re really screwed, essentially.
So I sat down and I made him read it. It was at one of my cocktails after work scenarios. I pulled it out and I gave it to him. Mrs. Ford was sitting here, he was sitting there, and I was sitting on the couch. I said, “You’ve got to read this. It’s a very difficult thing that I’m doing here, but I want to tell you what I think. And I can only do it properly, and I wrote it myself and there it is.” And he read it, and he put it in his pocket and he said, “Well, thank you for saying that. I really appreciate your honesty and your directness.” That was it. And nothing really happened.
Smith: Is there such thing as misplaced loyalty?
Kennerly: Sure. Of course.
Smith: And is that a Capitol Hill hangover?
Kennerly: I think it’s a human hangover. He was not the only person to do that. A lot of people did it.
Smith: To be a successful president, you need to have a certain element of ruthlessness. And I don’t think of him as having that gene.
Kennerly: I’m not disagreeing with that. Well, he could have fired me for all the shit I was doing, too. I mean, dating famous women, and getting my name in the paper – except he got a kick out of it, fortunately for me.
Smith: Did he get more of a kick out of vicariously living your glamorous existence than he did having his press secretary being on Saturday Night Live?
Kennerly: I’m sure, although he never said anything really bad about that. Everybody else was aghast that Nessen did that, but you have to understand that President Ford had three boys. Probably the closest in temperament to me would have been Jack Ford, who was more out there. For one thing, President Ford didn’t get married and have his first kid until he was like 36 or 37 years old, which is what I did, also. President Ford, in the good old days, was a bachelor, had a lot of good looking girlfriends. He loved women. He was a model at one point, a football player, lawyer, you name it. I mean, the guy was having a pretty good bachelor life as far as I knew, and liked women. He liked looking at them, and he knew that Mrs. Ford would kick his ass if he looked too long, but that is the way it went.
Smith: Including Vicki Carr.
Kennerly: Oh, I know, believe me. Candice Bergen, who I was dating, I took her to a ball for Ali Bhutto– we went to a State Dinner for Ali Bhutto, and we left early. The next morning – I’m always in there early – the buzzer rings and it’s the President, “Come up here.” He said, “Where did you go last night?” I said, “Ah, well, we got tired.” He said, “I wanted to dance with Candice. Edgar Bergen is my old friend.” I said, “You didn’t want to dance with her because of Edgar Bergen, don’t give me that.” But it was funny. He was great. It was so fun to be around him.
Smith: Why did that never get through to the public – the warmth, the humor, the qualities that you saw?
Kennerly: Oh, I think it’s just the way it goes.
Smith: He was the least self-dramatizing of political figures.
Kennerly: But he wasn’t a quipper like John F. Kennedy. I don’t know where Nixon’s sense of humor was. Just didn’t have that ready retort. Don Penny, obviously, came in and helped out with some of the humor stuff. That was my engineering to get him in there.
But just to go back to the night he became president. [August 9, ‘74] He had a small group of people over to their house on Crown View Drive, and I was one of them that he had invited. There was like Phil Buchen and the Parmas. There weren’t many people, it was not a celebration so much as it was a very quiet acceptance of the fact that he was now the president. One of the things that was in, Extraordinary Circumstances that came out of that interview – did I give you the transcript of the interview from 1995 that I did with him?
Smith: I don’t think so.
Kennerly: It’s quite a good interview. I did it in Rancho Mirage. Sitting there I’d go through photographs with him, which is how we did those other ones later. But one of the little gems in there, I thought, was when I showed him the photo of them looking and waving goodbye to Nixon. I said, “What were you thinking there? That was such a big moment. He’s lifting off and you’re going to become president.” He said, “Well, to be honest with you, I couldn’t wait to turn around and walk in there, get sworn in and start my new job.” He said, “I really felt there were so many things that needed to be done.” I’m paraphrasing – but that’s it essentially.
I was always surprised by that. I never heard him say that and I don’t think he really thought about it so much until he saw the photo about – there I am; there goes Nixon; I’ve got to go in, get to work.
Smith: Do you have a sense that the relationship with Nixon was never the same? Especially after the pardon.
Kennerly: Of course not. Of course it wouldn’t be the same.
Smith: There is a sense that, and I think he did say publicly, or at least allowed himself to be overheard saying that Nixon never said thank you. Which would be the tip of the iceberg.
Kennerly: Well, I do know that the night that Nixon announced he was going back to China, which was on the eve of the election…
Smith: New Hampshire primary.
Kennerly: The New Hampshire primary – I was upstairs with him again, having dinner, and I was really pissed off about that. Because I thought that’s the biggest “fuck you” I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s precisely what I thought. I was railing and going on and on upstairs with just the three of us. And I came down and I railed to Nessen and Jerry Jones afterwards, I’d had a couple of drinks. But President Ford was not disagreeing with my assessment. He never would have put it the way I did it. But I thought that was going to kill him, politically.
Smith: We talked to Stu Spencer about this, and he basically agreed with you. He said, “Nixon knew exactly what he was doing.”
Kennerly: It was such a hideous thing to do. “Thank You – it’s Fuck You.” I mean, forget being thanked. I’ve never seen anything like that. It just was like trying to put it off on old Jerry for his own misdeeds or something. I don’t know, I never really knew the guy. The night of August 9th I was at the house. I took some pictures and President Ford – now President Ford for 20 minutes [a joke – it was more like 9 hours…]- asked me to stay afterwards. He said after everybody leaves, I want you to stay, I want to talk to you. Considering all the people on the face of the earth that the new President of the United States would be talking to, but there was something about him and we had such a great relationship – I made him laugh, he always would like roll his eyes at the stuff I was doing. So we sat on the couch in this living room and you have to understand, I’m still a kid from Roseburg, Oregon. I mean, I’ve never been around great wealth. I come from a very lower middle class family, and here I am sitting with the President of the United States. I know the guy really well, and I’m saying, “Mr. President,” and I keep thinking “I’m having this conversation.” He wanted to talk about the White House photographer’s job.
I had thought about it and I had figured he would probably offer it to me. There were other people who wanted it, like George Tames desperately wanted it, the New York Times guy. He figured he’d probably earned it; having been around all that time. But he said, “How do you look at this job? How do you see the job of White House photographer?” I said, “Well, I’ll be really honest with you, the way Ollie Adkins was treated was so horrible. He never was in the Oval Office for very long and everybody was telling him what to do. He worked for Ziegler and Haldeman and Erlichman. The secretary could tell him not to go into the Oval Office. It was really pathetic.” And I said, “I’ve got a really good job. I won a Pulitzer Prize in Vietnam. I love traveling around the world and doing my thing.” And I said, “I would be interested in working for you under two conditions. One is I work directly for you, and number two, I have total access.” He’s like puffing on his pipe, and he said, “You don’t want Air Force One on the weekends?”
Smith: He had a sense of humor.
Kennerly: He did have a sense of humor. That was funny. It’s like how brassy can you get? The guy is President of the United States. But I said, “Look, I can’t do it otherwise, I can’t.”
Smith: On the other hand, you’re leveling with him, which he would have respected.
Kennerly: Oh, totally. But there was another thing that happened that night. He said, “Well, I’m not offering the job right this second,” because he was a friend of Ollie’s. He said, “I want to talk to Al Haig about this.” And he looked at his watch, and he said, “Oh, let’s go watch the TV, I want to watch the swearing in.” And so we went into the study. This house is no bigger than this room, in square footage. And turned on the TV and the TV didn’t work. And he goes, “Betty, this TV’s not working.” Then one more TV was up in their bedroom, and so it was that I, Mrs. Ford, Susan Ford, and the President, watched the local news swearing in of Gerald R. Ford. I said, “Well, I’ve got to go.” But he rose up and took my hand in both of his and he said, “If you came to work for me, wouldn’t that be a problem with your colleagues after everything that’s happened with Nixon?” I said, “You know, those guys all like you,” all those other photographers, “and I think they would be happy to have one of their own in the White House.” And that’s how we left it.
The next day I’m over at Time Magazine and I get a page on the intercom and it’s a very frantic sounding telephone operator. I call in and she says, “David, President Ford is trying to get hold of you!” I said, “Well, tell him to call back,” and she said, “He’s on the phone!” He was on hold. He had picked up the phone and called over there and he said, “So how would you like to come to work for me?” I said, “I’d love to.” The Time office was across from the White House, it was in the Motion Picture Association building next to the Hay-Adams Hotel at the Time office. He said, “Well, that’s good. Well, you’d better get over here right now, you’ve already wasted half a day of the taxpayers’ money.”
And that’s how I went into the White House. I will say that there were two occasions where he asked me not to shoot something. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind not going in, and they were both occasions – one of them was Earle Butz getting fired, and another was the chairman, George Brown of the Joint Chiefs getting chewed out for some statement he’d made about the Jews running the newspaper business or something. In this day and age, that guy would be gone, he wasn’t then. But they were so intensely personal, and I said, “I don’t want to be in the room for that.” But that was it. I was in every top secret meeting, in everything.
Smith: Based on that intimate, ongoing, unique relationship, tell us a couple things that would surprise people about Gerald Ford.
Kennerly: The question would actually be better put the other way: like, from his generation there was a lot of racism. Just the way people grew up in America. And I think that one of the things that probably wouldn’t surprise people, but they wouldn’t know, was how absolutely colorblind he was as a man. As a person who grew up in the Middle West in a white area, I never heard him say or demean any person on the basis of race or religion. That alone is an example of a good person, it is foundational to me.
Smith: Is that the Eagle Scout?
Kennerly: Eagle Scout.
Smith: And his upbringing?
Kennerly: Probably. I think that’s how we all learn. I was in Boy Scouts. I come from southern Oregon where black people were just a rumor. I’d never seen a black person except maybe on TV later on. But I had no knowledge that anybody existed that weren’t all white. I grew up in an area where they had Impeach Earl Warren billboards along the highway, which I had no idea what that meant. What year would that have been?
Smith: Oh, late ‘50s, early ‘60s.
Benton Becker told us a wonderful story.
Kennerly: He’s another person that has memory adjustments.
Smith: I know what you’re saying, but filtering for factuality.
Kennerly: Filtering is lawyeristic.
Smith: Earl Warren died while Ford was vice president.
Kennerly: Right. I was at the funeral. I shot it, actually.
Smith: And Benton said, “You know, Mr. Vice President, I think it would be a really nice gesture if you went up to the Supreme Court to pay your respects.” And Ford thought for a minute and said, “Well, the White House wouldn’t probably be very happy about that.” He said, “Let me think about it.” In the course of the day Becker discovered without ever being told, that in fact, Ford had, on his own had gone up to the Court to pay his respects. And sure enough, apparently the next time he saw Nixon, Nixon said something derogatory. But it’s a revealing, very small, but revealing about the relationship and the decency.
Kennerly: Like I say, that’s not a surprising thing, except I think it’s worth talking about to a degree. When you hear those Nixon tapes about all the shit he was saying about different people – across the board. He was so not like that – he was just the opposite of that. Even to the degree of being prudish. If I had an off-color joke I would never tell him; I’d always tell Mrs. Ford because she would think it was funny. He would look at me kind of quizzically. So – okay, we’re not going to do that anymore.
Smith: We’ve heard from a number of people that she likes a good raunchy story. And she and the girls would tell stories and he would come in, hearing them roaring with laughter, and they would tell the story and it would go right over his head.
Kennerly: Exactly. That’s true. I totally agree that’s true.
Smith: But we were also told that he was genuinely – I don’t know if you’d call it naïve. He said, and I have absolutely no reason to question his sincerity, that he was shocked that Nixon lied to him. And by the same token, I think he was shocked by the language that he heard on those tapes.
Kennerly: Oh, for sure. Because he didn’t think like that, or speak like that. Terry O’Donnell and I probably spent the most time with him, those long trips in the car together. The dynamic back then was on a presidential trip, you had the limousine, the Secret Service follow up car and then the chief of staff’s car. It was the chief of staff, me, the driver, personal aide, and either the doctor or the military. That was it. That was part of the package if some bad stuff happened, that’s the primary thing. So Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Terry O’Donnell and the various rotating military aides were around all the time. But the people in the room, I was always the other person in the room. Nobody was in there as much as I was because I went to economics, national security, whatever staff meetings. Generally the chief of staff or deputies, so it was either Cheney or Rumsfeld, but I was always the other person in the room. And so, I observed him more closely than anybody possibly could have.
Plus, as a professional person, I’m taking his photo, but not just taking pictures, I’m in there trying to get the essence of the people and the drama, the moment and all that stuff. And the worst thing he would ever say was, “God dammit!” if he said that, he was truly angry, really pissed. I would be like, whoa! One of the best ones was O’Donnell, Cheney and I – I don’t know if Dick told this story – but we were at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, and there had been this Reagan demonstration going on and on. And I think it was Jim Rhodes, I think was the chairman. Who was the congressman – not Jim Rhodes?
Smith: Jim Rhodes from Arizona who would have been the Minority Leader.
Kennerly: Right. He was the guy with the gavel, and the prime time slips by with all these Reagan people chanting – the heart and soul people who really wanted Ronald Reagan there. And it was by a razor thin margin that Ford beat him. President Ford had taken so much time working on his speech – this is what Don Penny did for him – they got a good speech. The President practiced it. He said, “Oh, I don’t need to practice that.” “No, no, no. You do.” And they made him do it. So he was locked, loaded, ready to rock and roll on this speech. He had a nice tie and a new suit from Britches in Georgetown, complements of Mrs. Ford and I – getting him to take those plaid suits out – assassinate them. And so he was ready.
I’ve never seen him so mad. It was like Cheney and I and O’Donnell were sitting there, and he goes into his bedroom and the time has gone by now – a half hour even, before he’s even getting over to the arena for when he’s supposed to speak in the prime time moment. So he goes into the bedroom and he slams the door. The door opens up again and he comes back out and it’s like one of these Cary Grant moments where Cary Grant is really pissed off. And he says, “Call over there and you tell that Goddamn Rhodes to get that meeting in order. We’re going over.” And we’re going like, “Whewwww, this guy is mad.”
Smith: How much of that was getting up for the…
Kennerly: Oh, no, no, no. He’s not an actor. He was not an actor. And I watched Ronald Reagan getting ready to go up and give a speech and he would almost like, as he’s being introduced, you could see this transformation. And so, as you husband your resources, tell you you’re on camera. I mean, Reagan was a genius at that. But President Ford wasn’t like that. He was just mad, and he knew that it was slipping away, and the time, and less people were going to see it, and he was so popular that his material is what he was going to be doing. Anyway, that was one example. It was pretty rare, though. It’s like if somebody you know doesn’t normally lose their temper, loses it, you notice it like a hundred times more. And that’s what happened.
Smith: Let me ask you – I suppose when we started this I was influenced by Rockefeller’s semi-paranoid…
Kennerly: When is that book coming out, by the way?
Smith: I’ve got a deadline of two years.
Kennerly: You told me that two years ago.
Smith: July, 2011. It’s a huge – I have 600 pages written.
Kennerly: No, no – it’s going to be so interesting. I can’t wait.
Smith: I want to talk to you about that, too. Let me tell you how my view has evolved, for whatever its worth.
Kennerly: Now, how are you going to deal with this material. It’s a lot of stuff. What will be the culmination?
Smith: What we’re doing here?
Smith: This will eventually wind up in the library. But it’s the Foundation’s property, and it will be available for online, it will be available for filmmakers, it will be available to new exhibits in the museum.
Kennerly: Well, it’s great because there are fortunately enough people around that can still talk about it.
Smith: It’s interesting, we’ve talked to a number of people – Ford, in effect, had to learn how to be a president. He had to learn how to be an executive.
Kennerly: And I can tell you, by the way – don’t let me forget to tell you the moment when I think he took it over.
Smith: Okay. But that Don Rumsfeld was actually invaluable in coaching, for lack of a better word, and in fact, Rumsfeld brought to that process that element of constructive ruthlessness, to which I referred earlier. For example, Rumsfeld said, and we have a number of other people confirm this, he strongly advised the President to clean house early. Not to let it go as long as it did. And the interesting thing is, of course, Rumsfeld has always been fingered, particularly by Rockefeller, and I think by Bush, as the architect of the massacre at the end of 1975. Whether or not that is the case, that’s a separate issue. But my sense is that Rumsfeld…
Kennerly: What difference does it make if it is the President’s decision, if he thought it was a good idea? That’s where you get advice. Anyway, continue.
Smith: But my sense is that Rumsfeld, first of all, served the President by making it clear that he would not come back to the White House given the spokes of the wheel. That that was unworkable, and a condition of his taking the job was getting rid of it.
Kennerly: That the President was the hub and…
Smith: And then all these people – which is very congressional.
Kennerly: I know.
Smith: I’d be interested in hearing your general take on the roles played by Rumsfeld and later by Cheney.
Kennerly: Yes, I think that is a really good question. And I think the good news is, for me – you see, Rumsfeld and Cheney are both incredibly smart people. And Rumsfeld, to me, has always had, like Robert Kennedy had, this reputation of being ruthless and all that. I do not see that. I think he’s tough, though, really tough. He was definitely tougher than President Ford in a lot of ways. Whether he coached him, I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but if you go back into the time where Charlie Halleck was overthrown as the Leader, led by none other than young Congressman Donald Rumsfeld. I mean, that guy was like a Viet Cong sapper. You know, he’d come up under and blow the fence up, and Ford would walk through. And that’s what he did. And he did it, not in a bloody, nasty way, but it was just hardball politics.
I don’t know if it’s his Chicago upbringing, his wrestling background, grappling with not only issues, but people, and you have to come out on top there. There are very few ties in the wrestling business. Rumsfeld – and I watched it all the time – was the perfect chief of staff, even though he closed a lot of backdoors – I mean with Hartmann and the old buddies and all these people giving advice. It wasn’t that Ford wouldn’t talk to them, but there are only so many minutes in the day and I think Donald Rumsfeld helped hone the President in on what was important. But if you looked at the schedule, you could also say that Rumsfeld wasn’t doing his job because it was like tons of stuff on there. A lot of people would have said, “Oh, we don’t need to do that.” But Ford wanted to do it. And so it wasn’t Donald Rumsfeld like controlling him in any way, but he was helpful, and I think he did streamline it.
Dick Cheney was his disciple, and a totally different kind of personality. But Cheney learned – the chief of staff model that Rumsfeld used was to be very much in the background. You make sure all the information that should be getting in and needs to get in, gets in, in a fairly neutral way. And that goes for the NSC staff, everybody – Brett Scowcroft is also that way, by the way. He was surrounded by people who actually weren’t that political. I say that to people now about Cheney and Rumsfeld not being really political, and I truly mean it. Everybody has their point of view, they weren’t trying to push their point of view on the President of the United States. I was in too many meetings about that. One of the big ones was when George Walker Bush accused Rumsfeld of engineering him taking over the CIA job in order to get him out of the way.
Smith: At the same time, Rockefeller believed that he was part of getting rid of Nelson. It was all the same operation.
Kennerly: Well, Nelson’s liberal to moderate background is what got rid of Nelson. It’s the one thing that Ford probably told you he regretted more than anything. I think he hated himself for dumping Nelson Rockefeller. He liked Rockefeller, but he didn’t figure he could get out of the very conservative national convention alive, and I think he’s right. Reagan would have taken it. I don’t think there’s any question about it. That was a tough, hard, political move that he made. Rumsfeld is not the Machiavellian person that people make him out to be, from my point of view. But he’s tough.
Smith: You didn’t see Rumsfeld at that time as someone who was manipulating events to be on the ticket in ’76 himself?
Kennerly: If he had wanted to do that, why would he have become secretary of defense? And why would he have taken that job? Why not be at the right hand of the man, like George Bush looking at Dick Cheney when he was deciding on who was going to be his vice president, and said, “It was you all along.” That was weird. But Cheney was the same way. Cheney was an honest broker. By the way, they weren’t keeping out the old buddies and everything. There was time for them to come in. If somebody really needed to get through to him, they could. But they saved the President a lot of time with “You’re not in Congress anymore, Toto.” That was the reason.
Smith: Just from being around them, did you sense a change in the Ford/Rockefeller relationship after Rockefeller was, in effect, dumped?
Kennerly: I told you that I thought Nelson Rockefeller – I think I mentioned to you, the only letter I ever wrote to anybody over there was, I wrote a letter to Rockefeller after he had been dumped, expressing my admiration to him with the way he handled that… and I wrote a very heartfelt letter because I really liked the guy. I said, “It must have been terribly disappointing what happened. But the way you handled it was inspirational to me.” About how someone could deal with something of that magnitude of being – I’m paraphrasing – something that negative. And he goes out to the convention and stands there. He’s in the meeting with President Ford when Bob Dole came in. You know what? That was unbelievable to me, what Rockefeller did. And I’m sure he was…you have all the information about that, but publicly, he was damned good on that one. And not embarrassing the President, or being petulant about it, or whatever.
Smith: The fact is, he actually delivered the votes that provided the margin of victory over Reagan.
Kennerly: I think he was unbelievable. I saw it.
Smith: Did you get a response at all from your letter?
Kennerly: He sent me a nice note back, just thanking me. He thought it was a very nice thing. Plus I had the only picture of him flipping the bird signed. He didn’t want to sign it, but he did. He signed it “Rocky!” And Bob Dole is in the background of that picture, which makes it even funnier.
But I’ll tell you, this is a very good Rockefeller/President Ford story. The night of the State of the Union – so it would have been in ’75 – the last State of the Union before going into the election year and all that, a friend of mine -one person you should talk to is Jerry McGee, who is here in town, and he can tell the story himself because it is really a funny story. Don Penny and Jerry McGee, at that point had been helping out President Ford and all that and it was looking down to the election, so the President gave the State of the Union speech, so it was January, ’76.
They went back to the second floor of the White House, and the President was sitting on that couch with the window behind him, and other people are in there. Jerry McGee is sitting and by the chair is a little phone on a hook and the couch is against the window – President Ford is there. So the phone is ringing and the President says, “Go ahead, Jerry, answer.” So Jerry picks up the phone. This guy is an advertising person from New York and he’s extremely funny, but he’d never been in a situation like this. And he goes, “It’s the White House operator, sir. Henry Kissinger wants to talk to you.” “Oh, okay.” This phone had this really long cord on it, I have pictures of this in the archive, so the President says, “Yes, Henry. Thank you, Henry. Thank you so much, Henry.” He hands it back to McGee, he hangs it up.
The phone rings again and the President says, “Go ahead, answer it.” He says, “It’s the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” He says, “Oh yes, Warren, thank you, Warren, I appreciate it.” He hands it back. The phone rings the third time and so McGee just answers it, “Hello, the President’s residence. It’s the Vice President.” “Oh, yeah. Let me take it.” So he takes the phone and the President saying, “Yes, Nelson, thank you Nelson. Oh I appreciate that, Nelson. Thank you very much.” And hands it back. McGee hangs up the phone and President Ford leans back, puts his feet up on the coffee table, folds his hands behind his head, and says, “It’s always good to hear from number two.” And then he said, “Don’t tell anybody I said that!”
It was so cute. I don’t know how else to put it. It was so funny. Here’s this guy, this multimillionaire, vice president, and here’s this guy from Grand Rapids – Gerald Ford’s not even his real name [it’s Leslie King]. I mean, Rockefeller is like an institution in America.
Smith: But it’s the tag line that’s intriguing. How cognizant was he? Did he live with this fact that anything that he said might at any time be repeated, in or out of context? Was that just a situational…?
Kennerly: No. I think it’s because he let himself be like a human being. Like any of us would say – here’s the rich kid on the block and he works for me – that’s what it was. And it was not malicious, it was funny. I’ll never forget it because it was his reaction after he said it. It was like “I can’t believe I just said that.” In the context of today’s world it’s so….
Smith: Let me ask you: his first press conference is on August 28th and I’ve always thought that it was the tipping point that led to the pardon. Because – you talk about naiveté – here’s someone who’s spent twenty-five years in Washington.
Kennerly: That was in the East Room?
Smith: Yeah. And he’s convinced himself that the press is going to want to talk about Cyprus and Greece and Turkey and inflation, all of those things that he’s trying to deal with.
Kennerly: Right, because he inherited that – right in the middle of that.
Smith: And of course, the press didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about Nixon.
Kennerly: Of course.
Smith: And the story is he was angry afterwards. Partly because the press wanted to talk about Nixon, partly because he didn’t handle it terribly well. I’ve often wondered if that was, in fact, the catalyst that brought about – maybe earlier than it might have otherwise – the decision which came just ten days later to pardon Nixon. Did you hear conversations in the Oval Office before the pardon?
Kennerly: Yes. Well, the one in particular was on September 5th. Benton Becker was in it. I photographed the meeting. Phil Buchen, Al Haig, Benton Becker – Becker is being dispatched to San Clemente to try to get something out of Nixon.
Smith: A statement of contrition, which presupposes that the machinery of a pardon was moving forward.
Kennerly: That was a very tight group, though, obviously. A lawyer – two lawyers, Al Haig, who was the chief of staff, and me, but that was a pretty small group.
Smith: But that presupposes a fundamental decisions had been made by that time?
Kennerly: I honestly don’t know. I know he must have talked to Hartmann about it, or maybe Mrs. Ford. I don’t know when that light bulb clicked on. I don’t know when the wheel started moving. Benton was involved in it. That was the first time I really remember that there was a discussion about it. I may have heard it before, but…
Smith: Were there people trying to – for political or other reasons – argue him out of an immediate…
Kennerly: I didn’t hear any of that. There could have been. I wasn’t at every single thing.
Smith: How would you characterize Haig’s role at that point?
Kennerly: Well, Al Haig, he was Nixon’s guy, obviously. He was chief of staff and I think he should get a lot of credit for keeping things kind of going down the middle. I was only on the outside of the fence up until President Ford got in there. If there were conversations with Haig and Nixon about any of that, I wouldn’t have been in the room for it, because even though I was there 95% of the time, the other 5% – who knows?
Smith: Were you surprised when the pardon was announced, or did you know before?
Kennerly: No, I knew it was coming.
Smith: And Sunday morning…
Kennerly: Well, afterwards I told him – after the shit had hit the fan about the pardon – I said a week later, we were going to some event in an elevator and I said, “So Mr. President, did you think by pardoning Nixon on a Sunday morning that no one would notice?” And he got mad at me because at that point he’d lost his humor about that particular scenario. I think his numbers went down to about where Truman’s were after he fired MacArthur. Probably in the same neighborhood.
Smith: Did he misjudge the intensity of the public reaction?
Kennerly: Yes, he did, I’m sure of it. Because after he signed the pardon – there are some really interesting pictures, by the way, in the little anteroom.
Smith: He’d gone to church beforehand.
Kennerly: Went to church.
Smith: At. St. Johns.
Kennerly: Pardoned Nixon, and then he went and played golf. A good Republican president, what the hell – he’s not going to Disneyland. “So, Mr. President, you just pardoned Richard Nixon – what are you going to do next?” “I’m going to Burning Tree.”
So I can’t remember who he played with that day.
Smith: Mel Laird.
Kennerly: Oh, Mel Laird.
Smith: Who insists to this day, that if only he had done what Mel Laird wanted him to do, which was…
Kennerly: Make sure that Nixon’s plane crashed on the way to San Clemente.
Smith: Mel always had a plan. And Mel still says he was pissed at his old friend Jerry for doing this. Mel’s plan – he was going to bring a delegation, bipartisan delegation, from both Houses of Congress, to the Oval Office to petition Ford. The problem with that scenario is, it’s fine thirty-five years later in this antiseptic – but in the culture of the time, the first trial balloon would have been shot down before it ever got to tree level.
Smith: You couldn’t prepare the country for…
Kennerly: I think Ford knew, he knew it was going to be negative. There’s no question about that. And that’s why he kept it so tight, for one thing. Once he’d made up his mind to do it, he was going to do it. I don’t think he wanted to get talked out of it or worried about what the reaction was. That was part of it, too.
Smith: Here’s another thing…
Kennerly: And Ted Kennedy was one of the strongest critics, and then of course coming all the way around, which was a big deal for him.
Smith: But here’s this thing: it goes back again to what I sense was Rumsfeld’s role, and what I say was his necessary ruthlessness.
Kennerly: Rummy – who you mean, “I was out of the country when it all happened,” Rumsfeld?
Smith: For example, right before the election that fall, Nixon is ill.
Kennerly: Phlebitis. I was there. I was in the hospital. They wouldn’t let me in.
Smith: And there were people trying to talk him out of going.
Kennerly: I remember.
Kennerly: Well, this brings up another good point, which was midterm elections in October. President Ford had a scheduled trip to Dallas, Houston, somewhere in Texas and John Connally wanted to see him. And at that point John Connally is under indictment for this milk scandal thing, but it was a big deal. Connally had sent word to the President that he wanted to see him. And every single person on the staff said you shouldn’t see him, you don’t have to see him, you’ve got a busy schedule, and there may have been another God damn it in there. “John Connally is a friend of mine and that’s it. I’m going to see him.” And whoever it was, I don’t know at that point, it was either Rummy or Cheney on that trip. And somebody said, “Well, you know, two minutes after he leaves that room with you, everybody is going to know about it.” He said, “I don’t care.” He said, “Because you’re under indictment doesn’t mean you are guilty, and he’s a friend of mine.”
Fast forward to the 1976 campaign. Now here he has really been a good friend of John Connally, who is a dick, and the way that John Connally repaid Gerald R. Ford, was when Ronald Reagan announced that he was running in the Republican primary, Connally said, “Oh, these are both good friends of mine, I can’t support either one of them in the primary.” John Tower, who I will always admire for stepping up to the plate, came right over to the White House, endorsed President Ford, who said, “You know, this may be a losing battle in Texas, because they are really conservative, and John Connally…” So what happened was the day that Ronald Reagan picked Dick Schweiker as his running mate, who was considered fairly liberal – was shocking, actually – before they went into the convention, right? the phone rings, and John Connally just happens to be coming up to Washington and would love to stop by and see the President and maybe give them an endorsement.
I heard that and I was very, fiercely, loyal to the President – I could say stuff nobody else was going to say because I’d get really mad about something. So, he takes his call. He says, “Sure, tell him day after tomorrow,” or whatever. And so that evening I rode up in the elevator with him. He could tell I had something on my mind, I was really mad. We walked out of the elevator and went across to their bedroom, and he said, “Okay, what is it?” I said, “After what John Connally did to you, you saw him in his darkest hour and he paid you back by sitting on the fence. And now Reagan has picked a guy who will probably cost him the nomination, and Connally is going to come up here.” I said, “I just think that is horrible. If I were President of the United States, I wouldn’t do it.” And he looks at me and kind of smiled and puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “That’s why you’re not president Dave.”
Flash forward again to the Republican convention. John Connally honestly thought that Ford was going to call him up and put him on the ticket. I was in all those meetings. You can talk to Cheney about that one, too. All those people’s names were swirling around. And Connally was coming up to see him, and this goes to the not so naïve, and not necessarily un-ruthless Gerald R. Ford. So Connally – they have the meeting. I kind of look over, he shakes his hand and leaves. I said, “Now you’re not seriously considering picking him as a running mate, are you?” He says, “Dave, you remember what he did to me. Are you kidding?” I laughed. It was always in there and it was like, he knew, and he was an incredibly smart politician. It had to do with why he got along so well from both sides of the aisle.
Smith: Tell us about Mrs. Ford’s cancer surgery.
Kennerly: Well, I was there when he got the word on that one, and in fact, I think he was just devastated by that. He cried. They were so close and he could see the possibility that she might not make it. And there was actually a really interesting public moment when there was this big economic summit.
Smith: Summit on Inflation.
Kennerly: Whip Inflation – but it was Greenspan and all these other guys. It was a bipartisan thing. It was at one of the hotels, I can’t remember. And we had just come back from the hospital, having flown out in the helicopter, and she had gone into surgery and he had to make an appearance here and he broke down in front of this group. And there is a picture of him sitting there – I shot it. It was so touching. But I was with him during the whole time and the kids were there in and out. But I was really there for him and it was like really he was truly in anguish about it. Forget being president, or anything else. I guess he was thankful that she was getting such good care, and obviously it all paid off, but it was a tough one. I felt this almost familial relationship with her, was very close to Mrs. Ford, and everybody was worried. Back then it was not a sure thing.
Smith: Let’s face it, it’s hard for people today to understand – you didn’t talk about.
Kennerly: Well – then. Mrs. Ford should get sainthood for all that she’s done. If you want to talk about miracles on two different levels: having breast cancer and talking about it – nobody talked about it. No women talked about and men just didn’t want to hear about it. And also President Ford was so supportive of that. As a guy born in 1913…
Smith: People talk, understandably, about her courage and her trailblazing, but in a curious sort of unheralded way, in his response, he also sort of set an example for how husbands should respond to this.
Kennerly: He really did. Steve Ford talks about that, actually. If you haven’t talked to Steve, you really should talk about that because Steve makes that very point about his dad stood right by his mom, and then the whole business with alcohol and drug rehabilitation and all of that. And that’s very noble and all of that, but I don’t think it was quite as groundbreaking – no, it was groundbreaking. I know my parents generation – my parents were actually younger than they – that alcoholism runs in my family. I have personal experience with that and I know how difficult that is and people never talk about it. The older generation, they became kind of, oh you go to the Betty Ford Center. Now it’s a household name for recovery and dealing with your problems. I’ve had five or six of my friends go through the Betty Ford Center and she saved their lives.
Smith: We get conflicting – and it’s not something we dwell on – but sort of a conflicting sense to what extent her “problem,” however defined, was noticed, relevant during the White House years.
Kennerly: I’m a good person to talk to about that. I spent so much time with her, and now I tell this to people because I have my own personal difficulty growing up with my mother drinking. So I was pretty damned sensitive to it. It wasn’t like this is an academic problem. But even then I was sort of like I didn’t know for sure as a young kid, but as you get older you see it, obviously, because for one thing, you start drinking yourself and know what it will do to you. But I spent so much time with her and I never felt like – and I’m not a doctor by any means – again, I’m an observer, but also with some kind of sensitivity to that, it never struck me as being this huge problem. And I think there may very well have been. One of my friends said, “I didn’t know my dad drank until he came home sober one day.” Maybe there was some of that, but she didn’t drink that much, and I think she was mixing the two. And her speech patterns were a little slow, but they always were, kind of always considered. You know her really well.
Smith: But it’s safe to say, it did not significantly impair her performance as First Lady.
Kennerly: No. I honestly believe that. There is no cover up. She’s the one that’s told all, she’s opened the closet.
Smith: And the other thing is, it’s interesting, opposites attract. He’s so punctual, and she – has she ever been on time in her life?
Kennerly: Right. But he did love her dearly. There’s no question.
Smith: It’s almost a measure of his love.
Kennerly: And also, if you think about the ERA, and the fact Mrs. Ford – that was not a Republican point of view, the Equal Rights Amendment.
Smith: The Sixty Minutes interview.
Kennerly: Oh, I remember that.
Smith: My sense is, there is an immediate, predictable reaction, followed by a kind of, gee, we didn’t stop to anticipate that reaction, i.e., that is of subsequent polls which were a lot slower in those days. But nevertheless, they reveal the country was changing, and that while there were certainly people who took exception, a lot of them Reagan supporters to begin with on the right, but they were outnumbered by people who found it refreshing and candid. And the irony is the message of the whole Ford presidency about openness and transparency, she, in the one interview, embodied that as much as anything that happened in those two and a half years.
Kennerly: It’s funny because transparency was not even a word that was in the lexicon then. That’s all latter day. But you’re right, she talked about what if her daughter was having an affair. Normally, an unmarried person going out with other unmarried people is not an affair, it’s like you’re doing it, or whatever. And drug use, talking about how I would hope that my kids would talk to me. Those are all real rock solid ideas, being a good parent.
Smith: Basically she was simply acknowledging the existence of these issues – no one ever asked Pat Nixon about those things.
Kennerly: Well, no. And I think you look at the kids and you think that it wouldn’t even cross your mind. But the Ford kids were really kind of – young Susan was what? Eighteen? And Jack was out there with Bianca Jaeger and doing all this stuff, and I was in league with him.
Smith: Was that an issue? Were there people at the White House who were worried about Jack and his behavior?
Kennerly: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, but see, I was like the Henry Kissinger of the West Wing to the East Wing. That’s why Rumsfeld and Cheney knew that part of my value was that I was a direct link to the family – things that they didn’t want to talk to the President about. One time they asked me to say something to Mrs. Ford about something, and they didn’t want to talk to the President about it. I said, “I’m not going down that road. This is up to him and her.” She had made some statement in the book about they wanted her to tone it down a little bit. It was either Rumsfeld or Cheney. They asked President Ford, “Do you think you could get Betty to tone it down a little bit,” and he said, “Hey, if you want her to tone it down, you go ask her. I ain’t doing it.”
So, basically, she drove her own ship. But it wasn’t like the Clinton administration where there was really the North and South Korea. There was a DMZ, East Wing to West Wing, and Mrs. Clinton had her own political agenda and really ran this political operation separate from Bill Clinton. Mrs. Ford wasn’t like that. She had the things that she really believed in. It was a much quieter, lower key situation. Obviously, older people, too.
Smith: Did she enjoy being First Lady?
Kennerly: I think she did. I think she enjoyed being First Lady because she made people happy, and she was so much fun to be with. I mean, witness that last picture of her on the Cabinet Room table. Never before or since will there be a picture like that taken. And it showed her sense of fun and that mischievous quality that she has.
Smith: Tell us about your trip to Vietnam and the context.
Kennerly: The context of the trip was, I was in a meeting. It was a top secret meeting in the Oval Office, and Fred Weyand, who was the Army chief of staff, was in there. Graham Martin had been in Washington getting some dental work done or something, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and me taking pictures. The meeting was about sending Weyand to go over to Vietnam to see what, if anything, could be done to save the government. The North Vietnamese had invaded, they had come over the DMZ and they’d also attacked along up near one of the other borders.
Smith: This is early April, end of March, early April of ’75?
Kennerly: It was the end of March, because the trip – I remember the dates – I went the last week of March. Things were really looking bad. They left the room and I said to the President, “You, know, I would really like to go with the General.” And the President thought about it and said, “You know, I would really like you to go, too. I’d love to have your point of view on what’s going on.” Because I had no axe to grind, I was there as a journalist, photographer, I’d been all over the country and Gen. Weyand was actually a hero in the ’68 Tet offensive, so he knew the turf.
Smith: Let me ask you, and this may not be answerable, but, to this day there is a legitimate debate over what – not so much over whether South Vietnam could have been saved, that’s another whole thing. But about inside the White House, the notion of going to Congress and asking for the $750 million. Did the President really believe, ala Henry Kissinger, that a) he could get it; and b) that it would do the trick; or was he, in effect, necessarily going through the motions? Because then you had the Tulane speech where Kissinger wants him – one has the sense, at the risk of oversimplifying, one has a sense that Kissinger wanted to go down with all flags flying.
Kennerly: No, Henry Kissinger was never going down with all flags flying. Not if he was on the ship. The ship might go down, but it wasn’t going to be with him at the helm.
Smith: Right. I’m trying to get a sense of what the internal dynamics were, how realistic Ford was, what he really believed he could get out of Congress. Because I would trust Gerald Ford’s assessment of what he could get out of Congress a hell of a lot more than Kissinger’s at that point. And that’s simply because of Ford’s experience with Congress.
Kennerly: That’s true.
Smith: And it’s critical to know whether Ford thought he really could get….
Kennerly: You know, there were big appropriations – I think, for one reason, that’s why he sent Weyand. He wanted to get a response from a military guy. And Weyand had been in charge of III Corps during Tet, which is the Saigon area, and even though it was a political disaster, Weyand and company had actually driven the Viet Cong out and all of that. He, as a military guy, had done a great job, but he understood the country. So Graham Martin and I flew on plane to Saigon. It was Graham Martin, it was General Fred Weyand…
Smith: What was Martin’s frame of mind at that point? Did he think it was salvageable?
Kennerly: Yes. He definitely was going to go down with the ship. He would have. He believed until the end. I stayed with him at his residence and I spent a night. He had a son who was killed. He talked about that and it was pretty sad, but Graham Martin didn’t want to allow – when I showed up there, of course I knew all the news people and they wanted to try to arrange to get their Vietnamese civilians out. They knew that the end was most likely coming and thought these people would be at risk because they worked for Americans. I went to talk to Graham Martin about it, he said, “What about all the Vietnamese that work for us, the government?” He said, “If I condone letting anybody especially come in and start this sort of a secret evacuation, the whole thing is going to go to hell.” And it made me resentful about Martin, but I totally understood his point of view about that. And I knew a lot of the people that were in question there.
Smith: There really was no way you could secretly airlift people out?
Kennerly: Once you started, that was it.
Smith: It’s tantamount to surrender.
Kennerly: That’s right. And what was interesting for me as a professional observer, I went over on that last business, I was up in the Nga Trang with the American Consul when he was evacuated and I went up on a helicopter. A ship had been commandeered by the South Vietnamese soldiers – a whole ship was filled with soldiers fleeing south. They shot at our helicopter, which was the first my parents – AP put that story out – and my parents who thought I had this nice job at the White House discovered I was back in Vietnam getting shot at. The President had to call them up and tell them I was okay, which he did.
But the main thing was, I went up north; I saw what was going on; it was like the handwriting was on the wall pretty clear. I don’t know what that appropriation would have done. It might have bought some time, I’m not sure. It was a handy way to blame Congress for the end of it. I’m sure that was in somebody’s mind. I’m not certain that President Ford thought that directly. But then the CIA, because I had this presidential order given me carte blanc, flew me into Phnom Phen.
I went into Phnom Phen and there was no one at the airport, they were all behind sandbags. The airport was under fire and the CIA guy told me, “Look, I’m just going to taxi by the terminal and you’ve got to jump out.” It was one of those short take off/landing [called a “STOL”] planes that they used in Laos. I said, “That’s fine. I don’t want you to get blown up.” I jumped out and he took off, and I thought, oh this may have been a really stupid thing I just did. And so I got a ride into town; went to the embassy and got a top secret briefing a map showed Phnom Phen was here and there were all these red arrows pointing there and it was like, uh oh, this is essentially over with. The ambassador said they were going to evacuate.
Smith: Phnom Phen fell before Saigon?
Kennerly: Yeah, it fell a week after I was there. In fact, if you saw the Killing Fields, it was right in that period, and a bunch of my friends decided to stay around Phnom Phen. And my suggestion, quietly I said, “Get your ass out of here.” I said, “There will not be the U.S. Calvary coming to save you because it’s going to be too late. There’s no way they are going to commit troops. I can tell you that right now. I wouldn’t ask if we get an SOS from you guys after you stay here and the Khmev Rouge are coming down your throat.” And guess what happened? Got back to the White House; SOS. Scowcroft and I talked about it and he said, “Well, what do you think about it?” I said, “You can’t do it.” I don’t think he was going to do it, but I said, “They know.”
Smith: Did you and General Weyand fundamentally agree on your assessment of what you’d seen?
Kennerly: Well, I was hearing what they were saying. In fact, I was just looking in the book, and they were preparing their report and the President was in Palm Springs, and I went over there. I think they were saying that possibly they could hold them off for a certain length of time, I don’t know what the assessment was. It wasn’t a pretty assessment. One of the chief CIA guys was on the plane with me, also.
I told the President, I showed him photographs. I said, “This is what is going on, and anybody that tells you that Vietnam has more than three or four weeks left is bullshitting you.” That’s what I said, and he was really downcast. Saigon fell three weeks later. I’d been in Vietnam, not just that trip, but before, and then I was in the room when the decision was made to pull out of Vietnam for over two years. And it was in the Roosevelt Room, ironically, under this portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, you’ve got all the guys sitting around like the President, Vice President, head of the CIA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Kissinger, and they are sitting there right after Ford pulled the plug and like, no one is saying anything.
Smith: Pulling the plug meant what?
Kennerly: Evacuating all the Americans that were left in Vietnam. Pulling the plug meant…
Smith: And as many of our South Vietnamese friends as possible?
Kennerly: One of the reasons – and I will say this that I truly believe it – that when I came back with my photographs, and they were pictures of refugees from around the country, Cambodia , wounded people, it was pretty grim. And I replaced all the photographs on the White House wall – all these cheery photos of state arrivals and all that – color pictures. They still do it to this day, and they are nice to see for the staff. And I put up the pictures I’d shown President Ford of refugee kids, of wounded evacuees, of the ship filled with fleeing South Vietnamese soldiers, on the walls. And someone, overnight, had taken all the pictures down from the day I went up. And the President got so mad about it that he ordered, personally ordered, that all those photos go back on the wall. He said, “You people who work here have to know what’s going on over there. This is a horrible situation we’re in and you have to know what it is.”
And when I told him about a lot of the Vietnamese people that I’d worked with who were there, I said, “One thing that really concerns me, and Graham Martin feels this way, is that it’s your obligation to try to get as many Vietnamese who are high risk Vietnamese people out of there.” People who had worked for the intelligence agencies and the military authorities. People who wanted to leave, we’re not going to make anybody leave, but the opportunity has to be open. And there were some in the State Department, at high levels, who felt that way, and at the highest level just wanted to close it down, get the Americans out and throw that chapter into Gulf of Tonkin. And President Ford felt very strongly about continuing the evacuation, which was a very dangerous thing that was going on – and kept the door open for thousands of Vietnamese who got out because of him.
Smith: Did they wait too long to take Reagan seriously as a challenger in ’76?
Kennerly: I don’t know. Those political discussions – a lot of those were happening offsite from the White House. My favorite picture in the book, the Extraordinary Circumstances book, one of my favorites, is Reagan and Ford sitting two blocks from where we’re talking right now in their tuxedos, in what looks like a scene from Godfather III, at the Century Plaza Hotel. It looks like a Julius Shulman architectural picture from the ‘60s. And Reagan, looking very elegant, is sitting there and Ford is talking to him, and it was Halloween in 1974. President Ford was at some big fundraising thing, that’s why they were all dressed up like that.
I don’t know if Reagan, in his mind, was considering the run. I’m sure he must have been. He looked at Ford and probably thought, “I can do this.” But when you get around to – I don’t know at what point they started taking him seriously – certainly, but when he dumped Rockefeller, sometime prior to that, where they said, “Look, the hard, true-blue conservative Republicans want Ronald Reagan. He’s like an amazing candidate.”
Smith: At the end of the campaign, in ’76, did he think he was going to win?
Kennerly: Yeah. I think it was that close. People don’t realize how close that election was. With Gore and Bush, I think you had two candidates that most people overwhelmingly didn’t want. It was sort of this is what you got, this is what it is. Ford almost overcame Carter. Carter was a bad candidate, and it was so close. I was there in those meetings.
Smith: What was that night like?
Kennerly: It was a horrible night. Up on the second floor it was Jake Javits and Cheney sitting in a room…that was up in the residence; that was like two o’clock in the morning. Cheney is up there smoking cigarettes and then I slept on my couch in my office. It still hadn’t been called at that point. It was so close that anything would have tipped it.
Later, I went back upstairs and the President was alone having breakfast. It was around seven a.m., he’d only slept for three or hours, if that. And at that point, I was the first person to talk to him when he knew it was a wrap. And it was sad. And I’ll tell you what happened later that morning, and it boils down to Terry O’Donnell and I. The President had almost lost his voice, and I have a picture you can see the President sitting behind the desk and Cheney’s over underneath the Washington portrait by the fireplace, and they called Carter to concede. And Ford kind of croaked out, “I can’t talk.” He’d lost his voice campaigning, and, “Dick Cheney will say something.” And so Cheney read the concession statement.
Then the kids came down and Mrs. Ford, and we were in the Oval Office and it was really not a pleasant time. But they wanted a picture behind the desk like the one they’d had the day on August 9th, so I took a picture of them. The one I really like with Mrs. Ford sort of reaching over and chucking Jack under the chin, like, you know, try to buck up. Mrs. Ford was always like the cheerleader of the family. And then there is a smiling picture which doesn’t mean anything, but then they went out to the press room and Mrs. Ford read the concession statement. The kids were there.
And then Terry O’Donnell and I and the President walked back to the Oval Office and the rest of them left. I had a picture – I’ll never forget this, it was so poignant to me – the President puts his arm around Terry and he said, “I probably never told you this, you’ve done such a great job, you’ve been so dedicated, you’ve spent so many hours,” he said, “If there is anything I can do for you, let me know.” And I’m taking a picture of that and I just burst into tears because, once again, the guy is thinking about somebody else. You know, he’s just lost the presidency and yet he’s concerned about Terry O’Donnell. The picture – Terry and I both totally lost it. It was so typical of him, that’s why I loved working for him.
Smith: Did it take him a while to bounce back?
Kennerly: I think as he got older, he got more bitter about it. But what was so ironic is like becoming friends with Jimmy Carter. Who would have thought that? And not friends with Ronald Reagan.
Smith: No, in fact, I think one of the things that brought Carter and Ford together was they both ran against Ronald Reagan.
Smith: They had that in common. A couple of quick things. When was the last time you saw him?
Kennerly: I saw him and he was still able to sit up in his chair, but it was toward the end. He was so frail. But he told some great stories. He was still in pretty good mind, but it was like he wasn’t totally on track. But he was old. In fact, most people don’t make it that far. It was so great to see him. And getting back to the DeFrank book, DeFrank made such a big deal about being the last reporter to see him. I mean, who gives a shit? Honesty. It’s like, I don’t care about that. The question is, who was Gerald R. Ford in the prime of his life? He was a great man, he was a good friend, he was somebody who should be revered and honored. And not for some recollections when you’re like kind of over the hill and past the point.
Smith: Were you surprised at all by the public response, which seemed to just build as the week went along?
Kennerly: Of course, I was. Because he was only president for like a half hour, essentially.
Smith: And he’d been out of the public eye.
Kennerly: That’s right. Two and a half years, and he died in, and I think considering everything else that was going on in the world, I think people were just fond of him, even if in retrospect people didn’t know him, knew that he represented something that was good. He was from a generation of people who, in his own words, felt that you could disagree without being disagreeable. He had lessons to teach people; still does. And I didn’t learn too many of them myself, but I know that they were good lessons.
I really lament the fact that he didn’t have a four year run in his own right. Who knows? I mean, things still would have gone to hell in many cases, but one thing that wouldn’t have happened, for instance, and I’m convinced of it; there would not have been American hostages in Iran. He would have gone down with the Shah and if the Shah was evacuated at some point, then so would the Americans have been. Not this chicken shit way of doing diplomacy. Honestly, that was what caused that situation. I don’t know that it would have made any difference, except that I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have happened, because that all just eroded just so slowly, like watching the blood seep out of a body.
Smith: Have you had any contact with Mrs. Ford since his death?
Kennerly: I haven’t seen her in a while. It’s been at least three months, really. Well, I took the book over to her, she loved the book. And it was really such a tribute to him and to her, and what was great about it, and your piece and everything that was in there was just all straight ahead stuff. It wasn’t being reverential about him, it was just like, “Here’s the guy.” The good news, the bad news.
One moment that I did want to talk about. The New York Times asked me to write an OpEd piece after Ford died [we should get a copy of this for the record]. And they wanted like my favorite picture or whatever it was. There are so many photos, of so many different things. People ask me my favorite picture and I cannot answer those questions. But I thought about it, and I didn’t write it. They asked me one time if I would do something ahead of time, but I could not sit down and write like their obit, which makes sense. I couldn’t do it until he was really gone. And then I only had twelve hours or less to write it.
And I thought about the picture, and the photo that I ended up with, which they used, was him during the Mayaguez incident, and he has his glasses on top of his head, and I thought that was the moment where he really assumed command of the presidency. I thought the picture showed a resolute person. It showed a determined man. It showed a good leader. And he managed the Mayaguez thing effectively, and Marines were killed and all that, I know; but it was handled in a really smart way and he made decisions that were important and he did not lean on Henry Kissinger or anybody else. He made his own decisions after the information came into him about what was going on.
One telling aspect of that was, that there were political people who thought that we had to kick the shit out of these Cambodians for taking the American crew, and basically, making the Cambodians pay for what the Vietnamese did to us across the border. And he just wasn’t having that. He did not make those decisions based on politics at all. In fact, he pulled back in a couple of cases on using greater force, and it worked out. But from then on, he didn’t have to come out on his lawn and talk about how Henry Kissinger is going to be here. Henry Kissinger almost lost his job at one point there.
One of my moments was that Henry Kissinger, early on, and I like him a lot, he’s just a great character and I’ve gotten along with him really well, but every time that Bob Hartmann or one of the guys would drop something to Evans and Novak about Kissinger, and undercutting him all the time, he would call up Ford and threaten to resign. One day I was in one of my sessions sitting up there having a drink. Kissinger called up and Ford said, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, Henry. But naw, don’t worry about it. I know, I know. It’s one of those things.” So he hung up and said, “Henry, he’s so upset about this Evans & Novak column, he’s talking about quitting.” I said, “Mr. President, just accept his resignation and he’ll never do it again.” And I’m not sure if he took the advice. But Henry never resigned.