Journalist and author Ken Walsh returned to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on November 1, 2017 to present a lecture on his recently published book Ultimate Insiders: White House Photographers and How They Shape History. Walsh has spoken at the Ford Presidential Library and Museum five times, and is a three-time winner of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation Journalism Award for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency.
Ultimate Insiders presents behind-the-scene stories and intimate portraits of presidential photographers corresponding with the significant presidential historical events captured by them. In writing his book, Walsh said he wanted to show the presidency through the lens of the photographers by emphasizing that Chief White House Photographers provide a unique perspective on the presidency given their tremendous access.
Walsh is currently the Chief White House Correspondent for U.S. News and is one of the longest-serving White House Correspondents in history. He writes a weekly column, The Presidency, along with a daily blog Ken Walsh’s Washington, for U.S. News and World Report. Walsh is the author of eight books including Air Force One: A History of the Presidents and Their Planes and Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom.
Walsh opened the lecture describing the unique role of White House photographers and the extraordinary access they have to the President of the United States. In interviewing seven former White House photographers, they all told Walsh the keys to success for the role are: first, being a good photographer; but second, and more importantly, establishing trust with the President and First Lady.
Walsh discussed the history of the White House photographers dating back to President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, saying that President Lincoln recognized “the power and importance of photography in politics and government.” He showed the first picture taken of President Lincoln at Cooper Union in New York used by his campaign, which was taken by photographer Matthew Brady.
Turning to President Theodore Roosevelt (TR), Walsh said that he recognized the importance of publicity through photography, and developed a good relationship with photojournalists. Walsh said that President TR adopted a philosophy to what he referred to as the “strenuous life” where he would strive to excel at everything he did privately and publicly. Walsh provided examples of this attitude with pictures of President TR horse jumping, sitting in a crane at the Panama Canal, and standing with naturalist John Muir at Yosemite National Park.
Walsh noted the power of still photography and that many images of Presidents to this day stay in the public’s mind, with Walsh noting that President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) clearly understood this. Walsh detailed a conversation between President FDR’s Press Secretary and the news media at the beginning of his presidency whereby he told them they would have unprecedented access to the President, if they did not take photos of his leg or indicate that he was disabled with Polio. Walsh said that the photographers adhering to the request later regretted it as a “conspiracy of silence” by not showing every aspect of the President, including his disability. Walsh did uncover a very rare picture of President FDR in his wheelchair at his home in Hyde Park.
Walsh says President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was the first to hire a White House photographer, named Cecil Stoughten. Walsh shared a number of famous photos of President JFK such as President JFK and the First Lady on their wedding day and President JFK with his son John Kennedy Jr. peeking through a trap door at the bottom of the Oval Office desk.
Walsh included other notable still photography images of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Walsh included several photos taken by President Gerald R. Ford’s Chief White House Photographer David Hume Kennerly. Walsh said that President Ford gave Kennerly great access and provided several examples including President Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Breszhnev wearing a fur coat; President Ford in his pajamas meeting with his Senior Staff in the White House; a picture of President Ford swimming at the White House surrounded by photographers; President Ford falling down skiing in Vail, Colorado; First Lady Betty Ford dancing on the Cabinet Room table; and President Ford sitting next to the First Lady reading a get well card after surgery.
Walsh suggested that Presidents that do not grant access to their Chief White House Photographers pay for it. Walsh indicated President Jimmy Carter did not hire a Chief Photographer or allow private access for news photographers. Walsh believes that as a result, there are almost no still images of President Carter that stand out in people’s minds today.