When Gerald R. Ford assumed the presidency on August 9, 1974 he declared that, "Our long national nightmare is over." In the short term I suppose he was right, but his own personal nightmare began a month later when he pardoned Nixon on September 8, and his popularity plummeted to 37%, a poll number better than Truman's after he fired McArthur, but not by much. The pardon of Nixon ultimately cost President Ford a full term in his own right.
That night after Ford became president I was invited over to the family home in Alexandria, Virginia to take a few photos. He also wanted to talk to me, and asked me to stay after their other friends left. We sat down in their homey living room, President Ford was puffing on his pipe, and I was a bit nervous. (It's not everyday that a kid from Roseburg, Oregon gets a one-on-one with a guy who has only been President of the United States for nine and a half hours!). I was pretty sure he was going to ask me about the White House photographer's job, and I was right.
I had given it a lot of thought, even though Mr. Ford hadn't hinted that he wanted me to do it when he was the vice president, but on the other hand he hadn't talked to much of anyone about a Ford presidency for fear of looking like he was trying to push Nixon out. During the Nixon administration Ollie Atkins had been the official photographer and had very limited access to the president. That's the way Nixon wanted it, but it wasn't going to work for me. After all, I had a great job as one of TIME Magazine's top photographers, and didn't want to be demoted to sitting outside the oval office waiting for some secretary to tell me when I could go in to take a couple of quick shots of the president. That's essentially what happened to Ollie. The president started right in by asking me about the White House photographer's job, and was I interested. I looked him in the eye and told him what I thought. "I would like to do it if I report directly to you, and have total access to everything that happens in the White House." Smoke curled from his pipe as he thought about that rather brazen request. "You don't want Air Force One on the weekends?" he joked. We both laughed. Two out of three was just fine.
”‹As always President Ford was mindful of others, and told me that he wanted to talk to Chief of Staff Alexander Haig about how to handle things with Ollie, who hadn't planned on leaving. He didn't want to hurt anyones feelings he told me, but he wanted me there. "Let's go watch the news," he said, "I'd like to see the swearing-in."
We went into his small den, and he tried to turn on the television. It was broken”‹. "You'd think at least the president would have a tv that worked!" he said. There was another set that did, in the President and Mrs. Ford's bedroom. Steve, Mrs. Ford, and Susan and I went in there to watch the late news, the lead story of course featured Nixon leaving and Ford becoming president. After that was over I got up to leave, and said it had been a long day, and that we all had to start early in the morning. In a moment that I will never forget, President Ford stood up, took my hand, and said, "How will your photographer friends feel about you working in the White House after everything that has happened over the last few months?" I was really taken aback by that comment, here was a guy who had the weight of the world on him now worrying about whether or not it was a good idea for me to work for him. "They will be happy to have one of their own there, and they will also be glad to finally have a friend in the oval office," I told him.
The next day”‹ I was in my office at TIME when I got a page over the intercom. "David Kennerly, call the switchboard." I picked up the phone, and one of TIME's receptionists, who sounded a bit frazzled, said, "David, President Ford wants to talk to you." I said, "Tell him to call back, I'm busy." She practically screamed, "He's on the line!" Oh boy. "Hi Mr. President," I said. "How would you like to come work for me?" It was official. "I'd love to,"
I said. "Well, you better get over here right away then, you've already wasted a half a day of the taxpayers money!" The TIME office was right across Lafayette Park from the White House. I grabbed my cameras, and set out across the square for an adventure that turned out to be one of the best two and a half years of my life.
The Ford's stayed in their modest Alexandria home waiting for the Nixon's belongs to be removed so that they could move in. President Ford became a commuter president, making the drive from Virginia and back for ten days until he and the family finally occupied the Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.