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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

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

May 05, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

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

"Mr. Dole!"

Buchanan froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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