Two nights ago, watching the ABC news (yes, someone still watches the network news programs.. some 30 or 40 million people..), I was struck by something which flashed on the screen. The Obama family, freshly back from their last semi-normal vacation, had done a quick turn-around in Chicago, and flown to DC over the weekend. The reason? So the girls, Sasha and Malia, could start school on Monday, the same day that all the ‘other’ kids were coming back from Christmas break. It was the kind of situation which a President hadn’t had to face in decades. Chelsea, was a bit older, and her transition into DC school was relatively painless. Well, as painless as anything related to school can be for a teen-ager. Every kid, except the ones who are totally clueless (that would be math dweebs, or the kids in the “Audio Visual” class) has a tough time with the First Day of school. You kind of think you’re the only one feeling out of place, and that worry sits on your shoulders heavy, very heavy, as you start to meet other kids.
In the piece Charlie Gibson introduced, he spoke of his own trauma as a youngster, and as he did so the screen flashed quickly to an aged black and white photograph of a 7 year old Amy Carter, making her way up the frozen sidewalk to the Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School, the public school which Jimmy and Rosalyn had decided to send her. It is pretty unfair, frankly, for a kid who would probably attend a neighborhood school back home, to be thrown into the spot light of a public school, and one that may not even be so great academically, just because her ol’ man got elected President. It’s somewhere between “sins of the father visited on the child” and “no good deed goes unpunished.” It can’t have been that easy being Amy, I’m sure, but on that first day of school, it looks like she wasn’t having a lot of fun. Head down, with her Snoopy bag drooped on her shoulder, she walks the gauntlet. And what about all those guys around her. On each side of the frozen ice-covered walk-way was a set of stanchions and ropes, to try and keep the press photographers back and let Amy walk peacefully. Well I have to confess I was one of those photographers. Now I will say this: I don’t think, given the circumstance, that we acted particularly horribly. Should Amy have been allowed to walk quietly and unrushed to her class room? Probably. But the thing that is forgotten is that one of the reasons (say what you will about politics) that Amy went to this school was the fact that it WAS a public school. So if she attended, but there were no pictures or TV, then who would have ever known that little fact. It was, really, another of the games the press, the cognescenti, and the dweebs constantly play. In the spirit of the former Soviet worker who once told me “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us...” it becomes one of those games which the press is quite good at. They pretend to have an event (Amy going to school, a Peace treaty signing in the East Room..) and we, the press, pretend to cover it. The formula isn’t altogether new, but it does kind of lumber along all by itself, from one generation to the next. Although, happily I suppose, the Obama girls, who got a lot of coverage this year, were slipped back into the “children of the President” cocoon. An attempt to try and shield them from Press. I am happy to see the Obama girls in a school where they don’t do things so much differently than a Vice Presidential hide-out: the keywords are Secure and Undisclosed. Let the girls try and have a life, let them deal with their own problems and not necessarily the affairs of state. It’s the least they deserve.
an AP shot that cold morning in 1977
But I will say, having been one of the rapacious lensmen that day, I really enjoyed looking back at, and trying to deconstruct that picture. I do remember that it was hideously cold. Ice was all over the sidewalks, and in fact, just out of frame to my left, photographer Owen Franken was attempting to take a shot from a step ladder, but of course he lost his balance and fell to the ice. Owen, bless him, had a habit of such things, but never seemed to get hurt, or for that matter, hurt anyone else on the way down. He’d just pick himself up, laugh it off, and keep shooting. And today he lives in Paris and photographs wonderful platters of food for the Times and others. I suspect he eats much better these days than the days in DC when he’d fall off a ladder as soon as look at it. And it looks like his little brother may actually get certified as the next Senator from Minnesota.
Nearer to me was my TIME mentor, Walter E. Bennett, but don’t call him that. He was Wally Bennett. (It helped to differentiate him from Utah Senator Wallace F Bennett, a good Mormon who was known NOT to drink 3 martinis every day at lunch.) A lion-hearted, wonderful and funny man who took me under his wing the summer I was a college intern (1967). Wally didn’t mess around. I’d been sent to DC by New York, and he never questioned my presence, nor bitched about it, instead he’d just hand me a couple of assignment sheets, fresh from the teletype machine, give me a little guidance on how to make the arrangements, and send me on my way. It was a great learning experience. Sadly, at 20, I was too young to legally drink. Wally, to the contrary, owned a seat at the bar across the street at Duke Zeibert’s. Duke’s was the place where all the ‘grown up’ photographers went for lunch. My impression was that the only food served there was Boiled Beef (hard to ruin that one), and olives, which would be found frolicing around any one of the myriad martini glasses in use. Wally was the only real 3 martini lunch guy I ever knew. And today we marvel at how those folks managed to throw back a few at lunch and still report for the afternoon shift. DC has always been a somewhat forgiving town, and in the end, you just took your pictures, shipped your film (oh yes, film, I forgot, there was film) and thought about another drink.
I’d met Wally Bennett several years prior, 1965 I think, when he accompanied Lady Bird Johnson on a trip to Salt Lake. I had just purchased a $49 lens for my screw-mount Leica, a 35mm/f 2.5 Nikkor. I was very proud of it, and for the first time, I had a fast wide angle lens. My cameras were pretty hodge-podge, and in addition to my Leica, I had a lovely silver Pentax. So I thought I was relatively hot stuff. I saw Wally, waiting for Lady Bird’s contingent to leave the hotel, and wandered over. Even at 18 I was looking at magazines every week, and I knew most of the photographers’ names. When I saw his name on a beatup leather shoulder bag sitting at his feet, I figured, cool as I was, that I’d say hello. He was smoking a Pall Mall, and as I inched closer, he seemed to react to my presence as if I were a gnat, ready to buzz annoyingly in his ear. I said hello, and as if to certify that I was a cool guy, I said something like “...and I have this new Nikkor 35mm lens for my Leica...” Wally, who was festooned with beautiful Nikon rangefinder cameras, the S3 and SP, lifted his hand and in the most subtle way, flipped his thumb on the top camera, saying “... I have a 25mm [wide angle]..... I’ll be a step in front of you...” In one nanosecond he had vanquished the gnat. And he’d done it with such mastery that I knew that someday I wanted to be able to deliver a line just like that.
In the Amy Goes to School picture, Wally is wearing the kind of slacks that we might use today in a quilt or perhaps a semaphore flag at a train depot. They scream “Two for One.” But somehow we all got through those years, Wally and his slacks, me and my Afro, and even little Amy Carter. Wally passed away about 8 years ago, but I still think of him often, and every time a young photographer asks me a stupid question (yes, there are such things as stupid questions) I try and answer in the way he might have. So far, unfortunately I haven’t been able to deliver “... I’ll be a step in front of you” just yet. But I remain optimistic.
As for Amy, sometimes I wonder if she wasn’t marked by that frozen morning, and secretly, in a way she probably will never confess to anyone, wishes that when she goes to Costco or Best Buy, there is someone like Owen tumbling off a giant stepladder, just to remind her of how much fun she really had. We’re just sayin’....David