Thursday, August 07, 2014

The East Room

Walking up the driveway...

It seems to be one of those Anniversary years:  D-Day 70th, LA Olympics 30th, US almost invasion of Haiti 20th, John Kerry running for President (yes, that John Kerry)  10th, and Olympus High graduation 50th.  Among others.  For many years the editors at TIME would proclaim “we don’t DO anniversary stories….” as if to justify their reasons for not doing stories which I was involved in.  But in so many cases, they came to realize (over a lot of years, since the editors list was ever evolving) that it isn’t simply a chance to put a candle on a historical cake, light it, then have a piece of cake.   Anniversaries are best noted when they are a time for reflection and pondering.  None of us really get to appreciate what makes things tick at the moment they are ticking.  Very often we need the advantage of hind sight to see what should have probably been obvious at the time.   Not to take advantage of looking back would be another missed opportunity to try and remember what things were about, what were the time lines, and who did what to whom and why fore

the Podium in the Pressroom 

 WH scribes being in touch with their world

President Obama at the East Room Arts Awards

This reporter, crossing Pennsylvania Avenue having just shipped
film of Nixon Resignation/Ford Swearing In
©2014 David Hume Kennerly

Two weeks ago I photographed the President awarding the annual Arts and Humanities prizes to some very deserving folks in an East Room ceremony. (Among them John Kander (without Ebb), Linda Rondstadt, Dianne Rehm, and Albert Maysles.)  I was cleared through the gate with a little time to spare, and as we gathered in the outdoor area near the pressroom for the “final escort” to the East Room,  remembered so many times I’d waited there, going back to the days of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  The floor plan really hasn’t changed that much, at least in the Press area of the West Wing.  The podium is next to the sliding door (how many times has THAT door been slid?)  which serves as the entry to the “Lower Press Office” and the walkway up to the the Upper Press Office, the Roosevelt & Cabinet Rooms, and the Oval.  It is a place which is filled with history. My first visit there was in July 1967, during my TIME photo internship.  My mentor and pal Wally Bennett took me to the White House, introduced me around, showed me where to stand on the main riser as LBJ entertained the King of Thailand (then a key ally on Vietnam) in a State Arrival ceremony.  He also hoped I didn’t screw up too badly.   In the course of those 47 years, I have been do the White House dozens of times, but it never gets old, it never gets boring, it never fails to cause the otherwise dormant pits in my stomach to clench their bad selves and remind me that this isn’t just some ole mansion, it IS the White House.  I have always loved that walk up the big circular driveway to the Press Room, passing Pebble Beach (the tented areas where the TV folks do their stand ups, and deliver the news both good and bad), angling past the donut shaped West Wing entrance, and into the little alley way to the Press Room.  It never fails to remind me how fricking cool it is to be there, what a privilege it is. 

I remember very clearly the tense atmosphere of the place in Nixon’s final week.  Dave Kennerly had put together a dinner that week with the Fords and a few other friends, and it was clear that Vice President Ford, who apparently had already been told, gave nothing away.  And prior to Ron Zieglers announcement Thursday (August 8th) afternoon that the “President will address the nation tonight…”  we couldn’t really have imagined that he might resign.  It was the direction things were going, but the actual contemplation of something which had never happened before in two centuries of the United States was a bit mind boggling.  We watched Nixon’s announcement in silence.  

The next day, everything played out on a script never before performed.  At noon Nixon spoke to his staff in the East Room, and at one point, for the first time ever, I was touched by what he said.  He spoke of his family, and in particular his father. No one uses the phrase “I remember my old man….” without meaning it, referring to the “poorest lemon farmer in California, who sold his farm before they discovered oil on it.”  It was a moment of pathos, tension, worry, and an hour later when Jerry Ford was sworn in, great relief.   It all happened in the East Room, that amazing space owned by the People.  

As President Obama started handing out the Arts awards, I was struck by something as I looked at the finder of my camera.  Something in my subconscious was jolted, and I realized that for all the times I had been shooting in this room, something at that moment looked particularly familiar.  I lined up the far chandelier and the window, and it looked so familiar.  When I got home that night, I opened my laptop and found the Widelux picture of Nixon’s final speech to the staff.  I’d been in almost the exact same spot forty years before.  It had somehow burned itself, that perspective, into my memory.  And in a way I felt my own sense of relief, reassured that as good or bad as any one President might be, there is still enough momentum and mojo in the system to right itself.  For two hundred years people have been watching events in the East Room, and I am happy to have been one lonely camera for the last forty. 

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