When George Met Gerald: Harrison, Ford

When PBS got a couple of White House photographers to talk about the special that premiered Wednesday, ““National Geographic Television presents The President’s Photographer:  50 Years in the Oval Office,” naturally the subject of celebrity meetings came up.

The Nixon photographer wasn’t there to talk about Elvis’ bizarre meeting, but David Kennerly from the Ford Administration was there to talk about the day George Harrison drove up with Billy Preston and Ravi Shankar while they were on a 1974 U.S. tour.

“I’m not sure if he knew that much about the Beatles,” Kennerly said of his boss, “but he and George Harrison got along fine.

As he recalled it at the TV critics’ press tour last summer, “Ford gave him a WIN button about Whip Inflation Now, which was really one of the stupidest campaigns on the face of the earth, for those of us who had to take pictures of it every day, and then George Harrison gave the President the Omm button, and that’s what he was wearing.

“I’m sure President Ford had no idea what it was,” Kennerly said, “ but he wore it anyway.”

Of course, there was some YouTube footage of the occasion (and the main question from reporters is the same old one: Do you think the Beatles will ever get back together?).

The job of White House photographer is only about 50 years old.

“Up until LBJ, the photographic duties were carried out by the military. And they had very little access,” Kennerly says “They were sort of standing by, waiting for somebody to invite them in. And JFK brought in a lot of outside photographers. Some of the best pictures you see of JFK were taken by Jacques Lowe and Stanley Tretick and George Tames and all these different civilians, outsiders.

“And then LBJ hired [Yoichi] Okamoto, who was a USIA photographer,” he says. “And Oki really opened up the doors in the presidency and mainly because LBJ, out of probably a sense of maybe ego and history all combined, let Oki take all his photos.”

Nixon was sort of the opposite and shut down access.

“The night that President Ford became President, I was at his house in Alexandria, and he asked me to stay and talk about that. And he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to take this job, how would you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, there’s just two things I would need: to work directly for you and to have total access.’ And he was kind of puffing on his pipe, and he said, ‘You don’t want Air Force One on the weekends?’ ”

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