A Campaign Frozen In Time: Photographer Reflects On Covering Bobby Kennedy

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A group of Robert F. Kennedy supporters 1968 in Los Angeles.

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

 

It’s unlikely that David Kennerly’s most famous photographs could be recaptured today.

That’s because 50 years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and his colleagues covered the Robert F. Kennedy campaign under far more relaxed circumstances.

Photography has always been inseparable from politics, with the image of presidential candidates inextricably tied to their message. But over the years, as security around U.S. politicians has tightened, photographers are no longer allowed the intimate access they once had.

In 1968, New York Sen. Kennedy had entered the race late after the New Hampshire primary, and, less than three months later, was assassinated in June, at the age of 42.

Kennerly takes us back to what it was like on the ground, during a turbulent era of American politics.

One photo of his in particular embodies the unique relationship between front-facing politicians, the press and the public.

Leading up to the California primary, Kennedy had just touched down in Los Angeles. Coming out of the plane, the presidential candidate is seen with just one security aide, William Barry, his personal bodyguard during the campaign.

“Even seeing the pilot coming out of the window — everything about that photo is so period,” Kennerly says.

“It gives you an idea of sort of the constant melee that was a Robert Kennedy campaign back then. Everybody could get close, everybody wanted to.”

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during a campaign event at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix in 1968.

David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

 

This was just four and a half years after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who at the time had been riding in an open-top limousine in Dallas. More recently, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated during the Bobby Kennedy campaign in April.

Still, David Kennerly says the lack of ample security detail around presidential candidates didn’t make him nervous.

“We still hadn’t gotten to that point despite the fact that JFK was shot — where security had just taken over everything.”

In fact, that exposure he had to politicians was what made his job fun.

“[The distance created by security] cuts back on the fun, free-for-all kind of aspect of a campaign.”

Though not as common, Kennerly says photographers can still catch glimpses of Washington’s underbelly today.

“In these campaigns, even now — like in New Hampshire before people get traction, and get close to a nomination — you can still have these kinds of moments, believe it or not.

United Press International had assigned Kennerly to cover the campaign from Los Angeles, where he’d been working at the time. After covering Kennedy’s campaign stop in New Mexico, Kennerly says he was supposed to board the senator’s Arizona-bound plane. But as a 21-year-old journalist, Kennerly was turned away at first.

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