MUSINGS FROM THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL · IIWASHINGTON, D.C. November 15,1996
With the campaign of '96 now history, just a few notes looking back. . .
For those photographers who had covered the '92 Clinton campaign, looking forward to his run for reelection was regarded with the same enthusiasm as a visit to the dentist for major periodontal surgery.
Given the President's penchant for campaigning twenty hours a day, most of us who were covering the White House had prepared our wills in advance, and were jealous of our colleagues covering Bob Dole, who managed to push the envelope with a maximum of two cities a day and in bed by sunset.
In fact, the Dole campaign was so relaxed that staffers seemed to spend most of their time figuring out pranks to play on TIME photographer PF Bentley, who for all effects and purposes had the Dole coverage wired.
The first move was to fill PF's hotel room with balloons after the convention . . . now I mean FILL, as in hundreds of balloons to the point where PF could hardly open his door.
A week or so later, PF came back to his room late at night to discover that it had been turned into a "jungle" . . .somehow the staff had rounded up over 200 plants . . . from towering ferns to creeping vines . . . there were make-believe birds of various feather, and all over the floor were toy alligators and creepy crawlies.
Ten days later, PF staggered into his room, unloaded his cameras from his shoulders at the end of a long day, undressed and headed for a hot bath. As he pulled back the shower curtain, he saw his bathtub filled to the brim with goldfish . . . hundreds of them.
The final act came early in October. After opening the door of his tenth floor hotel room in Wisconsin, PF smelled something "earthy." When he turned on the light, there surrounded by bales of hay, in the middle of the room stood a live cow. In consideration of the hotel, the Dole staff had thoughtfully covered the carpeting with plastic bags.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign, confident with the weekly poll numbers carried on a pace more reminiscent of Ronald Reagan.
With three and four-day down periods in places like Chautaqua, New York, and Albuquerque to prepare for the debates, the White House press corps found themselves comparatively well rested.
By the last week, the Dole campaign made their 96 hour non-stop drive to the finish line. Actually, most of the press thought the odyssey had more to do with the fact that the staff couldn't get their schedule figured out in time to make hotel reservations.
For the photographers on the Dole plane, those last five days became one long continuum of travel through time and space. They would deplane at three in the morning to do an event in a bowling alley in the Midwest, then two hours later get back on the plane that had been totally blacked out, and snooze to the next destination.
Sparked by TIME's successful exclusives by PF on Dole and Diana Walker on Clinton, everyone started to ask for exclusive time to photograph the candidates. In the last weeks, the White House managed to rotate through David Kennerly for Newsweek, Paul Hosfros for the New York Times, Frank Johnson for the Washington Post, Bill Luster for the Louisville Courier Journal and the wires.
On the Dole side, PF helped other photographers to get access that resulted in a bunch of nice snaps that actually managed to go beyond the rally photo ops.
By the end of the campaign, the ranks of the traveling White House press had been bolstered by an army of photographers who descended on Little Rock for the finish.
At this point, Hollywood producer and FOB Harry Thomasson who we can all credit with the Travelgate fiasco, managed to take what should have been a visually definitive conclusion to the campaign and turn it into a nightmare for the photographers.
The first thing he did was to banish the pool from the normal "buffer zone" that allows the photographers to work close in to the stage. Because he did not want to "see photographers" in what he envisioned as a "movie." He put the main camera stand more than 300 feet away, across the street from the state house. The photographers who had to shoot with 600 mm lenses with telextenders called it "Memphis."
There were two small "pods" set on the rear of the state house lawn, some 100 feet from the stage that could accommodate about half a dozen photographers each. Unfortunately, they were on ground level, totally surrounded by people standing on the lawn. Finally minutes before the event began, the photographers were given permission to use their ladders, provided that they stand on no more than one rung above the ground. They were no sooner given that permission when one of the television producers bolted through the crowd, demanding they lose their ladders because they were "in the shot." At that point, David Burnett offered the producer $500 if he could show him a picture of the photographers amidst the thousands of people in the crowd on tape.
About the same time, Thomasson's emissaries were trying to make TIME's Steve Liss pull his strobes that he had spent three days with White House help placing in trees surrounding the stage.
Steve held his ground, thankfully, because those strobes turned out to be crucial in shooting the TIME cover.
Thomasson had lit the scene as "a moonlight night in the South," with soft dappled light on the state house. Unfortunately, he then lit the stage four stops hotter than the background, so all that subtle lighting was never seen by the camera. To make things worse, he lit the part of the stage where the first family was to stand two stops hotter than the podium, then to make things even more difficult, they swept the Clintons and the Gores with "trouper" spots, resulting in the exposure swinging through a three stop range within seconds.
In other words, they did everything possible to defeat good photography.
As it turned out, David Kennerly had managed to cut a deal that would allow him to be the only photographer in what would normally have been the pool buffer zone (not that David wanted it that way . . . this was Thomasson's choice), and he wound up getting the lead in Newsweek with a shot that should have been open to all the photographers in the pool.
Looking back on the campaign of '96, I think a few years from now we will see it as the last time film was widely used to cover this big story.
The use of Digital that started with the wires, quickly spread to the major newspapers, and I have no doubt that with the improvements in cameras and technologies on the way (Canon's new version of the EOS DC due out early next year will have a 2 million pixel file) magazine and photo agencies will be making the switch.
The conventions, the campaigns, and the Olympics have traditionally been the point at which major changes have been introduced in the way we work, and the campaign of '96 may be the precursor to the greatest changes of all.