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From AJR,   August/September 2006  issue

Covering the Bush White House   


By Andrew H. Vanacore
Vanacore is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Elisabeth Bumiller, former White House reporter for the New York Times, has been called a "left-wing conspiracy-monger" and a George Bush "lapdog." For Bumiller, who got her start at the Miami Herald before joining the Washington Post and then the Times, the criticism is "just part of being at the New York Times these days." As she took a leave to research a book about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bumiller sat down with AJR's Andrew H. Vanacore to discuss her beat and her paper. An edited transcript follows.

As a White House correspondent, you're competing with a lot of other top journalists to cover the same office. How do you find unique stories to write?
One of my early White House Letters was about how the president would use the word "fabulous" all the time "This is a fabulous military." "We're going to make fabulous history together, Putin and I." I went back and did a check because of the White House Web site you can actually go and do a search of the word fabulous and you could see he was using it for everything. So I did a funny piece about how the president was using this word. All it takes is one little idea and you can spin it out.

The Times is often accused of a liberal bias. There's an entire Web site devoted to pointing it out.
About our liberal bias, yeah. And there are also Web sites devoted to pointing out how conservative we are. It's just part of being at the New York Times these days. The Internet is part of the whole polarization. It's just part of the noise right now.

Where did the idea for your weekly column, the White House Letter, come from?
It came from Howell Raines actually, the former editor. I had just been on the beat a few months and the Times had that special section, A Nation Challenged. In that section Howell Raines decided there should be some columns out of Washington, so I started writing the White House Letter on Mondays.

What did you think of Howell Raines as an editor? In a recent interview he accused the Times of complacency.
I've never talked about this because we were all friends in Washington. He and my husband [New York Times international economics reporter Steven R. Weisman] covered the White House together in the '80s.

Was it a difficult episode?
Yes. I don't agree with Howell's view that the paper is complacent. I just have never talked about this. It was very painful. I had been a big supporter of Howell an old friend of Howell's. And it was just a terrible thing that happened.

How did you have to adapt your coverage after 9/11?
It was a completely different job than the one I signed up for. I thought we were going to be worrying about tax cuts, education policy. All of a sudden I had to learn about terrorism and Afghanistan. By the fall of 2002, there was the run-up to the war in Iraq.

How was that to cover?
It was horrible. It was confusing. It was a hard time because the story was breaking on so many fronts. There would be developments all over the world. The run-up was pretty terrible. It was so unclear where it was all going.

Did you ever feel as though the White House was trying to manipulate the press in order to sell the war?
There had been all this talk in August of 2002 in Texas, in Crawford. [Former National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft had written a column saying, "Be careful about going to war in Iraq." There was a sense that a lot of Republicans were warning the President about war in Iraq, and it kind of got out of the White House control that month. And then they came back to Washington in September, and they started right away talking about the threat of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. So I asked [former White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card about what had happened in August and his response was, "You don't start marketing campaigns in August." So, yeah. They obviously were trying to sell not just the press but the public on the threat.

What are your thoughts on Judith Miller, who has defended her coverage of weapons of mass destruction?
The Times has spoken eloquently on this. Rather than focusing on the mistakes that were made, which were made, by the way, by a lot of other papers, you fix this with good journalism, and that's what we've done. Look at our Iraq coverage. Look at the NSA story. That's how you move on.

Would you go to Iraq?
Yeah, I think I'd go to Iraq.

The Times has had some openings there recently.
Oh, I wouldn't go work in the bureau. I've got two kids!