Elisabeth Bumiller outside the White House

Photo by Doug Mills

Elisabeth Bumiller (J77) did not get the job she signed up for. When she came to Washington, D.C., as a White House correspondent for the New York Times Sept. 10, 2001, she expected to report on a domestic-minded president, a conservative former governor with a desire to cut taxes and stay out of foreign affairs.

The next day, that all changed.

On Sept. 11 Bumiller came into the Washington bureau of the Times a little after 9 a.m. to see one of the World Trade Center towers in flames on TV — a plane had hit the building, just blocks away from her old beat at New York City Hall. News reports showed New Yorkers fleeing downtown in a panic as police and firefighters rushed to the chaotic scene.

Next came a rumor that the White House was being evacuated immediately. Bumiller did the first thing that came to her mind — she rushed to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., just two blocks from her office. As she neared the White House, Bumiller saw hundreds of people fleeing the building in a frenzy. White House security and district police, on high alert, wouldn't let her near the entrance.

Amid the confusion Bumiller followed her instincts — she interviewed White House personnel on the sidewalk. As staff members nervously paced outside the gates waiting for answers, Bumiller scribbled in her notebook, jotting down details, reactions, anything.

She saw the second plane hit the other tower in a fiery blast on a tiny monitor that a White House staffer held in her lap on the sidewalk. What had at first appeared to be a devastating accident now was clearly a terrorist attack. On her second day as White House correspondent, Bumiller was witnessing a national emergency.

The next day President Bush did a 180 — and so did Bumiller's job description.

"I signed up for a different presidency," she says. Suddenly, an administration that had been slow moving, with the president spending many of his weekends at his ranch in Texas, had to turn its attention to Afghanistan and al Qaeda.

"Pre-9/11 [the Bush administration] wasn't thought of as a big presidency," Bumiller says. "In fact [the administration] became completely the opposite. It was relentless, around-the-clock demands. It hasn't stopped, actually."

Since Sept. 11 Bumiller has followed the president from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to international summits in Jordan and St. Petersburg, Russia.

A Reporter's Roots

Bumiller started writing about politics at the Daily Northwestern her junior year in 1975. As a Medill School of Journalism undergraduate, Bumiller covered Associated Student Government meetings.

"Elisabeth was a star even at the Daily," says longtime friend Geraldine Baum (J77). Baum, a New York-based columnist for the Los Angeles Times, says that Bumiller always put work first. Baum remembered how on their last day at the Daily in June 1977, a big story on tuition hikes broke. While the rest of her colleagues were cutting loose and celebrating graduation, Bumiller sat at her typewriter, back straight, finishing her story.

"She was always flawless, sentence after sentence of copy," Baum says. "And she filed before she had fun."

Born in Aalborg, Denmark, to a Danish mother and American father, Bumiller moved to Cincinnati when she was 3. Even at a young age Bumiller excelled at writing, and by high school she was reporting for the Walnut Hills Chatterbox, her school newspaper.

Not much has changed. She still puts work first and remains passionate about writing. In her three years covering the White House, she often has been critical of the administration, writing pieces on a presidency that has been especially tight-lipped with the press.

"Reporting is an oasis, and White House reporting is a pretty dry desert," says colleague and competitor Dana Milbank, the White House correspondent for the Washington Post. "Bumiller has a nice anti-authority streak, and she doesn't suffer fools."

Most famously Bumiller took a critical eye toward the now-notorious "Mission Accomplished" speech President Bush delivered on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. Two months after sending troops into Baghdad, the president donned a flight suit and flew in a U.S. Navy S-3B Viking onto the Lincoln beneath a banner that read "Mission Accomplished," to announce the U.S. victory in Iraq.

On the carrier before the Lincoln's cheering crew the president said: "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

The next week Bumiller portrayed a different picture in a front-page story on the speech. She wrote: "George W. Bush's Top Gun landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history."

In the story Bumiller explored the efforts of the president's staff to positively influence the media and the public with carefully planned press events. She reported how at one event White House staff used masking tape to conceal "Made in China " imprints on boxes to promote American patriotism.

This type of reporting, Bumiller says, sometimes causes waves between the New York Times and the White House. However, Bumiller refuses to relent. "It's a contentious relationship," she says. "Our intentions are not the same here, and this administration is especially hard to crack."

Part of the Press Corps

It's before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Bumiller gathers with a handful of other reporters for the daily briefing in the White House pressroom — a cramped space in the West Wing with wide windows and stained carpeting that carries a faint aroma of stale pizza and gourmet coffee. There's a podium against the familiar background, a light blue velvet curtain and the White House seal.

Already rumors swirl about the day's news. The talk is about Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser and the presumed replacement for Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Promptly at 9 a.m., White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan steps to the podium to outline the day's schedule. The president will hold a press conference at 12:30 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room to announce a Cabinet appointment.

Bumiller, dressed in a tailored brown-tweed blazer and skirt, takes her assigned seat in the second row. She sits, listening intently as McClellan speaks, her legs crossed and chin resting against her left arm. The minute McClellan opens the floor for questions her hand is in the air.

"What will appointing Dr. Rice mean for the future of the State Department?" she asks. "Does the State Department need shaking up?"

McClellan didn't mention Rice during the briefing, or the State Department for that matter, but that doesn't deter Bumiller.

McClellan refuses the bait. "I am not going to engage in speculation from this podium," McClellan says with a faint Texas drawl.

Apparently Bumiller will have to wait until this afternoon for answers.

After the briefing Bumiller heads back to her office in the heart of downtown Washington.

The bureau does not resemble the newsrooms shown on TV or in movies like All the President's Men. There are no loud exchanges between reporters, no fighting over cartons of old Chinese food, no explosive phone calls or the mad clicking of computer keys.

The newsroom is almost dead silent. There's a quiet mumble of reporters on the phone, talking to sources, and the occasional exchange between writers.

Bumiller stops to chat with news editor Greg Brock, who outlines her assignment for tomorrow's paper — a front-page profile of Rice. Brock shows her the Washington Noon List, the budget of stories coming out of the bureau for the day.

On a given day there are between 12 and 25 pieces written in the bureau. It's been busy the last few weeks in the aftermath of the election as the executive branch reshuffles its leaders.

In between compiling the Noon List, Brock is keeping an eye on a tiny TV screen mounted from the ceiling. As Bumiller and Brock talk, the news changes by the minute. At first, CNN reports that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has resigned. Moments later Brock says the wire report might not be true. (Thompson did resign from his post Dec. 3, 2004.)

Bumiller and Brock decide on a word count for her story. She picks up the day's papers. She always reads the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to stay on top of the news. She also reads the International Herald Tribune, owned by the Times, which runs her "White House Letter" column on Mondays.

Bumiller also keeps tabs on her e-mail, which is brimming with more than 1,000 messages. Many are from the White House press office. She looks at the week's itinerary sent out by the administration. The president has no public events scheduled for the next two days.

"When there are no public events, that usually means there's something cooking," she says.

Next Bumiller is off to meet with Philip Taubman, the bureau chief, in his large corner office that looks out on downtown Washington.

"Think of this as an ambitious piece," Taubman says. "Who is this woman and what is she going to do as secretary of state? Can she look at foreign policies in different terms? Is she going to push policy in a new direction?"

Bumiller takes careful notes, head nodding. "The first term was about war and confrontation, and it looks like the second term will be about diplomacy and engagement," she says.

This will be a tough assignment.

Yesterday was an easy day, reporting on Colin Powell's resignation, a 1,600-word story about his tenure and accomplishments. "It's easy, it's news," Bumiller says. "Just cut to the chase, cut and dried."

The Times has three White House reporters who split up the stories for the week. Yesterday David Sanger wrote the analysis on Powell. Today it is Bumiller's turn to analyze.

She will use what she calls "the outside-in" reporting method. She will talk to people outside of the White House: people on Capitol Hill, in the Department of State, Republican pollsters and Washington insiders. Only then will she ask questions of the White House.

"I think people think I expect handouts, that they think my job is to listen to what Scott McClellan says at the briefing every day and then put it in the paper. That's not my job," Bumiller says. "You talk to these large concentric circles outside of the White House, and you do it every time, no matter what."

Nicolle Devenish (GJ96), assistant to the president for communications, says that despite their occasional differences, she respects Bumiller. "Elisabeth was a tireless hunter of color and detail that we were often reluctant to share," Devenish says. "But in the end I think we learned to understand each other, and more often than not we were able to come to a middle ground on most stories."

The next day Bumiller's article appears on the front page next to a picture of Rice, smiling at the podium. The article is a close examination of the thought processes and daily life of the new secretary of state.

Bumiller writes: "Ms. Rice still packs her lunch many days as a way of avoiding the expense and calories of the White House mess. She rises at 5 a.m. to run on the treadmill that she keeps in her sparse Watergate apartment, is in the office before 7 a.m. and is in bed by 10 p.m."

The Politics of Style

Bumiller got her introduction to Washington after getting her master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1979. Just weeks before graduation she found a note in her mailbox: Sally Quinn, Style reporter for the Washington Post and wife of Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, wanted Bumiller to call her.

A faculty member at Columbia had recommended her to be the new party reporter for the Post Style section. And while Bumiller had set her sights on a more serious news beat, she wasn't about to turn down an offer from the Post.

"The Post was the most exciting paper in the country at the time," Bumiller says. "It was a great experience, and I met everybody in town."

Bumiller treated this assignment as more than a society reporter job — it became a political beat, as well. Night after night she would slip into a black dress she kept in the office and rub elbows with Washington politicians and socialites. Between dances and cocktails Bumiller would press Washington decision-makers for the latest details on policy decisions. Then she would run back to the office, black dress in tow, to file her story by the 10:30 p.m. deadline.

"I wasn't just writing about flowers and dresses," Bumiller says.

"I tried to get some news out of it."

As party reporter she wrote in-depth pieces on President Reagan's staffers, including White House Press Secretary James Brady and Secretary of State George Shultz. She also followed first lady Nancy Reagan to Princess Diana's wedding in London.

In her profiles Bumiller dissected the psyche of Washington decision-makers. She wasn't just interested in policy, she wanted to know how political players act behind the scenes. She wanted to know what time they woke up in the morning, what they ate, their hobbies. To this day Bumiller writes profiles this way, writing about everyone from Karl Rove to Rudolph Giuliani in a way that is intimate and revealing.

It wasn't all work and no play — Bumiller was also falling in love with Steven R. Weisman, then-White House correspondent for the New York Times. She originally spotted Weisman at Columbia when he was a guest speaker, and the two met while covering a fundraising party for Jimmy Carter in fall 1979.

In 1983 they were married. Two years later Weisman was offered the job as chief of the New York Times' New Delhi bureau in India. From there, Bumiller continued to write for the Style section of the Post. She also embarked on her first book, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons (Ballantine Books, 1991), an examination of daily life for women in India. Every day Bumiller would get up and set a goal of writing 1,000 words.

"It requires a lonely discipline to write books," she says. "In a way the discipline I have now is forced upon me. Writing a book is a more demanding form of writing."

In 1989 Weisman became Toyko bureau chief for the Times, and they moved again, this time to Japan. Bumiller gave birth to a daughter, Madeleine, continued to write for the Post and started a second book — this one, The Secrets of Mariko (Vintage, 1996), about a Japanese woman in Tokyo.

In 1992 the couple moved back to New York after Weisman was offered the job of deputy foreign editor for the Times. In New York Bumiller gave birth to their second child, a son named Theodore.

In 1995 Bumiller became a metro reporter at the Times, dropping her resistance to working at the same newspaper as her husband.

"I liked being a general assignment metro reporter a lot because I loved New York City," Bumiller says. "I had more freedom in those days, and I liked just having the whole city to write about."

In fall 1999 Bumiller was promoted to City Hall bureau chief. She covered the Giuliani administration and his bid for the Senate. He dropped out of the race against Hillary Rodham Clinton after learning he had prostate cancer. She says those days were like a soap opera, with both candidates' lives under a microscope. She continued to write, including her work as one of three contributors to the "Public Lives" column, which profiled officials in New York City.

Then in 2001 Bumiller was offered a promotion to White House correspondent. This time, her husband followed her. Weisman is now the senior diplomatic correspondent for the Times.

Bumiller never expected to cover the White House or to return to Washington. However, it shouldn't have come as a surprise. Former Times White House correspondents Todd S. Purdum, now a top reporter in the Washington bureau, and Alison Mitchell, now deputy national editor, were City Hall bureau chiefs in New York before moving to Washington.

According to Times Washington bureau chief Taubman, Bumiller's reporting abilities make her stand out. "She is a terrific, fearless reporter with a great instinct for good stories and writes with flair," he says. "She's assertive in her reporting and stirs up a lot of good stories."

Now her biggest problem is getting information from the Bush administration. "It's always hard to cover the White House," she says. "Any White House does not want to tell you what's going on. It's just harder to get information out of [this administration] than other recent White Houses — Republican or Democrat."

The press only gets limited access to the president and even more restricted communication with Vice President Dick Cheney. Last summer and fall, New York Times reporter Rick Lyman was banned from Cheney's plane because the vice president was unhappy with the Times' coverage of him. To this day Cheney remains vocal about his distrust of the newspaper, calling its coverage of the 9/11 Commission "outrageous" and "malicious."

According to Bumiller's colleagues, she does not bow to pressure from the White House. "This White House is so good at not leaking information that we're all sort of in the same boat," the Post's Milbank says. "We're both working for the same purpose — to provide information to the public domain, and she does a good job of it."

The key is perseverance and a refusal to give in. "At every press conference I stand up every time and ask a question," Bumiller says. "No matter what."

Rebecca Zeifman (J03, GJ04) is an editorial intern at Men's Health magazine and a freelance writer in Emmaus, Pa.

Did you enjoy this story? If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.


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