Elisabeth Bumiller’s tenure as the White House correspondent for The New York Times did not get off to an easy start after her first day on the job, Sept. 10, 2001.
“Days after, the White House shut down,” she said. “There was a near-complete lack of information being released to the press — [President George W. Bush] told his staff that leaking information could endanger someone’s life.”
In a lecture titled “Shock, Awe and Battle Fatigue: Covering the Bush White House,” Bumiller described reporting on what she called “one of the most secretive administrations in history.” Roughly 60 people — only about five of whom were Yale students — attended the lecture in Rosenfeld Hall.
Even before the “shock” of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bumiller said the Bush administration had been secretive because Bush distrusted the press and “blamed it for his father’s loss of office.”
“The White House has set a troubling standard for secrecy,” she said. “I worry that future administrations will look at this White House as a model that has worked fairly well.”
Bumiller credited the success of the current administration in part to the president’s “genius” in interpersonal relations.
“The White House is awesomely good at what it does,” she said. “The political skills of the president and his handlers are unparalleled.”
Bumiller also repeatedly said that President Bush is truly in control of the White House.
“He is very much the president,” she said. “No one who covers the White House thinks Cheney is the president — [Bush] makes decisions. He calls a lot of the shots.”
Finally, Bumiller talked about the “battle fatigue” of her assignment.
“It’s a burnout kind of beat,” she said. “There are obvious downsides: too many ‘The president said today–‘ stories, too much pressure from the editors. It’s one of the hardest jobs at The New York Times.”
Yet despite these difficulties, Bumiller said she enjoys her work.
“I like my job because what I write about is very important,” she said. “It’s a first draft of history.”
Audience member Robert Wechsler, a New Haven resident, said he was surprised that Bumiller did not present many of her own opinions in the lecture.
“I was struck by how much it sounded like anyone talking about their work,” he said. “But she was more careful about being critical than I expected.”
New Haven resident John Gaynor said he had expected the lecture to include more “behind-the-scenes stories.”
“I thought there might be more ‘shock,'” he said. “She was very laid-back.”
Tamara Micner ’07 said she found the lecture informative because of the speaker’s unique point of view.
“I thought it was cool to get an insider’s perspective on how the White House works,” Micner said. “I was actually surprised at how much the president controls because everyone thinks he’s this dumb puppet, but he actually does more than people tend to think. I thought it was really interesting because we’re in a very tense time right now, so I think hearing about what’s happening at the front lines is important.”
In the future, Bumiller said, she would like to accompany Laura Bush if the first lady goes to Afghanistan. And though she may be suffering from “battle fatigue,” Bumiller said she plans to stick with her beat for another year.
“I’ll stick it through to the election,” she said. “The election is a logical time for people to switch jobs.”
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