A White House farewell letter

Elisabeth Bumiller tells all. Or not.

Published June 5, 2006 4:55PM (EDT)

Elisabeth Bumiller is wrapping up her run as a White House correspondent for the New York Times, and she marked the occasion with a bit of reminiscing over the weekend. The headline over her piece -- "The White House Without a Filter" -- suggested that Bumiller might finally be ready to burn some of the bridges she's spent five years building.

We should have known better.

Bumiller begins her look back by remembering 9/11 and reminding us all that she was just "steps away when President Bush grabbed the bullhorn" a few days later at Ground Zero. She ends her piece by complaining that, while Time's reporters got to interview the president at his compound in Crawford, she had to make do with a cinderblock dressing room underneath a stadium in New Mexico.

In between those bookends, Bumiller offers up a catalog of complaints about the hardships facing White House reporters: The daily televised press briefing is useless, the travel schedule is brutal, and readers complain that you're too ideological. On this last point, Bumiller offers just one example: a "furious letter" from a Bush supporter who said she had tried to make Bush look bad.

Looking for something a little more substantial? Well, Bumiller says that it's a "misperception" that Bush is a "personable guy." Of course, Bumiller has helped foist that "misperception" on the reading public with pieces like this one, in which she said that it's "striking" how much Bush "actually likes getting out and asking people for votes," and this one, in which she said that Bush, as the owner of the Texas Rangers, "reveled in going into the dugout and joking with the players, many of them Hispanic, in fractured Spanglish," and this one, in which Bumiller was so focused on the president's good-natured ribbing of himself at the recent White House Correspondents' Association dinner that she apparently forget to mention Stephen Colbert at all.

So how is Bumiller setting the record straight now? She recounts a story she has told before about Mark McKinnon, Bush's campaign media advisor, and she tells a new one about her own telling "little encounter" with the president. Finding herself unexpectedly face-to-face with Bush in the Rose Garden one day four years ago, Bumiller said: "Hi, Mr. President. What are you doing here?" He "testily shot back: 'What are you doing here?'"

That's the whole story.

In a White House that operates so often in secret, maybe that's as good as it gets in five years on the beat. But you get the sense that there are stories that Bumiller could tell if she wanted to. She says that Laura Bush once "excoriated" her for "something I had written in the last paragraph of a story that you need a St. Bernard to find in the paper." What was it? Bumiller doesn't say. She says that Karl Rove "got so mad" about something she'd written that he threatened to put her e-mail address in his spam filter. What got Rove angry? Bumiller doesn't say.

Bumiller says that Scott McClellan once got after her "every day for a week" in an effort to get her editors "to correct a factual error." She says that McClellan was "acting like a terrier" because "one of his superiors was on his case." What was the error? Who was the superior? Why was the White House so upset? Did the Times ever correct the mistake? We'd be interested in knowing, but Bumiller doesn't seem interested in telling.

Maybe this isn't Bumiller's last word on the subject. She's off to write a book about Condoleezza Rice, and maybe we'll finally get the rest of the story once she's done. In the meantime -- and so long as old and oft-told stories are the order of the day -- allow us to remember some of Bumiller's own words as we wish her happy trails. Asked why she and other White House reporters didn't question George W. Bush aggressively during a press conference in the run-up to the Iraq war, Bumiller once said: "I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you're standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country's about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."

If we're looking for an epitaph for Bumiller's White House tenure, that one is probably as good as any.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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