By Jeffery Whitfield
She works under tremendous pressure for long hours and often hears of readers who complain that the newspaper she writes for dramatically leans in liberal or conservative directions. But that's all part of the job for Elisabeth Bumiller, a White House correspondent for The New York Times.
“My first day on the job was Sept. 10, 2001,” said Bumiller, who works with two other reporters to cover the White House.
“That was my first and last quiet day (working) on location.”
Ensuing confusion was sparked by the bombing of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and Bumiller and other reporters were flown to New Jersey to survey the damage in Manhattan.
“We could still see ... smoke billowing from the World Trade Center,” she said.
The catastrophic event, a hallmark of President Bush's first term, was one of several Bumiller has covered, though since that time she primarily has covered news from her Washington D.C. office.
Speaking to a packed auditorium of more than 300 at Clayton State University, Bumiller described what it was like to report about the White House. Attendees traveled from schools and universities from throughout the Southeast to attend the event, part of the American Democracy Project, which is sponsored by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities South Conference and The New York Times.
Bumiller began by acknowledging that the Times had been scrutinized for scandals in recent years, but spent the majority of her 30-minute talk emphasizing that people should watch as President Bush deals with issues during his second-term.
“As most of you know, it's been a period of turmoil at the paper for the last few years,” she said.
Bumiller said that those working at the Times were relieved that an often stormy relationship between the newspaper and former reporter Judith Miller recently had ended. She has known Miller since the 1980s.
“We're all happy at the paper this has been resolved a few days ago,” she said. She declined to further comment about the matter.
Miller, jailed for 85 days for refusing to testify in a CIA leak probe, left The Times last week as part of a severance deal. She had been publicly assailed by Times editors and columnists for her actions in the case and for her reporting on weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq war.
The war in Iraq has been an issue that Bush has been forced to grapple with, particularly after the president was elected for a second term last year, she said.
“Behind the scenes in the White House the pieces had to be picked up,” she said, adding that U.S. relations had to be mended with European nations who did not agree with the Iraq war.
Another goal Bush has promoted is endorsing the spread of democracy across the world, Bumiller said.
“The president clearly believes in democracy,” she said.
The good news for the White House, Bumiller said, was that democracy was spreading via elections being held in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But in some instances voters in those countries have elected candidates that U.S. officials may not like, she said.
“There's a lot of potential for more tension and more violence,” she said.
Other countries have resisted Bush's call for democracy, Bumiller said, citing questions raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin about American government at a meeting with Bush in Slovakia.
“The point is that Democracy is messy and there are many types,” Bumiller said.
White House officials also are concerned about the stability of democratic governments elected in several South American countries, she said.
“The administration is worried Latin American might slip into authoritarian regimes,” Bumiller said, adding that social justices promised in those countries under democratic governments have not materialized.
Bush could also visit India in the near future, she said.
“India is the world's biggest democracy. It's been messy and violent, but it has worked,” Bumiller said.
Concerning scandals the White House is facing over the leak, Bumiller said officials were “in sort of limbo” after Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff was indicted by a grand jury last month for obstruction of justice, making false statements and perjury. Libby resigned on Oct. 28.
“The last couple of weeks at the White House have been some of the worst they've been through,” Bumiller said.
She said any potential changes with White House staff would be made in mid-December or January.
“It's not been a boring beat,” Bumiller said.
Bumiller's talk drew the largest audience ever to attend an event at the Clayton State's Harry S. Downs Center. The previous record was about 250, who attended a debate between Neal Boortz, a conservative talk-show host based in Atlanta and Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Dr. Sharon Hoffman, Clayton State University provost and vice president for academic affairs, said representatives from 19 institutions from throughout the Southeast attended the talk.
Bumiller was named correspondent for The New York Times in 2001. She has also been City Hall Bureau Chief in New York City for the Times and served as a reporter for the Metropolitan staff from 1995 to 1999.
Before joining The Times, Bumiller worked for The Washington Post as correspondent in cities around the world such as New York, Tokyo and New Delhi. She was also a reporter for the style section of the Post at its Washington D.C. headquarters. Bumiller also is the author of several books such as “May You Be the Mother of A Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India,” published by Random House in 1990.
Bumiller received a bachelor's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1977 and got a master's in journalism from Columbia University in 1979.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.