While I was away, I wasn't able to pay attention to the Threats and Responses stories that carried Ms. Bumiller's byline, along with Richard Stevenson's or Philip Shenon's. Michael, at Reading A1, did a good job watching them. I was able to read the wacky 3.29 White House Letter about the glamorous Ted Nugent and Crawford Texas. And, of course, I read the most recent White House Memo about the return of National Mommy, Karen Hughes' to the right hand of Dear Leader. But what really got my attention was a March interview of Ms. Bumiller by Martha Joynt Kumar, which I found via Dan Froomkin's column at the pro-war WaPO. Finally, some questions are answered.
What's the role of the press?
We play a really important role in trying to ferret out what’s really going on in the government. My role is to dig underneath the official pronouncements and speeches and Press Conferences and try and tell my readers what is the motivation, what is the White House really doing? What are our elected leaders really doing behind the public facade?
On the Communications Policy of the WH:
I think there’s a real aversion in this White House to talking about anything human about President Bush. The president doesn’t like it. And I struggle with this all the time because the stuff I write is often more personal and more connected to Bush the Man. And they just hate that stuff. The president hates it for whatever reason even if it’s positive. So I think that as a result of their communications policy, ... the public doesn’t get a sense of how Bush acts as president. He’s a much more engaged, active president than a lot of the public thinks. But there’s so little of that that comes out because it’s such a rigid message every day. I think it hurts them in that way. They wouldn’t agree with that, but that’s what I think.
At last, the reason for the White House Letters:
Howell Raines got the idea to fill pages in A Nation Challenged section as the war was winding down. Would you like to write this thing for A Nation Challenged? After the section stopped, they said do you want to keep it going?
How does Ms. Bumiller come up with story ideas?
I try and do stuff that's topical, that's off the news. I realize it's important real estate in the New York Times. It's in the back of the A section but it's still the New York Times and so I feel like I've been given this space. It's there no matter what, I mean, that's a great honor in a way in this business and so it better be good. So I better impart information. It better be stuff that is interesting that I work to get and not just me sort of yammering on about something. I feel it has to have value. A lot of times I kind of wait to see how the week is shaping up. Sometimes I do it if there's a theme for the week. Last week it was obvious it was Time. This week it was Bush getting into the campaign. Sometimes I do it on a person. It's hard to do 800 words, but I do it.
On her performance during the CBS/NYTimes DemCan debate:
I was told by CBS and NYTimes to be very aggressive and to interrupt. We don't want to hear their stump speechees anymore - we want this lively, we want this NY.
I would NEVER do that in a press conference. I mean, you just would be excoriated and it wouldn't be about the president. It would be about you.
There was such tension and anger in the country right before that war started and it all came out on us.
I think we were very deferential because in the East Room press conference it's live. It's very intense. It's frightening to stand up there.
I mean think about it, you're standing up on prime time live televsion asking the President of the United States a question and when the country is about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening and I think it made, you know, nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this serious time. It had a very heavy feeling of history to it, that press conference.
Is there confusion about what role the press has? People criticize the press in a sense as if the press is the opposition. So that in a lot of ways the BWH has benefited from not having a very effective opposition for a large part of their presidency.
Right, I mean now there's less of that obviously because they've got a really strong opposition in Kerry, but yes, especially for the war. John Kerry voted for the war. Congress was largely behind the president for that war. So people who were angry about the war felt that ... they beat up on us: "Why aren't you stopping this?" It's not my role. [My role is to dig underneath the official pronouncements and speeches and Press Conferences and try and tell my readers what is the motivation, what is the White House really doing? What are our elected leaders really doing behind the public facade?] Believe me, I've seen what happens when you come on too strong with a politician on television.
All the major decisions are being made by Bush, and when I say that people are stunned. But remember, he learned at the knee of Lee Atwater, the take-no-prisoners political operative for his father. But do I think that the president is concerned that people don't know who he is? No, I don't think he is.
Most reporters at the White House like the president, I mean personally. It's impossible not to and when I say this to Democrats they get all upset and angry. You know he's very Clinton-like in his charm and in some ways, you know one-on-one, he's in some ways better than Clinton because he's in a funny way more humble, you know, personally. Maybe he doesn't really think that, but when you meet him, he's a very gifted politician. There's no question about it. And in crowds he's terrific too - big rooms, big crowds, he's one of the best I've ever seen. And he's only gotten better too in the last couple of years.
When you talk to him it's like talking to a normal person. Another problem I have is he was my husband's classmate at Yale. So he's my husband's age. Not that I ever forget that he's the president. So he's also more familiar than he might be. Not that they were very good friends or anything.
I have a few problems with all of this. First, Ms. Bumiller is obviously confused about the role of the press. There was considerable opposition to the war before it began even if it was mostly to be found beyond Capitol Hill. It doesn't wash to say that the press had no recourse because the Dems didn't provide adequate conflict to give them ready-made stories. It's been said accurately that the press ignored their responsibility to, as Ms. Bumiller says, dig underneath the official pronouncements and speeches and Press Conferences and try and tell their readers what is the motivation, what is the White House really doing. She describes a group of frightened people who are so intimidated by live television and the office of the presidency that they didn't want to report another, legitimate side of the story because it would have interfered with the history BushCo wanted to write. Even though she was only addressing the one press conference, she could have been referring to the press' posture during the entire March to War.
Secondly, I'm not sure how Ms. Bumiller can believe that the White House doesn't want information about Bush, the Man in the press. It's their trump card as we slowly and painfully learn exactly how badly Team BushCo is running the country. It's possible that I'm confusing the constant stream of personal information that presents him as an everyman of deep faith, who despises the economic and intellectual elite with some other kind of personal information. But even if that's true, we've heard how tightly controlled this White House is. So, where is Ms. Bumiller getting the information that leads to such illuminating columns as "Running on a Campaign Trail Paved in Comfy Feathers"? Are we to believe that every bit of personal information related in that column, from his big feather pillow to his confusion with a television remote control, wasn't White House approved?
The White House Letters. I've been struggling for months to understand the point of the White House Letters. Ms. Bumiller says in the interview that she understands that her column takes up valuable NYTimes real estate and so, therefore, must impart information. It must be something she works to get and be of value. But in the couple of weeks after that interview the White House Letters and White House Memos that she wrote were:
3.15 It's 10 O'Clock. Do You Know Where Your President Is? In Bed., which Prof. Kumar said was a good piece that looked at BushCo's time management. I thought otherwise.
3.22 Shrinking the Glamour Gap in Texas, One Celebrity at a Time, a vapid comparison of Sen. Kerry's retreat, which is described as a "celebrity playground" and BushCo's Crawford, which is described as "fast becoming a bedroom community of Waco, 18 miles away, where more and more Crawford residents work. By Mr. Judy's estimate, only a quarter of Crawford students live on farms. The rest are the children of firefighters, police officers, teachers, college professors and accountants who commute to Waco." How very Rockwell.
3.18 White House Memo: Bush Glad to be in the Campaign Fray and Not Above It , which claims that although a big advantage of being president is that you don't have to answer attacks from the opposition personally, BushCo is truly happy to be able to get down in the dirt and roll around and around and around, much as a pig would in slop. Although that comparison isn't made.
4.1 White House Memo: Trusted Aide's Memoir Lifts Curtain a Bit, which, except for the mention of a cynical Presidential fundraising trip just after signing McCain-Feingold, is a standard campaign appearance/book pitch for Mrs. Hughes. We learn from Mrs. Hughes' book that BushCo "was such a decent and thoughtful person, a person I would trust to make a decision for my own son or husband if I couldn't, because I knew he would listen, think it through and do the right thing."
I don't see a lot of valuable information imparted via that NYTimes real estate, unless I look from the perspective of the White House, which must have been happy to have their man portrayed over and over again as a regular guy who is strong, in charge, compassionate, unrelenting, happy, optimistic, and even an acceptable surrogate wife and mother for Mrs. Hughes' family. The United States has two mommies.
During that same time period other issues came up around the president. There was the question of the growing credibility gap, the reports from Paul O'Neill and now Richard Clarke of the dangers of BushCo's questionable management style, the growing list of flip flops that this president has authorized, the 9/11 widows reaction to the testimony before the 9/11 panel, the dropping of Mr. Raimondo, Jobs Czar. The National Guard issue is still unresolved. The medicare infoganda ads - who authorized those if BushCo is making every decision related to the campaign? What about the campaign ad with the 9/11 footage in it? Why does BushCo only speak at non-union shops? What happened to the non-leak policy at the White House? The Plame investigation has expanded; let's here about that.
This obvious lack of balance wouldn't be a problem if the NYTimes offered similar coverage to the DemCans while they were running or to Sen. Kerry now, but they don't. I'll post about that later. I don't know if it's the editorial policy of the paper to run these puff pieces for Team BushCo or if it's a function of how much Ms. Bumiller likes BushCo herself. From the interview:
"When you talk to him it's like talking to a normal person. Another problem I have is he was my husband's classmate at Yale. So he's my husband's age. Not that I ever forget that he's the president. So he's also more familiar than he might be. Not that they were very good friends or anything."
What can you say to that? I'm at a loss. As I said, Prof. Kumar thought that the WHLetter about how BushCo spends his time was a good look at an important issue. For the sake of argument, let's say it was. But when you put it in the context of all the White House Letters and Memos since the beginning of the year, it's hard to defend them as objective or valuable to the population at large. And I can't imagine that Ms. Bumiller needed to dig too deep to get quotes like, "He likes campaigning, and he likes combat," said Charles Black, a consultant to Mr. Bush's campaign. "He doesn't like sitting back and taking a lot of punches from anybody. It took a lot of discipline the last few months for him to do that."
He's one of the best Ms. Bumiller's ever seen.