Bethesda Interview: Elisabeth Bumiller
The New York Times’ Washington bureau chief talks about how the job has changed under President Trump, and more
I first noticed Elisabeth Bumiller’s byline in the early 1980s, when she was a young reporter covering parties for the Style section of The Washington Post. Now 62, she is the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, and over a recent lunch she told me the story of how she started with the Post. She was about to graduate from Columbia Journalism School in New York City when she got a note to call Sally Quinn, then the reigning monarch of Washington feature writers and the wife of Post editor Ben Bradlee.
“I called Sally and she said, ‘Let me explain to you why this job covering parties for The Washington Post isn’t so terrible.’ And I said, ‘What?’ ” Bumiller laughs. “They were looking for a reporter to cover Washington parties, and I had been recommended to them because my first or second week at school I had gone to the assistant dean and said, ‘We should have a party. All the students are very nervous and uptight.’ So I had gotten $300 from the dean to throw a party, so that was why they recommended me.”
Her classmates at Columbia derided her for accepting such a frivolous job. “Are you kidding me?” Bumiller says. “It was 1979, it was five years after Watergate. I mean, The Washington Post was the most exciting paper in the world. Parties were an extension of the working day in Washington. I would go up to White House people and members of Congress and ask them about the news of the day. So the idea was to have newsy elements in the story, plus a sense of irreverence. And that’s what I did.”
Bumiller’s colorful family background includes a touch of journalistic royalty. Her parents met on a ferry in Denmark. Her father was an American architect who had decided to make a film about traveling around the world in a Jeep. Bumiller’s mother “was a very attractive Danish woman, and they ended up spending the next three days together and she got pregnant with me,” their daughter says. Her parents eventually married, a year after Elisabeth’s birth, and settled in Cincinnati, her father’s hometown. Meanwhile, Bumiller’s uncle, Frank Cormier, married to her father’s sister, was the chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press. “Uncle Frank was a big deal. He traveled with the president, and he’d ask the first question at White House press conferences. He was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot, so we knew Frank had a very exciting job,” she recalls.
Bumiller joined the staff of The Chatterbox, the school paper at Walnut Hills High School. “I just loved it,” she says. “I learned about what was going on at the school, I liked seeing my byline, it was just totally fun. And that’s why I applied to Medill [the journalism school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois], where my uncle had gone.”
Between Northwestern and graduate school at Columbia she spent a year working for the Miami Herald in Naples, Florida, and when Sally Quinn called, Bumiller already knew a lot about the Post. “I had been reading The Washington Post Style section while I was in Naples because, inexplicably, the little coffee shop next to the Miami Herald office got the paper,” she says. “So I would go there and read the Style section over my tuna sandwich every day, and I was already a big fan.”
We were enjoying a fancy lunch of octopus and salmon, not tuna sandwiches, but we were sitting only a few blocks from the old Post headquarters on L Street in Northwest D.C., where Bumiller’s journey started 39 years ago. Over several hours she told me the tale of that journey—covering the parties of the Carter and Reagan years; marrying a New York Times reporter in 1983 and following him on assignments to India and Japan; returning to New York in 1992 and getting hired by the Times; moving back to Washington in 2001, settling in Bethesda and covering the White House. Today, Bumiller runs a bureau of 60 reporters and editors for a paper that President Donald Trump regularly denounces as “the failing New York Times,” and she recently starred in The Fourth Estate, a Showtime documentary series about the Times’ coverage of the president.
How did you meet your husband, Steve Weisman?
Steve was then a White House correspondent for The New York Times. I met him at a party that we were both covering. A year before, Steve had talked to my class at Columbia. I remembered him being very self-deprecating and funny, so I introduced myself [at the party] and said, ‘Oh, I remember you.’ And he said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and so nothing happened. And then that spring of 1980 I ran into him again in Georgetown and we had a short conversation and he said, ‘I’ll give you a call. Let’s have dinner.’ Anyway, he never called. So in April of 1980—he hates this story, but I’ll tell it—I called him and just said, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’ And that’s how we got together.
Tell me about your career at the Times.
I became City Hall bureau chief in ’99 and covered Rudy Giuliani and his midlife crisis: his aborted [Senate] race against Hillary Clinton, his leaving his wife, his prostate cancer. It was a soap opera. And then in 2001 the Times offered me the White House job. At that point I had moved to Japan and India for Steve, so we moved back to Washington for me.
What was it like covering Giuliani?
He was an extremely combative, very tough mayor to cover. One time I wrote a story about real estate in New York, and it said Rudy had not promoted building as much as he said he did. He went crazy. I was covering a speech he was giving the day the story appeared, and he went after me. He denounced the story—it sounds like nothing now, it was pre-Trumpian—and he denounced me by name in front of this huge crowd. That was pretty stunning for me, but in retrospect it was a forerunner of what happens now.
Why did you settle in Montgomery County?
Our kids had been in private school in New York and it was really expensive. I knew about the great schools in Montgomery County, and a friend had told me, ‘You should live where my sister lives, and that’s Westmoreland Hills.’ So Teddy went to Westbrook, a great elementary school, and Madeleine, who was in middle school, went to Westland. And they both went on to B-CC [Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School].
Are either of your children interested in journalism?
Neither of them. Teddy is working on a Ph.D. in math and Madeleine is the first mate on a tall ship in Mystic Seaport, Connecticut.
What were the perils of being married to a fellow journalist?
Steve started covering the State Department, and that was a little close because I was covering the White House. There was only one time we wrote a story together, and it resulted in one of the biggest fights of our marriage. It was the run-up to the Iraq War in the early part of ’03. I had a story about a development at the U.N., and Steve had a story out of the State Department, and they combined them at the end of the day. My contribution was the lead because it was the White House, and Steve was really angry. I remember he said to me, ‘This story is not wrong, it’s just stupid.’ And his name was on it, too. That was really bad. We never did that again.
Why did you move into management?
By the time I became an editor, I had been at the Times [for] 18 years and there was nothing left that I really wanted to cover. Dean Baquet [now executive editor of the Times] had been bureau chief for four years, and I saw how much difference one person can make. One person.
In what way?
In terms of morale and in terms of shaping stories, helping reporters. And I also saw how much pleasure he got out of it. I just thought, that looks like a really rewarding important job. So that was when I put my hand up, and a year later I became a deputy on the desk in charge of the White House reporters and domestic policy. I liked feeling a part of putting out The New York Times every day. You have more of a sense of that when you are an editor.
When did you become bureau chief?
2015. When I first became bureau chief, I used to joke that my best training for the job was raising two irascible teenagers, which is very insulting for everybody involved—the kids and the bureau.
But accurate in both cases!
This is going to sound really stupid, but I had been the parent organizer for a very large Boy Scout troop in Chevy Chase that was 75 Scouts and 150 parents, and that was actually very good training in tact and diplomacy and moving people along and organization.
How did raising two ‘irascible teenagers’ help prepare you for the job?
I didn’t always do this as a mother, of course, but you need to remain calm when they are upset and try to talk them through it and not get super engaged in the emotion of the moment, right? Stay above it. Work them out of it. Reporters are very passionate, and it’s a highly stressful job, and it’s more stressful than ever now.
Tell me how life has changed under Trump.
Well, it has drastically changed. The hours are much, much longer, and it’s totally unpredictable. And the pressures on us are just really intense. Also, in the middle of all this, the Times has changed dramatically into a digital-first operation. So we are filing now all day long. We are sort of AP and The New York Times all rolled into one. Now we have an editor and a reporter coming in at 6 a.m., and we have the night team there usually until midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. So the bureau is basically operating close to 24 hours. We have six White House correspondents now—when I was covering the White House, it was just two of us. What’s also changed is that we are much tougher about calling out falsehoods from the president. In the old days you would say, ‘the president said this, but Democrats said this.’ We don’t do that anymore. And we have a full-time fact-checker, as well, who writes fact checks almost every day. She is kept very busy by Trump.