Alumni Q&A: The New York Times’ McCain campaign reporter

Nomaan Merchant

Elisabeth Bumiller, a 1977 Medill graduate, has been covering Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign for The New York Times since the primaries. Before that, she was a White House correspondent for six years. Bumiller answered questions for The Daily recently between campaign stops.

The Daily: Describe a typical day in the life of a reporter covering a political campaign.

Bumiller: I can do today, Oct. 31. I’m (on) the second day of an Ohio bus tour with Sen. John McCain. We’re rolling somewhere in central Ohio. I was up until the small hours of this morning at a dinner with McCain’s campaign staff and some other reporters in Youngstown. The staff was pushing the argument that the campaign’s internal polling shows McCain closer in the battleground states than do the public polls; reporters were very skeptical. I got up at the Comfort Inn in Youngstown at 6:30 a.m. today for bag call at 7:30 a.m. There was lots of serious highway noise from outside my door all night. We’re on the second day of a bus tour across Ohio. First stop was a rally at a high school in Hanoverton, second stop was Steubenville on the border of West Virginia, third stop was a high school football field in New Philadelphia. We’re now rolling on the press bus toward Columbus, where McCain has a rally with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. We then board the campaign plane for a flight to Williamsburg, Va. I think we get in about 10 p.m., although we’re running an hour behind schedule. Monday we’re going to be in seven states before landing around midnight in Arizona so McCain can vote on Election Day in Phoenix. I’ve been filing all day for the NYT Web site and Caucus Blog, and now I have to get my act together to write a story by 6 p.m. or so for the newspaper. Only problem is that the Schwarzenegger event is at 6 p.m., and it looks (like) there will be no time to file before we board the plane.

Q: What do you enjoy, and what don’t you like, about being a political correspondent?

A: Despite what I just wrote, I actually like these last frantic days of a political campaign. For one, I know it’s almost over. But you also (see) wide swaths of the country, football games, pep rallies, gorgeous fall scenery, the raw emotion of two men giving it their all and American democracy up very close. I know it sounds hokey. I do not like the hours, the time away from my family, deadlines and struggling to create interesting stories out of sometimes very routine days. Also, I do not like bus bathrooms.

Q: You’re in a unique situation as the McCain correspondent for The New York Times. Sarah Palin is referencing Times articles in speeches one day and slamming the paper the next. How does working for The Times make your job different from the other correspondents in the pool?

A: All the correspondents are under a microscope, but The New York Times is sometimes under the microscope a little bit more. I’m really careful about accuracy, and I’m especially mindful not to say anything in public that could be construed as engaging in a back-and-forth with the McCain campaign.

Q: In March, you and McCain engaged in a heated back-and-forth about discussions he had with John Kerry in 2004 regarding the Democratic ticket. What’s going through your head as you’re pressing McCain (or afterward)?

A: My main concern was to hold my ground but remain polite and appropriate.

Q: During your time at Northwestern (1973-1977), you covered Associated Student Government for The Daily. Are there any lessons you learned from covering ASG that apply to the White House and the campaign trail? (This is meant to be kind of a joke question.)

A: Actually, I don’t take it as a joke question at all. I learned a lot working for The Daily. One thing I distinctly remember from my ASG beat: There was a senior officer with ASG who had been accused of improprieties, although I can’t for the life of me recall the details. There were hearings about the matter that I covered. In one hearing, I quoted the senior officer in a way that I knew in my heart was slightly out of context, but I didn’t think it would matter that much. Well, doing it that way made the senior officer look worse than he should have. Afterward, he called me on it, not in anger but in disappointment and hurt. I felt terrible. To this day, when I’m struggling to put a quote of someone in context, I still think of it. I have never, ever done that since, or at least not in any way that was intentional.

Q: What’s been your favorite story to write this campaign, and why?

A: I think it was McCain’s tour of America’s “forgotten places” this past spring. The stories didn’t get much play, but we went to places I have never been before on a Republican political campaign – Selma, Ala., the town in Appalachia where LBJ declared his war on poverty, and the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Q: What are your plans after Nov. 4? Are you heading back to the White House, or are you getting as far away from Washington as possible?

A: I’ll be taking some time off and then will be covering the Pentagon.