"The Best Job I've Ever Had"
Meet Philip Wegmann, White House Correspondent
As a young journalist, my ambition to become a White House correspondent was fairly keen. It was thrilling to imagine peppering the President of the United States of America with questions and calling truth to power. One too many viewings of All The Presidents Men probably did not help. I would be the next Woodward or Bernstein. My career took a different path, first with international reporting, then into my first true love: books.
Still, I’ve always been fascinated by the jab-and-duck-and-strike of White House briefings, the theater of it, the dramatic promise of news being broken on an errant reply, or a bold-faced statement that sets the wires humming. Recently, I had been corresponding with Philip Wegmann, the White House correspondent for RealClearPolitics, about one of my books, and I asked him if he’d be up for a profile of his work. He enthusiastically—and generously—agreed.
On most days of the week, Philip mounts his 1981 Honda CB750C, a motorbike classic, and makes his two-mile journey from his Washington DC apartment complex to the White House. At thirty years old, he is one of the younger correspondents, and as far as he knows, the only one to arrive at work astride a motorcycle.
Raised in the small town of Woodburn, Indiana, he was home-schooled, then attended Hillsdale College, a Christian liberal arts institution that states on its website that: “Learning, character, faith, and freedom: these are the inseparable purposes of Hillsdale College.” As for his own purpose in life, Philip was uncertain. He admits to falling into his career, thanks primarily to a pair of extraordinary classes with journalism professor and National Review political reporter, John Miller. “It was more fun than a human ought to have,” Philip says.
Out of college, his first job was as a radio producer for Ben Domenech, the co-founder of The Federalist and a frequent commentator on Fox News. “There were some hops, skips, and jumps along the way,” Philip says, but he eventually landed at the Washington Examiner shortly before the 2016 election. His boss was Tim Carney, the newspaper’s senior political columnist. “Tim was a hard-nosed money and political reporter. Yes, he was conservative, but what he was pushing me to realize was that no one cares what your opinion is when you're 24 years old. They only care about the facts that you can bring to bear. And so that gave me an opportunity to do a lot more reporting than editorializing.”
In 2019, Philip jumped again, this time to his present gig as a White House reporter for the political news site and polling aggregator RealClearPolitics. There, Philip explains, “You’re going to see pieces from the left and the right. If there’s a piece from the WSJ editorial board, you better believe there’s as close to a rebuttal on that topic as you can get. As a reporter, my goal has been not to worry if a story is red or blue, but to simply go after the very best one.”
With that, here is my Q&A with Philip….
Walk me through an average day in the life of a White House correspondent.
Remember college? When you’d cram constantly for papers and tests? It is a little like that, only it won’t stop, and you never know your grade because everything is pass/fail and the semester doesn’t end until you are fired or promoted, poached by another outlet, or retired.
It is the best job I’ve ever had.
Most days everything is anchored around the briefing, and you cut your day in half from there. If the press secretary comes out at noon, you’ve got four or five hours to cram.
For me, that usually means reading as much news as possible--New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but also the Atlantic and National Review, and then whatever is popping up on Twitter that at all involves the White House. Shameless plug here: RealClearPolitics reads a lot of the internet so you don’t have to. The front page vertical includes the best links from the left and the right. It is a great cheat sheet.
I keep cable news on in the background but these days I don’t pay too close attention unless there is an interview with a member of the admin. My theory of the case: Anything on television has to be in print somewhere first.
You read other things too: Financial disclosures, lobbying reports, White House visitor logs, etc.
The goal here isn’t to pass some written exam at the end of the day. It is to get a sense of the news cycle, and then try to know what you don’t know as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, you are calling and texting and emailing sources on the Hill, in the administration, and around town to check your understanding of where things stand and where they’re headed. Even when they don’t go on the record, sources can be helpful guides. But everyone has an incentive, and people sometimes lie.
You keep this routine up constantly, but after a few hours, I usually have a good sense of what I’ll ask the White House press secretary. And obviously, when you get a good tip, you drop everything else to focus only on it. The idea is to go from questions to leads to a written story.
With roughly a dozen prepared questions, I leave my apartment. My motorcycle is my pride and joy. Splitting lanes, I can get to the White House across town in about fifteen minutes.
Karine Jean-Pierre [the current White House Press Secretary] is pretty ecumenical and makes a good effort at taking as many questions as possible. But the room is packed with a lot of other reporters who have just as many questions as you. Everyone is collegial but also pretty territorially cutthroat. The currency is obviously new information. You don’t get that unless you get access. The networks and wires and big papers, they eat first. The front row always gets called on. I’m in the fifth row from the front.
You have to hustle, or you’ll get overlooked. No one likes a try-hard. No one pays reporters just for participation either. I constantly raise my hand to get Karine’s attention. During a good week, I’ll get three or four questions at the daily briefing.
Once the briefing wraps, you take the answers you’ve got and reevaluate. At this point, everything the press secretary said is public. You don’t have a scoop then and there, but you can use her answers to follow up with other sources and pull the thread a little more. Hopefully, that leads to a scoop or a unique story.
That’s the general flow with source meetings thrown in here or there. Nobody meets in parking garages. Sources generally just want you to buy them coffee or a drink. Most weeks there are a couple of television and radio interviews too. You want to be as omnipresent as possible so that the White House knows that you will be covering the news with or without their participation. That way they are more likely to take your calls.
Then, if you’ve hit on something good, you write as quickly as possible. That is usually in the afternoon and sometimes late into the evening. Then, you file, hoping that your editors like your story and hoping that you wrote something that matters for more than 24 hours.
What’s your goal in a typical press briefing?
More often than not, I'm trying to supply something that isn't being provided by the rest of the room. So, if the rest of the room is focused on one topic, that's fine, but I want to move the direction toward something that might have been missed. Or if the rest of the room is asking about one topic from the same angle, then I'm going to try and take a different angle. Maybe that leads to a more conservative line of questioning or a more progressive line of questioning. But at the end of the day, it just makes the briefing more diverse and therefore, more interesting. Because the thing I hate more than anything else is just the same question, eliciting a different version of the same answer. It's a total lack of imagination. That’s what I'm trying to solve.
For decades, a posting in the White House pool could be considered the ‘crown jewel’ of journalism. Is this still true?
Journalism isn’t easy but it isn’t exactly labor intensive either. Reporters aren’t breaking rocks or scooping coal in a mine somewhere. We sit in air-conditioned offices and talk to politicians about pretty interesting topics. This job is pretty leisurely. Sometimes White House reporters forget all of that. They let themselves get lost in the glamor of occasionally being on TV.
Don’t get me wrong, the White House beat is very cool. You’re in the center of everything. But a lot of the back-and-forth in the briefing room can become performative with correspondents showing off for their colleagues and editors and friends who also carry New Yorker tote bags.
From what I’ve heard, it didn’t use to be this way. Live cameras in the room are a relatively new addition (Clinton’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, let them in and lived to regret it). It used to be more relaxed and collegial (my editor used to litigate disputes with the press secretary over a bottle of scotch).
I’m not sure if this is an answer to your question, but my goal is to ask questions that either no one else in that room has thought of, or the question that people from back home would ask if they were there. For a while, I had a mullet.
Telescoping into the more recent past, how have things changed as a correspondent from the Trump-to-Biden administration?
If the Trump White House was the wild west, and it was, the Biden administration is a polished, professional DMV. They don’t leak unless it is part of a larger strategy. They will play ball, but it can be bureaucratic and slow. The Biden administration, at least in the way they handle the press, knows what they’re doing. It is a different kind of challenge.
For me and a lot of other young political journalists, our consciousness was shaped by Trump and the fact that you never had to wonder what was on that guy's mind, because you could wake up and read his Twitter feed, or you could catch him in between the White House and Marine One. And he was an open book. So was that the best thing for small R republican government, maybe not. But it was great for journalism because it was no holds barred, and the access was fantastic, especially those pandemic briefings at the White House. It is always a big deal to get a question into the president, especially with Biden. He is more insulated and less accessible than Trump. But I've been extraordinarily lucky, and I've been able to ask him about a dozen questions at this point. But with Trump, he would walk into those pandemic briefings, and you wouldn't just get one question, you would get two or three. And these things would stretch on for more than an hour and a half, sometimes two hours, so much so that by the end, you weren't asking about this once-in-a-century pandemic, you were asking about just crass politics and political punditry. It was just impossible to keep up with him.
From what I’ve read, you’ve been yelled at now by two Presidents. Care to elaborate?
Every time you ask them a question, and especially if they don’t like the angle you’re taking, your stomach tightens, and your palms sweat. He’s the leader of the free world, and you’re the reporter who got into journalism because you got lost on your way to law school.
But in moments like those, you’ve got to remember that you’ve got a job to do, and your job is to hold their feet to the fire, and if they don’t like it, too bad.
Now, Trump lost his temper with me during the pandemic when I asked him about his claim that medical supplies were being stolen and sold on the black market. The acting AG later told me they hadn’t seen any evidence to back that up.
Biden also lost his temper with me and sort of insinuated on live television that I couldn’t read. There are a lot of things I can’t do and can’t do well, but c’mon man! I can read.
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What excites you about your work?
I love the craft of it. I love the competition. You know, journalists went through this terrible self-important phase, right, where you have the New York Times saying that truth matters now more than ever. Bullshit. Truth is objective. It didn't change. There's not more of an emphasis on it because of who is in power. During the previous four years of the Trump administration, yes, the circumstances were different. Yes, it was extraordinary. But as journalists, you’re supposed to be calling balls and strikes. The strike zone isn’t supposed to change by inning or who's at bat. And so yeah, we certainly overplayed some of this rhetoric that journalists were firefighters and keeping democracy safe, making sure it didn't die in darkness. But then, at the same time, it's important because if you do this job, right, then what's been done in the dark will come into the light. Sometimes you can really nail these guys to the wall, and you're not just doing your job, you're not just attracting readers, but you're doing something worthwhile, and occasionally, things change as a result of stories.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I’ve had a job as long as I can remember and one with a W2 form since at least ninth grade. But college is expensive, and if there was a scholarship for school, my mother found it. I can’t even remember half of them, but I wrote hundreds of essays about just about everything. Writing became a necessary evil.
I always loved the news though. My dad listened to Rush Limbaugh at the office. My mom always put NPR on in the car. Our family subscribed to two papers, the Journal Gazette and the News Sentinel. I remember a lot of Jim Lehrer as a little kid, but at the time, I preferred Peter Jennings.
For whatever reason, I never thought about journalism. Other than getting to college, I didn’t really have much of a plan. I had already given up on engineering school (it was too expensive). I wasn’t interested in becoming a doctor. People seemed to respect lawyers. So that became the goal. Thank God, it fell through.
Once in college, during Christmas break with an ex-girlfriend’s family, I made an off-hand comment about how much fun being a reporter would be. Someone replied, ‘you have to go to journalism school for that.’
I didn’t listen. I never went to journalism school or wrote for the college paper. I’ve been gainfully employed in journalism since 2015.
As a White House reporter, you’re sometimes invited to be on TV. How do you draw the line between punditry versus your role as a journalist? Is it a different part of your brain that you’re using at those times?
It's a little different. The way reporters get away with a lot of this is by offering analysis. And analysis covers a multitude of sins. In the past, when I was an opinion writer, it was really easy to do TV because you could just say: this is how things currently are, and I’m here to tell you how they ought to be. Now, as a reporter, you've got to stay in your lane and make certain that the analysis that you're giving is a good snapshot of the current situation and potential outcomes—and you’re offering both sides of the situation. I hope I've done all right.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career?
A journalist told me once that if you want to go down Broadway Avenue in New York, you don't go down Broadway. You don't do what is ostensibly the obvious thing? If you have a question, yeah, you can ring up the White House press secretary's office and say: I've got a question…do you have an answer? But that doesn't work. Instead, you have to find a way where your interest aligns with theirs and extract the story. Obviously, you want new information. And sources are either trying to avoid consequences, or they're trying to put their boss in the best light. So you have to give them a reason to work with you.
Maybe you want to go down Broadway Avenue, but you don't actually get on Broadway and drive the entire way. In the same way, you don't go to a source with an empty tin can in hand and say, ‘Please may have some news?’ You try and create a reputation where you call sources, and not only are they eager to get back to you, but they think to themselves, alright, well what does this person know? I’ve got to call them back to figure out what they know before they go with their story.
The other piece of advice comes from Tim Carney [senior political columnist of the Washington Examiner]. It is an indisputable fact that anytime the federal government is getting bigger, someone is getting richer. Someone sees their opportunities, someone's taking them. Therefore, there are plenty of chances to look for graft and cronyism. This job is a lot of fun, but it comes with privileges and responsibilities. One of the responsibilities is not to go along with business as usual. When you see cronyism, when you see pay-to-play, you better call it out, even if it's so usual that maybe people don't think it's news.
What do you think of the White House correspondent’s dinner?
I bought a tux, and I learned how to tie a bow tie. I’ve worn the black suit three times now, but every year, I forget how to tie the tie.
Tell me about traveling with the President.
RealClearPolitics is part of the in-town travel pool. So if he moves anywhere inside the city, and we have pool duty that day, we are there. But no international travel for me. I rode on AF2 once.
After an interview, I asked Vice President Pence if they had any ashtrays I could have as a keepsake to give my parents. I didn’t get a souvenir but I did get a laugh out of the VP.
Finally, what’s with the motorcycle?
My Dad is a motorcycle guy. I’ve had one since my freshman year of college. We take rides together, also with my kid brother. It’s the definition of cheap thrills. As for my Honda, it’s all analog. If you run into a problem, you don't have to worry about a sensor going bad or the fuel injectors not talking to the computer. It's all just a machine. At this point, my motorcycle is 40 years old. Someone else has already had the problem that you've had. So there's a shop manual;, there are forums; there are YouTube videos to figure out how to fix it. It makes life a little bit more of an adventure because then you're not just commuting.
Hope you enjoyed this insider’s look at the White House press room. We’ll talk again in a week. As always. Same time, same band, same place.
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