Off the Cuff with Peter Baker, Commencement Speaker and Chief White House Correspondent for The New York Times

Chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, Peter Baker, delivered the 2021 Commencement address.

Courtesy of Peter Baker

Chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, Peter Baker, delivered the 2021 Commencement address.

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. Before joining The New York Times, Baker spent 20 years at The Washington Post writing about U.S. politics. He has covered five presidencies and is currently working on a book about former President Donald Trump with his wife and collaborator Susan Glasser, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Baker gave the Commencement address at this spring’s graduation ceremony and received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

First, I was curious to hear a bit about how your job has changed since the inauguration in January.

Well, I sleep more. The job is not as all-encompassing as it was under President Trump. When he was in office, your day could start at 5:30 in the morning with his first tweet and go until midnight with his last. You never knew what was going to happen at any given time, so it was completely unpredictable. Biden is a more conventional politician and more predictable. He’s not going to put things out at 5:30 in the morning — that’s just not what conventional politicians do. He’s not going to put things out at midnight unless there’s some real reason to.

I’m also on leave at the moment, writing a book on Trump with my wife, Susan Glasser. So I’m not as involved with Biden right now in the coverage as I will be again in the fall when I go back. I’ve known Biden for years, and I know what the paper’s doing, and it’s a very different kind of environment.

Trump is a different kind of politician than we’ve seen in recent years — a lot of the work that you have to do as a journalist is not just analyzing his political motivations, but also his emotional motivations. How much do you have to think about psychoanalyzing him as a person as well as a politician?

All politicians get psychoanalyzed by reporters, but there’s no question that with Trump in particular it’s important to think about his psychology to understand the way he looks at the world — understand his motivations, understand his goals, understand his actions. He is more impulsive than a typical politician. He is less calculating than the typical politician. He doesn’t stick to the script. If he decides in the spur of the moment that something is the right thing to do, he’s going to do it. Which is both aggravating to the political culture, which wants a little bit more predictability, but obviously at the same time, challenging to journalists to try to both keep up and try to figure out what’s really going on and what’s behind it all.

We were always asking ourselves the last four years, “Is this strategy or is it an instinct? Is this something that we should try to figure out the hidden plan here?” Or is it just, “He saw something on TV and decided to drop a bomb out there because that’s what he does.” More often than not it was the latter, I think, although there were certainly times it was the former. But we learned you couldn’t try to evaluate him or judge him as a conventional politician because he isn’t.

I imagine that analyzing Trump’s motivations must have been challenging — something you’d have to do very carefully. 

Yeah. It’s probably not a good idea for reporters to practice psychology without a license. I mean, again, we do it all the time. It’s not unique with Trump, but we do it a lot more probably with him. And I think the way you do that as a reporter is through the old “tried and true method,” which is to report — to talk to people around him, talk to people who understand him best, and get from them the best factual background and best analytical background that you can.

And we’re not the only ones who’ve made a practice of psychoanalyzing this guy — so were his own advisors, as well as his adversaries. Enormous amounts of energy were spent over the last four years trying to delve into the psyche of this one man and figure him out. So from our point of view, the best thing is to tap into those people who understand him best and get them to help explain him.

The role of media and journalism has come under a new sort of scrutiny and critique over the last four years, a lot of which was driven by Trump himself. I’m curious if increased polarization and all of this discussion of fake news affected the way that you report stories and the way that you think about journalism.

Yeah, no question about it. The media is always criticized and often rightly, or understandably at least. We do make mistakes. We are not perfect robots. All reporters are biased because reporters are human beings. The question is not whether we’re human, the question is what we do about those biases? How do we try to put those biases to the side and follow the facts, follow our reporting, follow the research — not just what our preconceived ideas are?

And the last four years have been particularly challenging, obviously because the assault on the media was more systemic rather than targeted at a particular story that a president didn’t like. Every president hates the press. It just goes with the territory, and I get it. But what we’ve seen the last four years goes beyond that because the whole enemies of the people thing and the whole fake news thing is intended to discredit the very idea of a free press. Not a particular story that the president might dislike or think is wrong, not just a particular news organization which a president might think has been unfair, but the very idea of an independent medium. “Don’t believe them, believe me.” And there’s something very pernicious about that obviously. The very phrase “enemies of the people” harkens back to Stalinist Soviet Union and to the worst of the French Revolution. It evokes the idea that there’s something unpatriotic about questioning authority, when, in fact, it’s the most patriotic thing you can do.

So it’s been hard, and it’s been hard because we don’t want to be the opposition to the president or any president, because that’s not our role. He wants us to be that, and ironically, so do his critics. They wanted us to be his opposition too, and that’s not our role. Our job is to be independent. Our job is to be ruthlessly fair and factual and balanced and fact-driven. Even when we do analysis, the analysis should be rooted in reporting — not personal opinion. He would accuse us of being out to get him; his critics would accuse us of normalizing him or not standing up to him.

The media has gotten it from all sides over the last four years and finding our place — finding what we want to do based on our historic values while performing what we see as our societal mission of speaking truth to power and helping readers understand what’s really going on — that’s been a huge challenge, and I think it’s been an existential issue for the media.

I know a lot of people struggled this year with not being able to disconnect from the news while stuck at home, quarantining. I was curious if you have strategies to unwind and take a break from news and politics.

That’s a great question. I think unwinding would be a really healthy thing to do and I think I should start doing that. [Laughs]

It’s hard, and it was particularly challenging the last four years. I think it’s a little easier now. I saw NBC did a poll and they interviewed a guy who said, “One thing I like about Joe Biden is that I don’t have to always think about Joe Biden.” I do think there is an exhaustion factor over the last four years where a lot of Americans and reporters would like to think about something other than politics from time to time.

I read a lot of books. I really try to check out for a while and read books. Some of them are about current events and Trump or Biden or whatever, but a lot of them are history. I’ve been reading a lot of Lincoln for some reason the last few months. I’m not sure why, just happened to be, but I’ve read about eight or nine Lincoln books. There’s something healthy about that, because it reminds you that our country’s been through tough times before and we survive and we come through it and we hopefully make the country better. History, I guess, is something of an escape. 

What is it like to be back in Oberlin?

It’s great. I love Oberlin. Oberlin is a wonderful place, and it was a great time in my life in large part because I worked for The Oberlin Review, which was this all-consuming passion and helped start me on my way. I think, for a lot of people, Oberlin is a chance to test ourselves, test our ideas, test our beliefs, and test our convictions — that’s what makes us special. 

Why did you leave Oberlin after two years? 

I was not a good student. I worked too much at the Review when I probably should have gone to some more classes. Oberlin and I agreed that I should take a little time off in order to get my head on straight. I thought it’d be a year, maybe two, turned out to be 35, but here I am: I’m back!

I know it’s a cliché and I hate to repeat all the clichés, but you do learn from failure. You learn about yourself and you figure out how to do it better. I always did think I would come back and finish in some way. It was always sort of this thing in the back of my mind. Obviously that’s a little impractical at this point, but Oberlin was a great place for me. The line I’m going to use in the speech tomorrow is “I may not have gotten a degree here, but I got an education here.” Oberlin is a transformative place for a lot of people for a lot of reasons and it was for me too. 

What was the Review like when you were here? 

It was just an independent group of young people who were out to find the story — out to find what was going on. And that was just amazing to me. It was just amazing that people would allow us to ask rude and impertinent questions — hopefully not too rude — but to really challenge the conventions and then to print it. 

We take that for granted too much. That’s an amazing thing. Having now spent a lot of time overseas I know how much of a gift that is. There’s so many parts of the world where what we do with The New York Times, what we did at The Oberlin Review, what you do with The Oberlin Review, just isn’t possible. And when they try it, they know they’re risking everything. We take it for granted. We know we are allowed to do this, “Sorry, guys, you may not like us asking these questions, but that’s how it works. That’s America.” And I learned that in a lot of ways at The Oberlin Review and that, I think, set me on a path for life. 

Do you remember what the biggest stories were? 

I went back through my old issues this week just to look at some of them. They’re ones you would recognize — “dining halls suck,” “the administration’s not listening to us,” you know. The biggest running story at the time was divestment in South Africa. I think now you guys deal with divestment of fossil fuels and things like that. Our thing in that era was that the trustees had investments in companies that did business in South Africa. Because of apartheid, the students thought that they should get out. At one point students took over Cox Hall in a day-long, unsanctioned sit-in and renamed it Dube Hall after John Dube who is one of the founders of the South African Native National Congress who went to Oberlin. So that was our big issue of that era: divestment in South Africa. 

What was your trajectory from student journalist at Oberlin College to The New York Times

When going through all my boxes this week, I found this stack of rejection letters, which I got when I was here. I wrote every newspaper and magazine I could find suggesting stories or asking to be a stringer or an intern. It must have been a hundred letters from every newspaper or magazine I’d ever heard of — everybody from the Dayton Daily News to Good Housekeeping Magazine to The New York Times and The Washington Post and Dallas Morning News — I wrote to everybody trying to get somebody somewhere to let me write for them. 

But the lesson from that was to keep trying. They all said no and eventually somebody said yes. In my case, I took a Winter Term and went back to Washington, D.C., where I was from. And I wrote to all these news organizations that had offices in Washington and said, “Let me come for my Winter Term for free — I’ll get your coffee, I just want to be in the newsroom and see what it’s like.” Most of them didn’t bother to answer, but the one that did let me come was The Washington Times, a small paper in Washington that was relatively new at the time. They were desperate for cheap labor, I was desperate to be cheap labor, it worked out really well. I was in their newsroom for a few weeks, and I couldn’t have been happier. The first story I ever wrote was “Here are the things that will be closed on inauguration date, 1985. Banks will be closed. Liquor stores will be closed. Post offices will be closed.” It wasn’t riveting journalism, but I loved every minute of it. They let me come back for a summer internship. I went back for fall break and another Winter Term.

I worked for The Washington Times for two years after leaving school, again thinking I was going to come back to Oberlin. And then The Washington Post hired me at that point — coming back wasn’t going to happen. But I worked for The Washington Post for 20 years. And then after 20 years, I just thought it was time to try something else and I moved to the Times — that was 13 years ago. I love the Times, I love the Post, I love every place I’ve worked and I’ve been very, very lucky.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your Oberlin College experience? 

I’m really honored that they got in touch with me and asked me to come back. I have to say I was surprised and I actually called them and said, “I just want to be sure you haven’t made a mistake here, that you know that I’m not the most ideal student that you’ve ever had. And maybe I shouldn’t be a role model for others because everybody graduating tomorrow did the work. You earned this degree and that’s an amazing thing.” But they were very kind and they were very generous. President Ambar and the rest of them said, “No, we know and we want you anyway.” And I couldn’t be more humbled to be here and to be asked, I really am.