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Washington Post White House Correspondent, Peter Baker

Friday, July 28, 2006
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HH: Peter Baker, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.

PB: Hi, how are you today?

HH: Great. Thank you for doing this. I very much enjoyed reading, though I disagree with your analysis on page A-3 of the Washington Post today. It was very provocative. Before we get there, though, Peter Baker, for the benefit of the audience, you’re the Washington Post White House correspondent, correct?

PB: Yup. That’s right.

HH: You’ve been in this business what? 17 years with the Post?

PB: 18.

HH: And before that, the Washington Times?

PB: Yeah, you got the whole gig.

HH: Oh, I read the bio you did on the December talkback to the readers of the Post. Are you a Columbia School of Journalism graduate?

PB: I am not, I’m afraid.

HH: Okay.

PB: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

HH: Well, actually, it’s a good thing. Did you do your undergraduate in the East?

PB: I went to Ohio for undergrad.

HH: Ohio University?

PB: No, I went to Oberlin College.

HH: Oh, you are a Yeoman.

PB: I was a Yeoman. Yes, indeed. How did you know that?

HH: What year were you at Oberlin?

PB: I was there from ’84-’86.

HH: You see, my brother and my father are both Yeoman.

PB: Is that right?

HH: Yes…

PB: How funny.

HH: That’s why now I have to be nice to you, even though it’s a crazy liberal place.

PB: It’s a little crazy and a little liberal. Yeah, that’s true.

HH: Now Peter, you’re a very unusual reporter in that you’ve been candid about reportorial bias before. I read with great interest the December talkback, December 13th you did with the Post. And in it, you said you haven’t voted in years.

PB: Yeah, that’s true.

HH: Explain to people why not.

PB: I don’t do it just as a matter of trying, at least, to stay as independent as they can. Look, everybody comes into their work, and arrives with bias. I mean, that’s just being human. But to the extent that you can try to at least keep as open a mind as possible, try to keep it as fair-minded as possible, that’s the goal.

HH: Now in that same article, you said I was overseas for four years. You were the head of the Moscow bureau with your wife, correct?

PB: Yes.

HH: And you wrote a good book on Putin, which I haven’t read yet, but I didn’t know it was out there. When did that come out?

PB: It came out last year. It’s called Kremlin Rising: The End of Revolution In Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And you know, it sort of looked at what we saw during four years there, the rollback of democracy, and the reconsolidation of power in the Kremlin, sort of the new Russia. That’s not quite what we expected after the end of the Soviet Union.

HH: Oh, we’ve got to come back and talk about that at some point. But in this interview with the online edition people, you said I was overseas for four years, and came back last year to discover a sharply more suspicious readership, and it’s distressing that motives are automatically assigned to journalists, even in circumstances with no reason.

PB: Yeah.

HH: Now you were abroad with Jayson Blair, but you have come back to…

PB: I wasn’t abroad with him…I don’t even know him…

HH: I mean, when that happened, correct?

PB: Yeah, yeah.

HH: And so, a lot of credibility lost there. And then, you’ve got people like Terry Moran on this program saying there’s a deep-seeded, anti-military bias in the White House…the Washington, D.C. press corps. And at least to the center-right, it looks like media is hostile to Bush, as opposed to reportorial about him. In your piece today, do you think you were being reportorial or analytical?

PB: Well, look. I think I was being both. I think I was trying to analyze the situation with reporting. And there’s a difference between that and say a commentary, which is valid, but not what I do. What I tried to do with this piece is look at the situation, and talk to people who are smart about these things on both sides of the aisle, and get, draw as sharply rendered a portrait as I can of what the consequences are, what’s going on, what the impact is for the President, at a pretty sensitive juncture for him.

HH: But now, it’s called by the paper analysis, which is sort of what? A weigh station between opinion and straight news?

PB: Well, okay. That’s fair, I suppose. It’s not meant to be opinion. It’s not meant to be commentary. We have, obviously, plenty of pages for that sort of thing. It’s meant to be something that’s reported out, but different than something happened yesterday, blah, blah, blah kind of news. It’s meant to be sort of like okay, let’s step back and without injecting our own personal opinion into it, what are the observations we can make, and the analysis we can make of a situation like this Middle East conflict, and what the ramifications are going to be for, in this case, the President, both domestically and internationally.

HH: Okay. As we analyze that, and again, I’m using as my reference point your interview from December, in that, you said, of course it’s hard to avoid having a political viewpoint. And obviously, reporters come to their jobs as human beings with experiences and feelings and opinions. But it’s our job to sublimate the personal for the professional to the extent that we can. And for the benefit of the audience, let me just get some stuff out there so we understand how you analyze. Do you think Bush is a smart guy?

PB: Oh, I think he’s much smarter than people give him credit for. Yeah, I think that’s not…I think that would be an observation, rather than an opinion. Now does he…you know, I don’t think he pretends to be a rocket scientist. In fact, he tries to play down his intelligence by…with sort of, you know, I’m just a C student, and blah, blah, blah kind of folksy manner. In fact, I think that disguises the fact he’s more intelligent than people give him credit for. He went to Harvard, he went to Yale. It’s not something a lot of us did.

HH: Do you think he has a good grasp of what’s going on in the world?

PB: Well, he’s certainly more informed than a lot of us. He’s got a lot of sources of information. He, like any president, is also limited by the fact that he is in a position where he is, where he is limited to the information that the government can provide him. He has less opportunity to go out and feel it in a tactile sense, than other people, because he’s President of the United States.

HH: But when you, for example, quote today Carlos Pascual, with whom I am not familiar, although he’s at Brookings, a fine institution, and evidently spent a pretty good career at State. Does Carlos Pascual have any kind…does he come to the table with better equipment to understand the world, or less equipment to understand the world, than the President of the United States?

PB: Well, I wouldn’t be able to measure it that way. Everybody brings their own experiences. Carlos Pascual is a career diplomat, served in the State Department until just this year. He served in high level positions for this president, among others. He brings that experience to the table, and he has his viewpoints about things, obviously, just as the President brings his experience and viewpoints to the table. I wouldn’t try to…I’m not trying to make them in a competition.

HH: Okay, because when I read the article, titles Overseas Tensions Force Bush To Change Direction, and particularly his quotes, and particularly this quote, “It has hurt the U.S. internationally, because it is only reinforced in everyone’s mind that the U.S. was not being strategic. It was not looking ahead to how to handle the whole panoply of issues in a way that’s both realistic and effective.” I thought the article intended to, and effectively conveyed to a reader, though some will disagree with it, that the Bush administration is simply at a loss for a plan, lacks a strategy, and is teetering on, what? Ruin, Peter Baker?

PB: (laughing) I wouldn’t say that. I think that you could obviously find people in the foreign policy establishment, and obviously, somebody who served in the State Department for many years would be part of that, who have a critique of the way the President has managed foreign policy, just as I’m sure they did with previous presidents. That’s Carlos Pascual’s critique. We also quote in the article folks who have different points of view. Dennis Ross is quoted in the article, for instance, saying that he thinks that this can be an opportunity for the President, if it’s handled correctly, to point out the threat that Iran faces. We quote him, I think, saying look how reckless Iran seems to be without a nuclear shield. What would it be like if it did have one? So there are different points of view, I think, represented in the article.

HH: Leading into the Dennis Ross quote, you wrote, “instead of leading the coalition then, Bush is explaining to his allies, reviving memories of his first term doctrinal differences.” That’s why I thought you were intending to convey the sense that at this point, it’s confusion at the White House. Did I misread that?

PB: Oh, I don’t mean confusion, no. But I mean having gone with Bush to the G-8, for instance, what was striking to me was that as he was heading to the summit of major powers, it was at a moment in which he had a good deal of consensus on the major issue of the day, which was Iran, that he was going in, and the other powers, including Russia and China for once, were pretty ticked off at Iran for rebuffing the proposal that had been made on giving up its nuclear power program. And then, this came along, and instead of talking about the places where they share views, the United States and Europe are now in a very different point of view about what should be done in on the ground immediately in Southern Lebanon.

HH: And I’m talking with Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Yeah, quote. “Iran is bogged down again at the U.N., and likewise, North Korea has vanished from the radar screen, just weeks after its provocative missile test.” Those are opinions, aren’t those, Peter Baker?

PB: No. The U.N. was, is not, in fact, moving forward with a resolution on Iran, even though people had wanted it to by now. The U.S. administration, the bush administration, is very frustrated about that. They had hoped that they had agreement from the ministerial meeting in Paris before all this stuff started happening in the Middle East on how to go forward on, with a Security Council resolution pressuring Iran, threatening sanctions. Now, it’s bottled up again, because the Russians are suddenly raising new objections, the Russian that they had thought had agreed in Paris to a course of action. As for North Korea, I just mean literally, have you heard anybody talking about it? No. That…they are now no longer the focus of attention on the part of major policy makers here or in Europe or in Asia, and that’s not meant to be a good or bad thing. It’s just pointing out that this is a major priority that is no longer on the front burner, for better or worse.

HH: An alternative reading of this is that Hezbollah, called by the Israeli foreign minister the long arm of Iran, has really sharpened the focus of the world on what Iran represents in terms of a threat, that the Saudis and the Egyptians and others may in fact be reassessing what has been their driving policy over the past couple of years, and that this, “time of being bogged down,” or North Korea being off the screen…I have seen North Korea a lot, in reports that Iranian observers were there for the missile test. Did you note that, Peter Baker?

PB: I saw that report, yeah. But I’m saying have you heard any of the major leaders talking about North Korea right now, and they haven’t been able to, because they’ve had so many other things to deal with. That’s not a criticism or an opinion. It’s just mean to be an observation that when one crisis comes up, it has a tendency to put others on the back burner, and that’s a complication that challenges people who run the country, and run other countries.

HH: But it’s possible it’s a very good development, in that a clarity for the world, not for the Bush administration. I’ll make the argument in a moment that they’ve got clarity. But the clarity for the world is arriving, and that it might be a time, just might be a time of great advance in terms of international understanding of the threat Iran poses. Is that possible, Peter?

PB: Yeah, and I think we said that in the story today. And I think we quote, in fact, Dennis Ross saying that, and we quote an unnamed administration official saying that. I wish he’d allowed us to quote him by name, but said that look, this is a possible opportunity here, where people, the public will see the stakes as well as we do, and what we’re trying to do in the broader Middle East. So I think we raised that possibility in the piece, and that’s one of the things we’re going to be watching to see in the weeks to come.

HH: So here’s the key thing. In the mouth of Carlos Pascual, is this sense that they lack a strategy. Do you, Peter Baker, think Bush has a strategic vision of where his presidency is going?

PB: Well, I think, you know, it’s an interesting question, and a good question. Different people are going to give you different answers to that, and so it’s probably not one I can answer with a definitiveness. I think he thinks he’s got a very strong vision for the world, and how he sees events like this, and he’s expressed that, and we’ve quoted him saying that many times in the newspaper, including just this week. I think that other people have different visions of that. Whether they see it as a strategy or lack of strategy, that’s going to be for them to say.

HH: Yeah, but that’s where I come to the press coverage of the Bush presidency, especially at this time when foreign affairs is on the center, that Carlos is up here top in the 3rd, 4th graph, and it’s a long way in before you find anything that might suggest the competing narrative, which is that this administration, far more than the Clinton administration, is as focused on a particular goal, winning the war, than any administration has been in a very long time, and that it’s really a political attack on this administration to argue that he doesn’t have a strategy, rather than a reportorial observation.

PB: Well, let me take issue with that, if you don’t mind.

HH: Oh, please.

PB: The paragraph right following Carlos Pascual’s paragraph in this article, then moves to quotes by the Bush advisors, unfortunately unnamed. I wish again I’d been able to use a name. But the very next paragraph says, tries to put the situation from their point of view. They say, the next paragraph says well look, we’ve gotten used to this idea of constant crisis. This is the way our administration has had to deal with the world, so be it. And then the next graph after that says what they’re looking at is how to turn this short term predicament into a long term opportunity, which I think is your point, that while the images right now coming out of Lebanon may be unsettling, that we hope as this unfolds, it provides a moment when the public sees the stakes, and that why we’re going what we’re doing in the broader Middle East. That follows immediately after Carlos, so I’m trying to give that balance there. Maybe that Carlos’ quote struck you in a way that seemed unfair. Okay, fair enough. I’ll take that point.

HH: No, not necessarily unfair. Biased. And I’ll go back through it.

PB: Well, he is biased. He’s a player. We quote a player who’s biased, just like we quote the Bush advisor who’s biased from that point of view.

HH: And so, to go to the top of the story now, very first three paragraphs, “The latest crisis in the Middle East has disrupted President Bush’s plans, domestically and internationally, at a sensitive juncture, reopening divisions with allies abroad, and jeopardizing attempts to restore public confidence at home, according to officials, analysts and diplomats. The discord at a conference in Rome yesterday over a proposed cease fire in Israel and Lebanon underscored the widening gap between the United States and Europe over how to stop the fighting. And the images of mayhem from the two week old war, combined with the rising death toll in Iraq, have further rattled the domestic audience that polls show was already uncertain about Bush’s leadership. For the President, the timing could not be much worse. In a second term marked by one setback after another, the White House was in the midst of a rebuilding effort, aimed at a political comeback, for November’s critical mid-term elections. Now the President faces the challenge of responding to events that seem to be spinning out of control again, all but sidelining his domestic agenda for the moment, and complicating his effort to rally the world to stop nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.” Now Peter Baker, A) I’ll just say, Roberts and Alito. So it hasn’t been exactly without victories. And B) GDP of 5.2 percent in the last quarter. C) tax relief and an extension of that. I mean, you just go down. They’ve cut the budget deficit in half, Israel is an ally, Blair is an ally, Australia is an ally. Kofi Annan is discredited, internationally recognized as a corrupt, short-timer. I just think that you led into this, and then you went to Carlos, and then you bury the ‘maybe there’s another view.’ Is that fair?

PB: Well, I think it is, yes. I think this is a rough moment, and when a rough moment comes, we write that as straightforwardly and honestly as we can. When the good things happen, we write those as well. I took a lot of grief for a story I wrote just five, six weeks ago, talking about how a spate of good news was working for the Bush White House’s benefit, that at the moment, things started to look up for them, with Zarqawi’s death, with the selection of a prime minister in Iraq, with the end of the investigation of Karl Rove, and a number of other things that had happened. The article I wrote at the time was talking about how things were looking up for them, and I took a lot of grief from the left on that. Fair enough. I try to write it as I see it at the moment. It’s not mean to be biased one way or the other, but an honest account of where things are at the moment.

HH: But that’s what I’m getting to. Again, I understand it’s a fair opinion. Maybe reporters just shouldn’t do this, because it seems to me what you call a rough moment, I call a tough moment, but one that accentuates Bush’s greatest political strength, puts foreign affairs back at the center, shows us strong by Israel, redefines the war, I think strategically important, lets people know that Hezbollah is a very big problem and very big threat. And so, what the guy at Brookings thinks just strikes me as odd. But that since I’m reading this completely different, both politically and strategically, not seeing that reflected in the paper in a “analysis,” in the most influential paper, and I think one of the best. I read it every morning, and I like your stuff. It just strikes me as not fair to a country at war, that maybe there should be less of that, and more of just straight reporting of what’s going on, Peter Baker.

PB: Okay, well, fair point. I take the point. I think we do a lot of straight reporting, and there’s a number of articles in today’s paper, and an article I’ve written over the last few weeks that would be directly straight reporting, Bush said yesterday this, this happened at the G-8 Summit, blah, blah, blah. Every once in a while, we try to step back and write an analysis piece that tries to look at it from a somewhat broader angle. By definition, it’s going to include some people’s opinions that readers don’t agree with. I hope to try to reflect other points of view as well. It’s not mean to be…

HH: Oh, no, it’s a well written piece. I’m just saying…did anyone in the newsroom, or any of your editors say there might be a completely different take on this?

PB: Well, I think we tried to not start the day saying this is what the take is. I think we tried to start the day by calling to various people from different quarters, and collecting their viewpoints, and trying to assemble a coherent analysis off of the reporting. It wasn’t just when I woke up in the morning and decided how I felt. Now again, the people we talked to is a selective process, so any article, by the definition, therefore, is going to be flawed. It also is flawed in part by who gets back to me by a deadline.

HH: Oh, of course.

PB: I had four messages after my deadline last night from people I would have loved to have talked to. And if I had had a chance to talk to them, they might have helped to shape the piece in different ways that we couldn’t even predict right now. So…

HH: Here’s the critical inquiry, though. Is Washington, D.C., the Beltway, the White House press room, and the Post itself a small echo chamber which really doesn’t let in anything too far off of the convention wisdom? For example, a quick litmus test, Peter. You’re in favor of abortion rights, correct?

PB: I don’t get into that.

HH: Do you own a gun?

PB: I don’t honestly…I live in the District of Columbia. I’m not allowed to own a gun.

HH: Okay. Are you a Church-goer?

PB: I do from time to time.

HH: Okay. Do you think that the White House outed Valerie Plame?

PB: (laughing) I wasn’t here in the country at that time, and I haven’t reported on that enough to know.

HH: Did you think the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times made a good call publishing the story about SWIFT?

PB: Well, you know, that’s their news judgment. We have ours. I wouldn’t presume to prejudice the decision making that they did, because they had more knowledge about their stories that I do. But you know, I will defend the right of newspapers to write about things that government think ought to be secret.

HH: Oh, sure. So do I. Absolutely, but that’s…

PB: I do, I would say this. I give the editors of those papers credit, which maybe other people don’t, for taking these issues seriously, and thinking about it before they made their decision. Whether I would have made the same decision or not, I honestly believe that they make those decisions in good faith.

HH: Sure, but it’s possible that those stories helped terrorists elude capture, correct?

PB: I’m not a terrorism expert. I couldn’t say.

HH: Possible though?

PB: I haven’t seen any indication of it. I’d love to…I’ve asked this question of officials, and I’d love to see some indications.

HH: But I mean, it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, that the publication of a secret program, not well known, will assist in alerting terrorists to the secret program.

PB: Well, you know, again, you’d have to talk to people who are smarter about that than I am. I wouldn’t want to draw a conclusion on something that I’m not, I haven’t reported out.

HH: Now Peter Baker, is reticence about this, and by the way, this is, except for Dana Milbank, who just swings from the hips when I talk to him, it’s pretty much always the same set of responses from reporters. Is that, is there a guild mentality that you guys get your union card, and you don’t answer questions about what you believe, and you don’t vote, and you don’t transparently answer things, and then you don’t criticize anyone in the guild, and it’s…that’s why it’s an echo chamber? Do you see where I’m getting?

PB: I see. Fair enough, okay. Let me just say, by the way, most of my colleagues do, in fact, vote, and think I’m an idiot for not. So there’s at least some…

HH: But your managing editor doesn’t vote, so that’s a big card on your side.

PB: Yeah, well, but you know what? The guy under him does, and the guy above him does, so…

HH: And they all voted for Kerry, right?

PB: I have no clue.

HH: Oh, Peter.

PB: I don’t. I really don’t. I’ve never asked them. Nobody’s ever told me.

HH: Okay, stepping back, is Helen Thomas a liberal?

PB: I…you’d have to ask her. I think she certainly has written a book that suggests that reporters were not very good at challenging the Bush administration. That seems to be a popular viewpoint among American liberals.

HH: Is David Gregory in love with himself?

PB: (laughing) Love is a tough term. You know, how would you define that?

HH: (laughing) Did you hear Chris Matthews on Imus the other day?

PB: I didn’t, no.

HH: All right. I would love for you to go read that. I’ve got to run, Peter Baker. I hope you’ll come back, but I’m getting at, this is obviously a very well-researched and reported article, but it’s just one that struck me as a product of a close environment. And I want to give you the last word, though.

PB: Oh, you know what? Fair enough. You know what? We’re out there every day, and our articles are there to be judged. And where we fall down, or we don’t reflect as broadly as we ought to, I’m more than happy to take that into account, and we’ll do a better job next time.

HH: Last question for you. Is Bush doing a good job leading the country?

PB: Again, that’s not for me to say, really not. But I’d love to have an interview with him and ask him about it.

HH: All right. Peter Baker of the Washington Post, thanks for spending time with us.

PB: Thank you. Appreciate it.

End of interview.

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