Philip Wegmann ’15 strides into the historic Willard Hotel clad in jeans, a yellow T‑shirt, and a worn leather motorcycle jacket. It’s a Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C. and under different circumstances, Wegmann would be dressed in a suit and tie, breezing in after a press briefing at the White House.
“Because of COVID, they’ve limited the number of reporters who can be in the room so, we’re on a rotation,” he explained. “If it was during normal times, we’d have a seat and I’d be there every day.”
Ten years ago, such a statement would have been unfathomable to Wegmann. As a homeschooled high-school student from Woodburn, Indiana, he was fascinated by his college-level calculus, physics, anatomy, and physiology courses. He wanted to go to engineering school.
“But then all the scholarships that I’d receive were writing-based. To go to an engineering school, I would have had to take out significant loans,” he recalled. “So instead, I went to Hillsdale.”
As a student at Hillsdale College, Wegmann double majored in history and politics, served as a resident assistant, helped to found the Young Americans for Freedom chapter, and zipped around town on his 1981 Kawasaki motorcycle. Ironically, however, he never wrote a news piece for the Collegian. Instead, his interest in reporting was born out of a class he signed up for senior year: Political Journalism with John J. Miller, director of the Dow Journalism Program.
“I would say I was a pretty good writer sophomore and junior year,” Wegmann said. “But Mr. Miller was the one who was like, ‘Okay, now you can go from writing being something that you probably don’t enjoy that much to something that can actually be really enjoyable. You can be clever and have fun.’ And I loved that. To this day, the political journalism class and Dr. Arnn’s Churchill class are my two favorite courses.”
Wegmann ended up taking Miller’s Advanced Writing and Sportswriting courses as well. Since then, the unlikely journalist has worked at the Federalist and Washington Examiner. He joined RealClearPolitics in 2019 and is now its White House reporter.
“When Phil was a student, I saw right away that he was smart and talented,” Miller said. “I figured he would succeed, but I had no idea how well he would succeed. It’s great to see him flourish in journalism now. He shows how much Hillsdale students can accomplish in just a few years.”
Indeed, Wegmann credits Hillsdale with equipping him for a career in journalism.
“It helps you learn how to learn and learn very quickly,” Wegmann observed. “If you can stay up all night and turn out a 20-page paper the next morning and you feel alive when the sun rises, there’s probably not much you can’t do.”
It also prepared him to be flexible and think on his feet, invaluable assets for a journalist — especially when unexpected opportunities present themselves.
“I had been lobbying the White House for a sit-down interview with the president for a long time,” Wegmann recalled. “They called me at nine o’clock at night and said, ‘Would you like an interview?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. When can we schedule this?’ They said, ‘Tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock.’”
Within the hour, Wegmann found himself running around Washington in search of an old-fashioned voice recorder because the White House doesn’t permit cell phones in the Oval Office. The next day, he conducted a one-on-one, 20-minute interview with the commander in chief.
“Donald Trump is going to talk about what Donald Trump wants to talk about,” Wegmann said of his July 7 meeting with the president. “You’re going to give him a question and he’s going to run in whatever direction he wants with that. In the Oval Office, he was generous with his time, but he talked about what he wanted to talk about. And there’s never enough prep that you can do for that.”
A few weeks later, Wegmann landed an interview with Vice President Mike Pence aboard Air Force Two on the way back from the Republican National Convention. Wegmann describes Pence as “more conventional” in style as well as someone who presented a challenge because he stays “on-message.” Still, Wegmann said he’s been able to have productive interactions with both figures.
“You can ask any politician a hard question; you don’t have to scream or shout,” he explained. “And if you ask them a hard question and they think you’re being fair and honest, they’re not going to take it personally. I’ve found that being polite has gotten me further than being a prick.”
If not for COVID-19, Wegmann might never have had the chance to sit down with the president and vice president. Until March, he was traveling the country covering rallies and debates.
“I was on the campaign trail quite a bit earlier on in Iowa and South Carolina with more trips planned until March when coronavirus brought everything to a halt,” Wegmann said. “I was pretty disappointed, but then all of a sudden we started having daily briefings with the president and the COVID Task Force.”
Wegmann counts himself “really fortunate” to have his White House gig, especially at RCP where he’s had the benefit of learning from older colleagues. The feeling is mutual: Susan Crabtree, Wegmann’s partner on the White House beat and a 26-year veteran of Washington journalism, says he’s a “team player” whose writing has “always stood out” to her.
“It’s a cut above,” Crabtree said of Wegmann’s work, adding that she knew his byline even before he joined the RCP team. “It’s not just your basic reporting. He has more of a magazine flair and more of a voice than other writers — especially younger writers — that I’ve seen. He has a talent that sets him apart.”
But despite the glamor of being a member of the White House press corps, Wegmann says the job comes with plenty of challenges.
“The best part is that you get to see it yourself; you get to write the story,” he says. “The hardest part is also the best part: You have to write the story when it happens, not when it’s convenient. You’re not going to have a normal nine-to-five workday. And you’re going to have to cancel weekend plans and take calls during dinners when you would rather not. But you don’t have the luxury of deciding when something’s going to happen.”
He loves it anyway, and has words of encouragement for Hillsdale students interested in following a similar path.
“If I can do it, pretty much anybody can,” Wegmann said. “There’s not a more fun job in the world. If you hustle and don’t get discouraged easily, you can make it. Especially if you make use of everything this college has to offer you.”
In fact, Wegmann says he’s gained a new appreciation for his alma mater in the years since graduation.
“There are people I have met out here who light up when they find out that you’re a graduate of Hillsdale because they feel like they were a partner in your education,” he said of supporters he’s encountered. “I think that that’s a really selfless, beautiful act on their part. There have been times that I have been flippant and ungrateful, but the education that I got there, the friends that I made there, and the sacrifices that other people made so that I could have this — I don’t think you’ll get that anywhere else.”
Wegmann plans to stay in the journalism field for the foreseeable future. He has his eyes on one long-term objective, however.
“My goal in life is to write something good enough to be a reading in John Miller’s class,” he jokes.
Until then, he’ll be running around the city, hot on the trail of his next scoop.