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James Hohmann

James Hohmann

National Political Correspondent, Washington Post

"Studying history gave me the tools to think critically. It offered a framework through which to understand the world."

 

James Hohmann

Class of 2009

Thesis: “Into the Jaws of Defeat: How Ronald Reagan Lost the 1976 Election and Remade the National Political Order.”

 

Current Job: National Political Correspondent for The Washington Post

I cover politics, including Donald Trump’s White House, and anchor a site within The Post called PowerPost, which focuses on in the intersection of politics and public policy. I’m the author of a reported column called The Daily 202, named for Washington, D.C.’s area code, that is read by hundreds of thousands of people every weekday.

 

First Job after Graduation:

I started at The Washington Post the week after graduation, covering local news in Virginia and Maryland. But six months after graduation, I left to work for Politico, which was then a start-up. It gave me the chance to cover Congress and be a part of building something new. I spent six fun years at Politico and watched the company grow exponentially. In 2015, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had purchased The Post and was looking to invest in a major expansion. The paper recruited me to come back.

 

How did you end up pursuing your career? Do you have any advice for students contemplating similar career paths? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?

I didn’t intend initially for journalism to be a career. I enjoyed writing for my high school paper and thought it would be fun to write for The Stanford Daily, but I always expected I’d wind up going to law school or something. During my freshman year, there was a big strike of cafeteria workers. I aggressively covered it for The Daily and focused on the broader context: the history of campus labor strife, how hard it was to earn a living wage in the Bay Area, etc.

This series of stories prompted the San Jose Mercury News to offer me a summer internship. I thought it would be fun to spend a summer in a real-life newsroom, but writing for a metropolitan paper wildly exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do things like travel around with the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, embed with Mexican immigrants who had been laid off from a frozen food factory, and even go under-cover in nightclubs to investigate racial profiling.

These experiences opened my eyes to other worlds, and I was hooked. The next summer, I interned at The Dallas Morning News. Then I went to the Los Angeles Times. I also served as editor-in-chief of The Daily.

I think it’s very important to keep as many doors open as possible for as long as possible. Many people coming into college are dead set on being pre-med or pre-law, for example. You’ve got to come in open-minded and willing to explore as many things as possible. Then follow your passion. It’s such a cliché, but it’s worked for me.

When I arrived on The Farm, I planned to be a political science major. While I enjoyed every single one of my history classes, I didn’t enjoy all my PoliSci classes. Professors would teach (incorrectly) that campaigns don’t matter because you can just forecast who will win an election by using a formula or model that looks at X number of factors. They’d even assign problem sets. I came to understand and appreciate the differences between the social sciences and the humanities only by dabbling in both.

The advice I give most often to young people who want to go into journalism is: Don’t study journalism in college! In my experience, people who major in journalism or communications tend to be less prepared for challenging jobs in the industry than those who did not. It’s counterintuitive, I know, and controversial, in the circles I run in, but also very true.

The best path to become a successful journalist is to write for The Stanford Daily. Then use your history classes to learn how to think about the world, articulate complex thoughts and write elegantly. You need to know something about something!

 

Has your History training helped you along the way - and if so, how?

Every. Single. Day.

My official Washington Post biography describes me as a “historian by training,” and I’m very proud of that. Studying history gave me the tools to think critically. It offered a framework through which to understand the world.

It also gave me invaluable perspective on the broader sweep of history. I learned that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it may bend toward justice, but societies often take one step forward and two steps backward.

History hinges on sometimes small plastic junctures, but tectonic forces are also driving many of the incremental developments we read about each day in the news. It’s crucial to keep both the macro and the micro contexts in mind.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when reporters use the word “unprecedented.” Nothing is truly unprecedented, yet if you follow the news closely that description abounds. Many journalists have never studied history, sadly, and they treat every news cycle as if it’s somehow exogenous to all the others that have come before. But past is prologue, and my stories are always better when they are infused with historical parallels. Obviously, I didn’t learn all the examples that I use in my stories during undergraduate courses, but I learned the impulse to seek them out and where to look.

This discipline also taught me how to separate the wheat from the chaff. I need to weigh conflicting sources and accounts every day, and I must make judgment calls about who and what to trust more. I learned as a history major to place a significant premium on contemporaneous written records above all else. Working on my thesis, well-intentioned people who had worked on Ronald Reagan’s campaign would tell me stories about things that happened in 1976. Then I’d be in the archives and discover documents, or news clippings, that contradicted their versions of events. This is the frosted glass of human memory at work.

Studying history teaches you how to effectively marshal evidence to make an argument, which I also do every morning. You learn how to connect dots and see patterns that others cannot. This adds value for readers.

Truth is often stranger than fiction, and several of my seminars gave me invaluable practice at narrative writing and how to tell good stories well. At its heart, good works of history are like good pieces of journalism: storytelling that penetrates, illuminates and challenges assumptions.

History professors showed me that the world is not black and white, and they taught me how to think in shades of gray. In a world of oversimplification and “alternative facts,” my time at Stanford during years when I was especially impressionable infused me with an appreciation for nuance and a devotion to getting even the smallest details right.

 

Do you have any particularly fond memories of the History Department?

I wish I could give shout-outs to all the wonderful professors, and even teaching assistants, who I was lucky enough to learn from. But I want to focus on four truly brilliant men who were especially impactful in shaping my worldview—

 

David Kennedy: The most memorable class I took at Stanford was a three-week Sophomore College called “What’s the Matter with California?” It was an interdisciplinary course jointly taught by professors of economics, public policy and history. We went to Sacramento and each day immersed ourselves in a different challenge facing the Golden State, from education to health care and immigration. We dove into problems like overcrowded prisons, the insufficient water supply, and term limits. We met with some of the smartest and most powerful people in the state. Then we chose an issue to focus on. My final project was about how the ballot initiative process messed up the state, with a focus on the consequences of Proposition 13 on the property tax base.

Kennedy brought the historian’s perspective to the endeavor. With only a dozen students in the class, I got a chance to talk with him a lot. He tutored me on the backstory of the referendum process and its populist, anti-monopoly origins. He gave me a copy of what become one of my favorite novels, “The Octopus.” Most importantly, though, he offered to become my advisor if I became a history major. That sealed the deal. […]

 

Jack Rakove: James Madison became my favorite founding father because of Jack Rakove. […] Somehow, I still find myself talking about two specific term papers I wrote for Rakove from time to time because I remain proud of them. Last year, I regaled the governor of Massachusetts with some colorful anecdotes about the ratifying convention in his state. And I’ve talked with Virginia’s senators and governor about a paper I wrote on the 1789 House race that pitted Madison against James Monroe.

One of the reasons Rakove is a great professor is that he’s also engaged in the politics of today, which lets him connect past debates to contemporary themes. For example, he won his Pulitzer Prize for a meditation on originalism. In many ways, Rakove is a man in the arena.

 

Richard White: A big part of my self-identity is as a Westerner, and that’s because of Richard White.

Like with Rakove, I was captivated by White’s survey course on 19th Century America (150B) and wanted to learn as much as I could from him. His lectures on the Civil War gave me chills, and he forced us to put ourselves in the shoes of the Northerners and the Southerners. We thought through how different people, of different classes and backgrounds, viewed the rupture as it approached, dragged on and ultimately after it ended. Slavery is this country’s original sin, and he forced us to reckon with that in a way our country has often refused to do.

White specializes in the American West, but that’s so much more than the caricature of John Wayne and cowboys. He helped me conceptualize of history in a transnational way. Borders have been porous for so long, and frankly they continue to be. So focusing only on the United States when thinking about the history of the region is like tying your hands. […]

 

James Sheehan: James Sheehan opened my eyes to the magic and mystery of Europe.

I was a middle-class kid from Apple Valley, Minnesota. I didn’t have the money to travel outside of North America until I was in my late 20s. In two courses under his tutelage, Sheehan covered early modern Europe, the wars and how the continent changed so dramatically after 1945. The reason he was great is that he masterfully explained why things happened. […]

Perhaps the most important book I read at Stanford was “The Nazi Seizure of Power.” It is the gripping account of one small town in Germany’s experience with Nazism from 1922 to 1945. The level of granularity is incredible, and a lot of the characters come to life. You come to understand why people who should have known better fell for the false promise that Adolph Hitler could make Germany great again. I found myself re-reading the book this past New Year’s Eve and recommending it to many friends around Washington. But what their copies don’t have that mine does are annotations in the margins from Sheehan’s lecture about the book a decade ago. These scribbles are packed with even more insights than I realized at the time.

 

As I reminisce on these great courses, books and professors, I am so very envious of Stanford undergraduates who have such incredible opportunities. Don’t let youth be wasted on the young. Capitalize on them.