Peter Hegseth ’03 was the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America from 2012 to 2015 and is a correspondent and guest co-host on the weekend show “Fox and Friends” on Fox News. Hegseth spoke to The Daily Princetonian about his time at the University and the Tory. Hegseth also discussed his thoughts on the future of journalism.
Daily Princetonian: What was your favorite memory at Princeton?
Peter Hegseth: There’s a lot of them. I used to live over near Dillon Gym and would walk from there — all my friends and I were in Cap and Gown Club — to dinner; it was always the ceremonial signal at the end of the day. At 6 o’clock we would slowly walk across campus, go over to have dinner and then walk back, tell stories, talk about the day, and hang out. It was sometimes the only break we would get in the middle of the day, because I did varsity basketball, I was in ROTC, I led the conservative publication, I was going to school — so it was sort of the moment when my roommates and I would enjoy some down time.
DP: How many times have you returned to Princeton since graduating?
PH: Good question. More initially, because I lived in New York City so it was easier to come back. It has been a few years since I have been back. I’ve been back for a couple of ROTC events. I’ve been back for basketball alumni games, but not as many recently. I plan, eventually, to take my kids to some of those basketball games too. I’m still on the alumni board of the Princeton Tory, the conservative publication on campus. It doesn’t bring me to campus often, but it keeps me engaged.
DP: What was your favorite class at Princeton?
PH: I’m going give you two of them. I enjoyed professor [Robbie] George’s Constitutional Interpretation — it was a great class. I’m going to give you three. As well as Sean Wilentz, who taught some American history courses — 19th-century American history — and he was more of a liberal and so we had some fun conversations there. And then, Fred Greenstein, who I don’t know if he’s still there or not, he’s a presidential historian. I took a couple of his courses on the presidency and I found them fascinating.
DP: What did you major in?
DP: What was the most important thing you learned outside the classroom? It sounds like you had to balance a number of extracurricular commitments.
PH: I learned to hold my own. I learned that you better be prepared to back up your argument. I learned that there are not all that many conservatives in academia and so if you are one, you better be prepared to make a case. What I liked about Princeton when I was there and I hope it’s still there is — Sean Wilentz first used this word in a conversation we were having — “comity,” this idea that you can civilly agree or disagree, but respect each other’s differences. I always thought Princeton did a pretty good job of advancing free exchange of ideas.
DP: So you never felt the political climate on campus was hostile, as it leaned more towards the liberal side?
PH: I didn’t when I was there. I think it’s only gotten worse across academia, especially the Ivy League, since I’ve left. Some of this safe space, microaggression, white privilege stuff, in my opinion, has created more of an intellectually stifling process, where there’s less intellectual diversity than one would hope. And less ability for true free speech. It’s so monolithic and on one side. And I think a guy like professor Robbie George does a great job of making sure that conservative opinions are represented — they are not going to be a majority — but as long as they get a fair hearing, that’s all you can ask for.
DP: Is there a story you particularly enjoyed writing with The Tory?
PH: All of them. We wrote a lot after 9/11. 9/11 happened when I was a sophomore, so a lot of pieces about the war or about the enemy that we faced. We just enjoyed pointing out some of the inconsistencies of certain campus organizations. I’ll make a long story short: There was a group that was started to elect women leaders to student positions, which I was thought great and I actually attended the opening barbecue when the group was formed. And then the first election that came up there was a conservative female running against a liberal male. The group endorsed the liberal male even though their mission was to elect women to be student leaders. It was clear this was more about ideology than it was woman leaders. So there was a long article written by one of our best female writers, Jen Carter, called “Killing Feminism.” The idea was that feminism is effective and great, but if it’s turned into a political ideology it’s less effective. She did a great job with that. That triggered a conversation.
DP: How was the Tory perceived when you were on campus?
PH: [laughs] I feel like we did a pretty good reviving its relevancy by making sure we published consistently, by making sure it was always delivered to the doorstep of every room, by making sure that we were talking about topics that were relevant at that time and focused on the campus, because if you want to worry about national politics you can read any number of liberal or conservative publications, but if you want it through the lens of what is happening at Princeton — our job was to try to corner that market. I think we were perceived a little bit as bomb-throwers. But I felt like we needed to in order to make sure our side was heard.
DP: What was the relationship between the Tory and the other publications on campus?
PH: It was kind of fun-loving and competitive. We know who the other side is. I even took part in a duel. There was a dueling society when I was there. [DP: Really?] Yeah, with paintball guns. You could publicly challenge someone to a duel. I was challenged to a duel by the head of the left-wing publication and we dueled at high noon in front of one of the eating clubs. I was in ROTC so I was the better shot and I did win. It was fun. That was kind of the relationship, right? It wasn’t hostile. There were plenty of contentious discussions. But it was more — we are here on campus to debate these ideas and not shut anybody down. I think that’s the concern I have about modern academia, that it becomes a “I will tolerate you if you bend to my position” and not “I will tolerate a position that is different to mine.” We would jab each other in our publications and monitor each other’s publications and create a debate that way.
DP: Were you always interested in pursuing a career in journalism?
PH: I host the morning Weekend Show at Fox News called “Fox and Friends.” It was accidental for me. I was in the military. I did a number of tours. Led veteran advocacy groups. I have the good fortune to be on an opinion show on Fox. While we report the news, and Fox does a great job of reporting the news, we also get the opportunity to give our opinion and bring in different opinions into the show. There’s a lot of editorial involved, which I enjoy as someone who, as you can imagine, has been fairly opinionated for a long time. So I’m grateful for the opportunity. It was not something I necessarily set out to do. But I love it and I am grateful to be a part of the ongoing debate that is our country right now.
DP: What do you think the state of journalism is in the United States?
PH: Oh, boy. I could go on forever about that. I think we are going back to an era of a more partisan press. I think this idea of independent journalism is unfortunately largely dead, or, more so, exposed. I think the, the so-called “mainstream media” has been left-wing for a long time. The lid hadn’t been pulled off it. We didn’t have alternative media to expose that. Now that we do have alternative forms to get our news — online, Twitter, social media — we are exposed to a wider plethora of news, which means everyone has to compete. And then along came President Trump, who challenged the existing order of the media and their inability to be unbiased and independent and exposed their true nature, which is left of center and out to get him. From the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to CNN to mainstream networks that for a long time tried at least to pretend like they were going to be unbiased, have exposed themselves as very much left of center. I think there’s been an exposure. Think of it this way, both you and I, even if we are trying to be down the middle, have our own biases, our own backgrounds, and things that we bring to the conversation even if we are trying to be objective. I would rather tell you what I am — a conservative — and give you my opinion than say “I’m not really.” I would rather be told straight-up perspectives, then condescended to by someone who says, “Well, I’m above it all,” when everything you choose to cover slants in one direction, the tone you take slants in one direction, and the stories that you cover as well. But I like the fact that people can get news where they like and it’s not just one nightly news anchor telling the world what the news is. But I still don’t think we really have our arms around where the media will go. Will journalism be able to correct itself and find an ability to be an arbiter? Or are we just going to a place where it’s going to be more opinion based?
DP: What is one piece of advice you would give to students who are thinking about going into journalism, the military, or politics?
PH: My advice would be: Love your country and follow your passion. We are so grateful to live on the greatest country on earth. So many people tell us otherwise. Those who serve see firsthand how different many people live and the threats that we face and the freedom that we have. This country is worth loving and being committed to. In that pursuit, pursue something you’re passionate about that advances the cause of our free society and our free country. I didn’t have a plan. I just said, “Hey, I love this country and I am passionate about it and I am going to try and do things to help it.” What’s the Princeton motto? “In the service of our nation, in the service of all nations.” They added the “in the service of all nations” when I was there, but from the beginning it was just “in the service of our nation.” We need academic institutions that create and foster patriotism and civic engagement.
DP: It was just changed to “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
PH: Oh, my gosh. I must admit, if they did that makes me gag. But I like humanity, it’s just we’re always watering things down as opposed to being willing to just say, “Hey, civic engagement is really good and our country is really good too.” But I digress.