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01.07.10

David Gregory, Off the Air

He was thrust into the premier job in TV news a year ago, after Tim Russert died. Lloyd Grove talked to the Meet the Press host about the Sunday wars, the Rove dance—and Ted Koppel’s rumored return.

When NBC White House correspondent David Gregory took over Meet the Press in December 2008, he was stepping into the outsize shoes of Tim Russert. Until his untimely death of a heart attack at 58, Russert was Washington’s undisputed King of All Media.

It was, in some respects, an unenviable role for the gray-maned Gregory—whose age, a tender 39, has yet to catch up to his hair. Russert, a former Democratic political operative who advised New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo, anchored MTP for 16 of its 62 years and was also Washington bureau chief—an impossible act to follow.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Gregory discussed his efforts to preserve the program’s Sunday morning ratings dominance, enhance its agenda-setting influence, and make the show his own. He also discussed his reputation as a fearsome competitor, his weakness for dancing in public, acknowledged a couple of his recent missteps, and marveled at how some folks in Washington are trying to suck up to him now that he occupies the throne.

“Look, there have been a couple of occasions where we lost the weekly race,” Gregory says. “We’re still on top after my first year.”

The Daily Beast: You’re entering your second year as moderator of Meet the Press. How does it feel?

Gregory: It feels great. I think the first year was exciting and daunting at the same time. I had the difficulty of trying to achieve some continuity, knowing that I had to measure up in the audience’s mind, while at the same time trying to own the program and find my voice. I really feel like I came out of that first year with a head of steam on all those fronts.

You haven’t missed a single broadcast. What’s that about?

[Laughs.] I always had good attendance in school. I just think for my first year it was important to be here every Sunday to establish myself with this audience and to work really hard.

What are you trying to accomplish with each broadcast? What’s your goal—to make sure you’re quoted on front page of The New York Times?

I think there are a few things. I want to make news, there’s no question. I want Meet the Press to be quoted. That’s the tradition of the program, and I think it’s really important. I want to be agenda-setting. I want to drive the story forward to a new week. And I think, thirdly, one of the things I’m really trying to develop is that I want to be a place for constructive engagement, for really constructive conversation, where you can get beyond that left-right debate and dynamic and really get more toward some solutions. We did that on education, we did it this past Sunday when we were talking about terrorism, which was, I thought, a really adult conversation about some problems with intelligence gathering. And you heard from the current administration person and two former Bush administration folks, and there wasn't finger-pointing or a lot of blame.

But isn’t the finger-pointing the thing that makes the news?

You’re absolutely right, and sometimes finger-pointing does, and sometimes a strong debate can make news. What I’m saying is that I think there’s another layer to it as well. I really do think there’s a hunger, because of our media environment and just how polarized the country is politically… people want to watch a program like Meet the Press and see that here is a constructive conversation that doesn't end in the same place that it started.

The late Lawrence Spivak [who appeared on Meet the Press as a panelist and then moderator from its launch in 1947 until 1975] famously advised Tim Russert that he should treat his guests as his adversaries, and Tim obviously brought a kind of trial-lawyer approach to the program. What about you? Do you see your guest as your adversary?

I’ve not heard that formulation about Spivak. What I’ve always heard is you learn everything about your guest and take the other side. So if that’s what you mean, that’s fair. I don't always think of the guest as an adversary. What I’m trying to do is elicit news, I’m trying to challenge the person, I’m trying to draw out the person in a way where they’re going to be interesting and perhaps more candid. Different interviews lend themselves to different ways.

How competitive are the Sunday booking wars?

Well, they're very competitive. We’re after it all week, and we know the other guys are after it, and we’re also living in a different universe where some of the same people we’re after are being courted throughout the week for other platforms. It’s not like it was 20 years ago, even 10 or five years ago. I think it’s become a lot harder across the board.

You got hammered a little bit with one of your booking approaches to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. [After Sanford admitted to an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina, Gregory emailed his office, arguing that “coming on Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation how you really want to... and then move on.” When his pitch email leaked onto the internet, Gregory was roundly criticized for allegedly offering Sanford a friendly platform to put the scandal in the best possible light.]  Do you have to be careful about your approaches because people in the blogosphere are now ready to pounce on you?

Yeah, and I could’ve done a better job with how I phrased that. But my point with that was to say that this was a fair platform. It was not to say that I would hand the program over to him or somehow would give him questions or allow him to dictate what he was going to do. I could’ve phrased that better. But your general point is right. I’ll face scrutiny, but that’s fine.

You do have a reputation of being frighteningly competitive, both internally and externally with other networks. Have there been points where you’ve seen a guest on another show and said, “Geez, they beat us on getting the best guest, I wish I had that”?

[Laughs.] I’m still caught up with the “frighteningly competitive” part.

I’m not afraid of you.

Listen, no, I have not had an instance where I thought we were out-booked, where something was within our control.

For instance, George Stephanopoulos had Obama two Sundays before the inauguration.

Right, but that’s the rotation thing, that’s not because he was deft. It was because Obama had been on Meet the Press on December 7th, and that’s how these things go. It’s not who is a better hustler or booker.

Have you felt in any way disadvantaged because of Stephanopoulos’ close associations with people in the Obama White House—the fact that he famously talked to Rahm Emanuel every day?

No. You know, I don't worry about that. I do my own thing and Meet the Press stands for what it stands for, and I think that’s pretty good.

So you weren’t rooting for George to take the Good Morning America job?

[Laughs.] No. You know, I wish him well in whatever he does.

What do you make of rumors that ABC is bringing back Ted Koppel to take over This Week?

I have a lot of respect for Ted Koppel, but beyond that I'm not going to comment on a decision ABC hasn't made.

Meet the Press has been No. 1 on the Sunday show ratings, but there were Sundays where This Week With George Stephanopoulos beat you. [ This Week beat Meet the Press last Jan. 11 with Obama as the sole guest, again on Aug. 2 with former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Nov. 29 with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).] What was your reaction to that?

I wasn't happy about it. Look, there have been a couple of occasions where we lost the weekly race. We’ve taken the long view here, and we’re still on top after my first year. I think that it was not a given in a lot of peoples’ minds, but that’s what I was committed to, what [executive producer] Betsy Fischer was committed to, and we’ve done it. I think ABC and Stephanopoulos have obviously been tough competitors. George is first-rate. He’s been doing this a long time on Sunday morning, and he’s a formidable guy, as is Bob Schieffer [host of CBS’ Face the Nation], so those times when we got beaten on a Sunday, I hated it.

Both Tim and George obviously had a great deal of experience as political operatives, as insiders, and you have had a purely journalistic experience. Do you feel in any way disadvantaged by not having that insider’s perspective?

You know, I don't. I guess I can recognize its value, but I don't feel disadvantaged without it. I just don't. I feel like the journalistic background is as much of an advantage, and it is who I am.

Do you have political beliefs that you decide to sweep under the carpet in order to do your show in a fair and balanced manner?

I think it’s part of the discipline. There are certainly views I have as a human being that, I make clear, do not become part of what I do journalistically. I think an advantage of my journalistic background, as opposed to a political operative’s background, is that I really am a very independent-thinking person, and I really have been very politically independent, and I have no desire to be on a particular side. Sometimes I recognize how great it is for people who are involved in politics to have that experience, and I think it’s a wonderful experience to have, but I don’t desire to have that emotional connection to one side or the other. It keeps my discipline up journalistically and I think it honestly makes me a better thinker. I do vote. I think it’s very important to vote.

How do you vote?

I don't say. That’s my personal business. I’m registered as an independent, but I just don't think it’s people’s business how I vote because I’ve got enough people trying to divine what my motives are anyway. I don't think I need to give any more fodder for that.

You’re known for your killer impressions. You do Bush. Have you perfected your impression of Obama yet?

I have to say, I don't really have a lock on him. I’ve tried at various points, just kind of fooling around, but I don't really think I can get the voice. I feel like I can recognize the cadence, but I haven't been able to do it yet. I mean, Bush took me a while, but I was just around him so much that it kind of came together—though I don't feel like he appreciated it as much as I did.

Compare and contrast Bush and Obama.

It’s interesting. I think Obama is a cooler figure—in some of the ways you would describe positively, but also just more emotionally distant. I think he’s more cerebral, and I think his mind works differently. I think he’s much more of an intellectual than Bush was or ever cared to be, by his own admission. I think Bush was much more of a gut player. Stylistically from what I can glean, somebody described Obama—comparing him to Clinton, actually—as a more disciplined thinker rather than a creative thinker. So I think Obama can be very lawyerly and very precise about how he orchestrates what goes on in front of him. I don't know that Obama has the same ability to reflect the emotions of the country as Bush did at certain points in his presidency. Think about immediately after 9/11. I just think Obama has a different temperament.

How do you think it’s going for him?

I think he faces a real difficulty in that everything he’s managing is not necessarily popular, so people are upset about the economy, upset about the financial system, they're not really in favor of what’s going on in Afghanistan. He’s got to manage those and actually create policy around it, and now terrorism comes along and the poor handling of what happened on Christmas Day. So he has to deal with that. Health care is really not that popular right now, even though it might get more popular as he passes it. So he’s dealing with all these things that aren’t necessarily popular in the public’s mind, and even worse than that, people are really sour about government. I just don't think people have a lot of faith in big institutions right now, whether it's media or Wall Street or government, and yet he’s got to somehow win the argument that government is the solution.

Have you noticed now that you’ve had this venerable franchise, the longest-running television show, that people treat you differently in Washington?

Yeah, I’ve seen some examples of that, where in some cases people are nicer sometimes, they curry favor because they want to be on the program. It kind of comes with the territory a little bit in Washington.

Now that you are in this august position, does that mean you can’t be seen dancing on television anymore?

I don't think that’s what that means. I have always felt that the audience gets it, that there’s different sides to people, and when I was substituting for Tim on Meet the Press and then substituting for Matt Lauer on the Today show—dancing one place and being serious on another—it’s kind of just who I am. I don't think it means that I’m a less serious person because I like to have some fun and be funny. I mean, I don't think dancing on Meet the Press would be a good idea.

You famously danced with Karl Rove on the stage of the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner—and it’s on YouTube for eternity. If you had to do it all over again, would you have done that?

Let me just say, as a caveat, that was actually a set-up. I was told that Fox was determined to put us in that situation and I made the determination at the time that it would’ve been silly to refuse that moment of fun. Not knowing where it was going, I thought it would’ve seemed a little odd and maybe self-righteous to have just marched off the stage at that moment. I don't think that moment somehow detracted from my seriousness on the job or my willingness to be tough with Karl Rove or President Bush, and I think my reputation there has spoken for itself. I know it’s been lampooned or criticized more generally. I’d rather not do that if that gives the wrong impression to people of whatever the take-away of that is. I’d rather not have that there.

You won’t be accepting any invitations at the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner to be part of a skit anymore?

Yeah, I think that experience has taught me that’s something I ought to avoid.

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Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.