Retorting From The White House

NBC News's David Gregory outside the White House, where Bush administration officials know him as an aggressive questioner.
NBC News's David Gregory outside the White House, where Bush administration officials know him as an aggressive questioner. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

If David Gregory seems like a bit of a showman in the White House pressroom, it's worth noting that, as the son of a Broadway producer, he grew up meeting the likes of Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Henry Fonda.

But NBC's White House correspondent, while mindful of the cameras, insists he's not putting on a show, whether he's telling off spokesman Scott McClellan or challenging President Bush with questions that are often replayed on the nightly news or cable shows.

"I have no problem with being tough," says Gregory, 35, dubbed "Stretch" by the president for his 6-foot-5 stature. "I think it's totally appropriate to press hard for answers, particularly with a group of people who don't like to give information." For the administration, he says, "it's easy to divert attention against a familiar whipping boy, the White House press corps, and define this as a freakish sideshow. . . . I provide fodder for critics who say, 'Aha, they're out of control.' "

After six years on the beat, Gregory is emerging as the Sam Donaldson of the Bush years, the outspoken, aggressive, smart-aleck correspondent serving as a symbol for conservatives who detest the press and liberals who want reporters to crusade against the White House.

Still, those who think he is at war with the administration might be surprised to learn that he believes he has a good relationship with Bush. The president has teased him about asking a question of Jacques Chirac in French, and once said at his Crawford ranch: "Gregory, I feel like I've spent a whole lifetime with you."

"He is such an affable, personable guy and uses that to his advantage," Gregory says. "A lot of reporters think he's a good guy. I think he's a good guy."

In the Internet age, the questions at the televised White House briefings are picked apart as much as the answers, with bloggers using transcripts and video to rip reporters who they believe are pushing an agenda. Gregory is a favorite piñata.

When Vice President Cheney accidentally wounded a hunting companion last month on a Texas ranch, White House reporters pummeled McClellan with questions for days. "The vice president of the United States accidentally shoots a man, and he feels that it's appropriate for a ranch owner who would witness this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper and not the White House press corps at large?" Gregory demanded. He also scolded McClellan: "Don't tell me you're giving us complete answers when you're not actually answering the question."

At the off-camera morning briefing known as "the gaggle," McClellan tried to deflect a question by saying: "David, hold on. . . . The cameras aren't on right now." Gregory responded: "Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question." McClellan said he didn't have to yell, and Gregory said he would indeed yell "if you want to use that podium to try to take shots at me personally, which I don't appreciate."

Within hours, lots of people were taking personal shots at Gregory. Jon Friedman, the media columnist for Marketwatch.com, wrote that Gregory had become "the poster child for inappropriate, self-serving behavior."

Gregory publicly apologized to McClellan. "I thought he insulted me, but it was inappropriate to say what I said," Gregory says now.

McClellan calls the apology "an incredibly classy thing to do on his part. . . . We both have a job to do and both have respect for one another. David is a hard-nosed reporter who asks tough questions and works really hard to be fair."


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