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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)

Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says Gregory was right to say he was sorry but need offer no apologies for his aggressive style. "Some cast it as asking questions about an irrelevant issue, but he did what he had to do," Russert says. "David is that rare combination of very tenacious reporter and very good broadcaster."

But Gregory's critics have not exactly moved on. On the Web site Ankle Biting Pundits, one said: "As the parent of a rather precocious 2 1/2 year old I've had some experience dealing with temper tantrums, but my kid has got nothing on Gregory." At Free Republic, another conservative site, a poster said: "This barking moonbat is just mad because he realizes there is no way to turn this into a 'Get Bush' or even 'Get Cheney' scandal." There's even an online petition at a Web site called, whose anonymous sponsors did not respond to a request for information.

Gregory, a Los Angeles native, burned with ambition at a strikingly young age. By 15 he was avidly studying anchors and reporters, such as ABC's Donaldson, who often shouted questions at Ronald Reagan. As a freshman at American University, he spent part of his time networking with media big shots, and cut a deal with the ABC affiliate in Tucson to use him as a Washington correspondent who, as it happened, worked out of his dorm room. He was 18.

An uncanny mimic, Gregory used his hobby of impersonating the likes of Peter Jennings to cover his lack of experience.

After graduating in 1992, Gregory worked at the CBS affiliate in Albuquerque and then the NBC affiliate in Sacramento, where one day he was sent to the O.J. Simpson trial to fill in for someone at the network's video service for local stations. He never looked back. NBC signed him as a Chicago-based correspondent in 1996, and he was shipped back to Los Angeles for the Simpson civil trial and, in 1997, to Denver for the Oklahoma City bombing trial.

That proved to be a turning point when Gregory met Beth Wilkinson, one of the federal prosecutors working to convict Timothy McVeigh. He was rather taken with her. "I got kind of a clue when he never asked me for any inside information," says Wilkinson, who found him "very tall, smart and witty." They began dating afterward and were married three years later.

On one trip to NBC headquarters in New York, Gregory was asked to do his drop-dead impersonation of Tom Brokaw for the longtime anchor. He nervously complied, and grew worried when Brokaw sent him a note saying that some people had been offended -- until Gregory realized his leg was being pulled.

In 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the network brought Gregory to Washington to cover the story for MSNBC. He became a "Dateline" correspondent the next year but that proved to be an awkward fit for a deadline-oriented reporter, so Gregory was given a short-lived afternoon talk show on MSNBC. He was put on the Bush campaign in early 2000 and rode that assignment to the White House.

Gregory often clashed with Bush adviser Karen Hughes, but says he gradually "realized that you can't function effectively if you're constantly having a confrontational relationship with them. You have to balance some access with being tough on them."

He defends his sledgehammer questioning at briefings by saying that "this administration has put out press secretaries whose job is to stand there and not say anything. . . . I've been criticized by the left for being too cozy with Bush and not pushing hard enough in the run-up to the war, and criticized by the right for being disrespectful or hysterical or just going nuts over things that don't matter."

McClellan says his job is "to help the president advance an agenda" while working with the press, and that reporters get frustrated by the administration's "discipline."

In his personal life, Gregory also rubs shoulders with newsmakers. At a baby shower for his wife before their son Max, now 3, was born, Michael Chertoff, then an assistant attorney general, disappeared into another room with a Justice Department colleague while Gregory tried to figure out what was going on. It turned out they were finalizing a plea agreement with John Walker Lindh, the American captured while fighting for the Taliban. Wilkinson last month became general counsel of Fannie Mae, and the couple now have 8-month-old twins as well.

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