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."
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 FireDavidGregory.com, 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.
"She knows everyone in government, and she tells me nothing," Gregory grumbles.
As a test, Wilkinson says, "I pretended I was representing a certain person" in the investigation involving missing intern Chandra Levy, and Gregory immediately picked up the phone to call an NBC colleague. "I totally flunked," Gregory admits.
Despite his prominent role on "NBC Nightly News," Gregory says he gets far more attention for joking around in frequent calls to Don Imus's radio show.
"I'm not afraid to show my personality," he says. "It's who I am. I'm not a two-dimensional, totally serious guy. I think the public can handle it. I don't think it diminishes my credibility."
Gregory was widely mocked when he phoned Imus during the president's trip to India and had a giggling fit. Imus asked whether he was drunk, a comment that was trumpeted by the Drudge Report and caused considerable chatter in media precincts.
"This guy is trying to advance his career by being a clown," Fox News commentator Juan Williams said on the "O'Reilly Factor," adding: "He's laughing and pretending. We don't know if he was drunk, but it sure came across that way."
Gregory says he hadn't had a drop to drink but "cracked myself up" after Imus's disinterested reaction when he started speaking Hindu. "People will take their shots," he says of the critics.
His wife says he shrugs off the barbs. "He's sincere without taking himself too seriously," Wilkinson says. "I don't want to reinforce the notion that he's a ham and a comic and a mimic -- he's all of those things -- but he also brings intelligence and passion to his work."
Gregory, who last year signed a five-year contract, has occasionally filled in for Matt Lauer on "Today," Russert on "Meet the Press" and Chris Matthews on "Hardball" -- a far cry from when he was imitating such luminaries as an AU student.
Gregory demurs when asked whether he has ambitions beyond reporting. But Russert showed no such reticence on whether NBC views its White House correspondent as anchor material.
"Absolutely," Russert says.