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Gregory Gets the Gig
At the heart of these programs is the questioning of candidates, administration officials and members of Congress, generally on inside-the-Beltway matters, in the hope of producing something resembling news for the Monday papers. They cater mainly to an elite audience that cares about public policy.
Gregory said that he might tinker with the format but that "there's a core to the show: accountability -- tough, smart, fair interviews -- that will remain. It's the mission of the program. I am not Tim, but I can do my best, with this team, to make him proud."
Russert, a onetime Democratic operative who died in June, turned "Meet the Press" into a test of wills, cross-examining guests and pressing them to resolve contradictions with their previous statements, which he would feature as video clips or on-screen graphics. In what was dubbed the Russert Primary, a presidential candidate's stock would rise or fall depending on how he or she handled the interrogation.
Public figures also use the shows to make news. In late 2006, Obama told Russert he was leaving the door open to a White House bid after previously denying that he would run. In October, Colin Powell chose "Meet the Press" to deliver an endorsement of Obama.
Betsy Fischer, who was given a long-term contract extension as executive producer, said she and Gregory lived in the same dorm at American University and occasionally drank beer at the old Maggie's pizzeria. "Tim always had complete confidence in David" when he filled in on the show, Fischer said. "He knows Washington like the back of his hand."
Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, who was passed over for the job, now must decide whether to accumulate more interviewing experience by hosting an MSNBC show. "Chuck has got limitless opportunities," Capus said, and Gregory said he would seek Todd's input on and off the air.
Gregory will continue as a contributor and backup anchor for "Today." Over the years, he has drawn attention for his banter on the Don Imus radio show, his dancing with Karl Rove at a Washington dinner and his dead-on impression of Brokaw, who jokingly told him yesterday he had to drop it. Gregory said viewers may still see glimpses of his lighter side. "I try not to take myself too seriously," he said.
After covering George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, Gregory was assigned to the White House, where he frequently clashed with presidential press secretaries and was sometimes accused of being a liberal partisan. "A lot of people view what we do through their own political prism," he said.
Asked about criticism that the media have gone easy on Obama, Gregory said: "I'll approach this administration as I approached the Bush administration. I don't make a distinction. Our leaders in a position of power should face tough questions every day."
Gregory faced a test of sorts when MSNBC, under fire for allowing liberal commentators Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews to anchor during the conventions, tapped him to fill that role on election night. "That wasn't by accident," Capus said.
The Los Angeles native is married to Beth Wilkinson, who was general counsel of Fannie Mae until the government takeover in September, and they have three children. Gregory said he has frequently disclosed his wife's role when Fannie Mae came up in interviews and will continue to do so.
At 6-foot-5, Gregory might be the tallest Sunday host, but he is unlikely to tower over the competition as Russert did. Capus said he won't be "overly panicked" if the ratings dip once Gregory takes over next Sunday. "I know the other guys are gunning for us," Capus said. And he's right.