HOW’S YOUR FAITH? An Unlikely Spiritual Journey
By David Gregory
Simon & Schuster. 276 pp. $26
Throughout his career with NBC News, David Gregory often came off as a bit of a peacock — arrogant, pushy, eager to put himself in the center of things. So when I learned that he had written a book, I suspected it would be another Washington tell-all, dishing on journalistic rivals, slamming the execs who ousted him from “Meet the Press,” offering Playbook-ready, behind-the-scenes tidbits from big interviews.
Instead, “How’s Your Faith?” is a thoughtful, introspective and moving account of Gregory’s life, family and beliefs, including his struggles with his mother’s alcoholism, with interfaith marriage, with anger, with God. Gregory’s television career is an important part of the story — and there are some insidery moments here — but not an essential part. This is a book for seekers of faith, not fame.
The son of a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother, Gregory was raised as a cultural Jew, not a particularly observant one; he attended the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where his producer father mingled with Hollywood types. “Not having a strong religious background freed me in a way,” he writes. “It gave me the chance to build my own faith identity.”
Gregory built that identity out of choice and necessity. When he became a father, he wanted to raise his children in his faith. His wife, Beth Wilkinson, an accomplished lawyer and a Christian, agreed on one condition: “If we’re going to do this,” she said, “we need to have a deep commitment to belief, not just culture. It has to be about more than being Jewish as a people.”
Their efforts form the most compelling parts of “How’s Your Faith?,” revealing the strains and joys of interfaith families. Even the couple’s wedding service, mixing Jewish and Christian elements, “foreshadowed a life of religious compromise,” Gregory explains. Wilkinson did not convert but participates in the family’s weekly Shabbat dinners. Gregory tries to spark their kids’ interest in Passover by putting together a family play or distributing notecards with questions about the Jewish holiday (intense stuff like “Is it ever justified to kill someone as God kills Pharaoh’s son?”).
The arrangement is not easy for the faith left behind. Gregory “felt alone at times” in his attempts and admits that “it took Beth many years to acknowledge how much of a sacrifice it has been for her to give up raising our kids Christian.” As her husband’s quest to deepen his Jewishness consumed more of his time, Wilkinson warned him that “the focus on my identity was another form of self-absorption — something that she has tried to help me overcome.”
Another prod for Gregory’s exploration came from a less-obvious source: President George W. Bush, whom Gregory had long covered. During a conversation in late 2008, Bush posed a simple query: “How’s your faith?”
“I’d never been asked such a straightforward question about my spiritual journey by anyone,” the author writes.
Gregory admires Bush’s fervor — “his faith remained strong through even the darkest moments of his presidency” — and defends him from the criticism that he let religion dictate policy: “His faith was more of a personal discipline. I think it offered him a source of comfort and strength in times of tough decisions, and it was not especially relevant to the outcome of those decisions.”
Bush has credited his faith with helping him quit drinking at age 40, another reason Gregory is drawn to the president’s experience. “As a kid as young as eleven, my spiritual longing began,” he writes. “I needed something to help me with the most difficult part of my life: my mother’s drinking.”
As a child, Gregory managed to cope — he would ask his mother for lunch money in the mornings, before her drinking started, knowing “I could count on her then” — and even used her condition to channel his early ambitions. “I could escape my secrets by imagining myself as an authoritative and curious journalist,” he explains.” But it all became unmanageable on April 24, 1986, when his mother was pulled over and arrested for drunken driving. She spent the night in jail. Gregory, 15, was in the car.
She’s been sober since that night nearly three decades ago, but the transformation did not erase the tensions. “I was never particularly comfortable being the catalyst for Mom trying to get sober,” Gregory writes. “For many years, I considered her a huge burden.” He moved in with his father shortly thereafter (Gregory’s parents were divorced), though he also wondered why his father hadn’t extricated him and his sister from a fraught situation. “I felt unexpressed anger at both my parents for years,” Gregory admits.
Anger remains a challenge. Gregory’s famous outbursts in the White House briefing room weren’t “an act for the cameras. . . . I was genuinely hotheaded.” (He recalls slipping apology notes under the door of Bush press secretary Ari Fleisher.) Gregory unleashed his “inner Alec Baldwin” in 2013 when he chewed out the organizers of a charity event near his house because too many cars were parked nearby. “Don’t ever do something you don’t want to see written about on the front page of The Washington Post,” he muses. (Actually, the story ran in the Style section. Headline: “David Gregory’s ready to rumble over parking.”) And he writes of the time he angrily grabbed his oldest son by the arm while reprimanding him. “I immediately felt deeply disappointed at myself,” Gregory writes, and he apologized to his son, then just 6 or 7 years old. “Anger has always been my adversary, crouching just outside the door.”
Gregory interviews well-known religious figures during his spiritual “journey” (yes, the word recurs throughout the book), such as Houston mega-pastor Joel Osteen and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Sometimes these conversations yield good insights — Dolan advises him to stop thinking of religion as a “project,” because it’s more of a “dare” — but they often feel distracting, like dutiful journalistic asides. Better are his sessions with Erica Brown, a biblical scholar and Orthodox Jew who calls out the “toxicity” of Gregory’s profession and the dissonance between his home, where he’s trying to instill faith and values, and his work, full of “anxieties and negativity.”
Gregory acknowledges compartmentalizing his faith; his job was his identity. “Who would you be,” Brown asked, “if you lost it all?” The question proved prescient in 2014, when he was replaced as “Meet the Press” host. Though Gregory likens his last year with NBC to “a marriage that you know is bad,” he was furious when the network denied him a final show because it feared “another Ann Curry moment,” a reference to Curry’s prolonged and tearful farewell from NBC’s “Today” show.
“Parting ways with NBC — and being publicly humiliated in the process — was a great test of my faith,” Gregory writes. The experience made him reconsider his treatment of others:
“I think I could have done more, across my career, to build a supportive network of journalists, coworkers, and friends. I should have been the kind of colleague whom people wanted to stick their necks out for, to stand up for. But in a fickle town and an often venomous business, I don’t think I was that guy for many people. . . . When I left NBC, what stung more than the outright negativity was the indifference shown by so many. . . . Now I think that if I had given more, perhaps I would have gotten more in return.”
Still a bit self-serving? Sure. But also the words of a chastened man.
When it comes to faith, “the work doesn’t end,” Gregory concludes. He now hopes to find ways to “adapt the beauty of Judaism’s four-thousand-year-old traditions to fit a pluralistic society and interfaith marriages like mine a little better.”
It’s not clear what this means for the 45-year-old Gregory’s career. A cynical reading might deem this book an exercise in brand extension, a sort of “Big God and Me.” (Note that the Washington Speakers Bureau includes “Christian Faith & Inspiration,” “Jewish Interests” and “Religion” among the issues Gregory can now discuss.) The author could be signaling to peers that things turned out fine — and to prospective employers that he’s a better person now.
Such an interpretation would say more about the reader than the author. I’d rather take Gregory and this fine book at face value. On faith.
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