Watching Gregory joust with President Bush and his spokesmen, you can see the genesis of this punch line. When he broke into French to question Jacques Chirac at a joint presidential press conference, Bush interjected, "The guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental."
Nor does Gregory have any compunction about throwing a hissy fit in full view. Herewith, the locus classicus of the genre:
White House press secretary Scott McClellan: Hold on. Cameras aren't on right now. You can do this later.
Gregory: Don't accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras. Don't be a jerk to me personally when I'm asking you a serious question.
McClellan: You don't have to yell.
Gregory: I will yell. If you want to use that podium and try to take shots at me personally, which I don't appreciate, then I will raise my voice, because that's wrong.
But, when members of the White House press corps put Gregory down--all off the record, of course--they don't mention the prime cause of their jealousy. It's not just that Gregory has been auditioning recently to fill the vacated host chair at "Imus in the Morning." During the early years of the Bush presidency, the White House press corps slumbered, allowing liars like Ari Fleischer to inveigle them into transcribing distortions about everything from weapons of mass destruction to tax cuts. But, over the last two years, without much fanfare, the White House press corps has regained its gumption, finally providing the intense journalistic scrutiny that the Bushies deserve. And it was Gregory--a real-life Stephen Colbert, but on the side of the angels--who led the revival.
"I always know where the camera is," Gregory admitted to me. And, in fact, it's a genetic predisposition. He grew up in a showbiz family, the son of a Hollywood producer, hanging out with his dad's buddies like Henry Fonda and Richard Burton. By his mid-teens, Gregory knew he wanted to be a TV reporter and was studying the Sam Donaldson oeuvre. It seems only natural that, as a child of the entertainment industry, he broke into the business covering the O.J. Simpson trial for a local affiliate.
But, if it was O.J. who launched Gregory, it was George W. Bush who made him. After stints covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal for MSNBC and as a "Dateline" correspondent, he was promoted in early 2000 to cover the then-Texas governor's presidential run. There, the six-foot-five-inch reporter was bestowed with that ultimate marker of modern American journalistic accomplishment, one of Bush's terribly inventive nicknames: "Stretch." (It's hard to overstate the seriousness with which some reporters treat Bush's habit of nicknaming the journos who cover him. "You will probably, at some point, have to delve into the fact," one reporter told me in a hushed voice, "that Gregory is not the only 'Stretch' in the White House press corps"--a reference to the Washington Examiner's six-foot-seven Bill Sammon.)
Gregory's first few years covering the White House were a dark period for American journalism. Bush came into office determined to change the way the White House interacted with the press, by treating the press corps not as an indispensable civic institution but rather as just another special interest. His administration deliberately marginalized national reporters by tightly controlling information and by courting smaller (and usually less skeptical) local news outlets. After the September 11 attacks, it took advantage of the president's sky-high approval ratings to encourage a climate in which efforts to challenge him were seen, for a time, as vaguely treasonous. At a 2003 panel discussion, Elisabeth Bumiller, then the White House correspondent for The New York Times, suggested the degree to which the press had been intimidated when she tried to explain reporters' failure to ask tough questions at a press conference on the eve of the Iraq invasion. "It's frightening to stand up there," Bumiller said. "Nobody wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time."
Gregory was hardly posing searching questions during this period. But he could only suppress his inner Sam Donaldson for so long. His breaking point came in the summer of 2005, after it became clear that the White House had deceived the press about Karl Rove's role in the unmasking of Valerie Plame. At a July press briefing, he asked McClellan, "Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" The press secretary's evasive response spurred a spectacular Gregory tizzy: "You're not saying anything," he told McClellan. "[D]on't you owe the American public a fuller explanation?" Watching Gregory proclaim himself the vox populi--and in such a deep voice--it's hard not to think of Ron Burgundy. But the effect of the incident was to fatally undermine McClellan's credibility and embolden the press corps. "When David began to be more openly aggressive, it broke the pattern that existed," says Judy Keen of USA Today. "And that always sort of makes people wonder about their own performance."
Gregory has spent the past two years staging similarly theatrical showdowns with the administration--many of them triggered by the White House inadvertently bruising his ego. After Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting partner on a Texas ranch last year, his office released the news to a local newspaper rather than to the national media. Gregory led the pushback, which culminated with him calling McClellan a "jerk." At a press conference last September, Gregory raised the concern that the administration's dismissive approach to the Geneva Conventions could make it easier for Iran or North Korea to "rough up" American prisoners. When Bush, after a typically circuitous nonanswer, tried to move on, Gregory interrupted: "But, sir, this is an important point." This prompted a petulant presidential retort: "The point I just made is the most important point." A month later, during another Bush press conference, Gregory dismissed the announcement of new benchmarks for the Iraqi government as "semantic rhetorical games, and all politics, two weeks before an election."
These incidents have predictably cemented Gregory's identity as Exhibit A in the conservative case against the liberal media. After the "jerk" outburst, he was forced to apologize publicly. The conservative group Accuracy in Media printed up postcards for supporters to sign and send to Gregory, informing him that "people who watched the briefings were astounded that a White House reporter for a major news organization would behave in such an infantile or childish manner." And an anonymous critic created the website firedavidgregory.com, which called Gregory "an embarrassment" and accused him of suffering from "Bush Derangement Syndrome."
None of which has slowed Gregory. When the Iraq Study Group released its recommendations for administration policy, Gregory asked the new press secretary, Tony Snow, "Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this president's handling of the war?" Snow dismissed the question as "partisan." But, the next day, instead of encouraging conservative bloggers and pundits to turn their fire on Gregory, as the White House might once have done, Snow reversed course. He apologized from the podium for the "partisan" charge and afterward went out of his way to praise Gregory during an interview with the conservative blog Powerline. After years of seeing journalists cowed by White House flacks, it's nice to see those flacks a bit cowed themselves. That's why First Amendment supporters everywhere should raise a perfectly mixed Cape Cod to David Gregory.
Zachary Roth is a reporter-blogger at TPMmuckraker and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly.
By Zachary Roth