White House correspondents like to describe their colleague NBCNews's David Gregory as a "bit of a showboat." They recount, forinstance, the time he ordered a Cape Cod cocktail on a presscharter plane--then sent it back four times to achieve the idealratio of vodka to cranberry juice. Sticking with the air-traveltheme, they note that his luggage tends to fill two overheadstorage compartments. "He has a kind of traveling wardrobe," onereporter explains. And when, on his birthday, Gregory affixed to hisbackpack a bunch of balloons that read you're great!, reportersjoked that he had bought them for himself.
Watching Gregory joust with President Bush and his spokesmen, youcan see the genesis of this punch line. When he broke into Frenchto question Jacques Chirac at a joint presidential pressconference, Bush interjected, "The guy memorizes four words, and heplays like he's intercontinental."
Nor does Gregory have any compunction about throwing a hissy fit infull view. Herewith, the locus classicus of the genre:
white house press secretary scott mcclellan: Hold on. Cameras aren'ton right now. You can do this later.
gregory: Don't accuse me of trying to pose to the cameras. Don't bea 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 takeshots at me personally, which I don't appreciate, then I will raisemy voice, because that's wrong.
But, when members of the White House press corps put Gregorydown--all off the record, of course--they don't mention the primecause of their jealousy. It's not just that Gregory has beenauditioning recently to fill the vacated host chair at "Imus in theMorning." During the early years of the Bush presidency, the WhiteHouse press corps slumbered, allowing liars like Ari Fleischer toinveigle them into transcribing distortions about everything fromweapons of mass destruction to tax cuts. But, over the last twoyears, without much fanfare, the White House press corps hasregained its gumption, finally providing the intense journalisticscrutiny that the Bushies deserve. And it was Gregory--a real-lifeStephen Colbert, but on the side of the angels--who led therevival.
'I always know where the camera is," Gregory admitted to me. And, infact, it's a genetic predisposition. He grew up in a showbizfamily, the son of a Hollywood producer, hanging out with his dad'sbuddies like Henry Fonda and Richard Burton. By his mid-teens,Gregory knew he wanted to be a TV reporter and was studying the SamDonaldson oeuvre. It seems only natural that, as a child of theentertainment 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 whomade him. After stints covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal formsnbc and as a "Dateline" correspondent, he was promoted in early2000 to cover the then-Texas governor's presidential run. There,the six-foot-five-inch reporter was bestowed with that ultimatemarker of modern American journalistic accomplishment, one ofBush's terribly inventive nicknames: "Stretch." (It's hard tooverstate the seriousness with which some reporters treat Bush'shabit of nicknaming the journos who cover him. "You will probably,at some point, have to delve into the fact," one reporter told mein a hushed voice, "that Gregory is not the only 'Stretch' in theWhite House press corps"--a reference to the Washington Examiner'ssix-foot-seven Bill Sammon.)
Gregory's first few years covering the White House were a darkperiod for American journalism. Bush came into office determined tochange the way the White House interacted with the press, bytreating the press corps not as an indispensable civic institutionbut rather as just another special interest. His administrationdeliberately marginalized national reporters by tightly controllinginformation and by courting smaller (and usually less skeptical)local news outlets. After the September 11 attacks, it tookadvantage of the president's sky-high approval ratings to encouragea climate in which efforts to challenge him were seen, for a time,as vaguely treasonous. At a 2003 panel discussion, ElisabethBumiller, then the White House correspondent for The New YorkTimes, suggested the degree to which the press had been intimidatedwhen she tried to explain reporters' failure to ask tough questionsat a press conference on the eve of the Iraq invasion. "It'sfrightening to stand up there, " Bumiller said. "Nobody wanted toget into an argument with the president at this very serioustime."
Gregory was hardly posing searching questions during this period.But he could only suppress his inner Sam Donaldson for so long. Hisbreaking point came in the summer of 2005, after it became clearthat the White House had deceived the press about Karl Rove's rolein the unmasking of Valerie Plame. At a July press briefing, heasked McClellan, "Did Karl Rove commit a crime?" The presssecretary's evasive response spurred a spectacular Gregory tizzy:"You're not saying anything," he told McClellan. "[D]on't you owethe American public a fuller explanation?" Watching Gregoryproclaim himself the vox populi--and in such a deep voice--it'shard not to think of Ron Burgundy. But the effect of the incidentwas to fatally undermine McClellan's credibility and embolden thepress corps. "When David began to be more openly aggressive, itbroke the pattern that existed," says Judy Keen of USA Today. "Andthat always sort of makes people wonder about their ownperformance."
Gregory has spent the past two years staging similarly theatricalshowdowns with the administration--many of them triggered by theWhite House inadvertently bruising his ego. After Vice PresidentDick Cheney accidentally shot his hunting partner on a Texas ranchlast year, his office released the news to a local newspaper ratherthan to the national media. Gregory led the pushback, whichculminated with him calling McClellan a "jerk." At a pressconference last September, Gregory raised the concern that theadministration's dismissive approach to the Geneva Conventionscould make it easier for Iran or North Korea to "rough up" Americanprisoners. When Bush, after a typically circuitous nonanswer, triedto move on, Gregory interrupted: "But, sir, this is an importantpoint." This prompted a petulant presidential retort: "The point Ijust made is the most important point." A month later, duringanother Bush press conference, Gregory dismissed the announcementof new benchmarks for the Iraqi government as "semantic rhetoricalgames, and all politics, two weeks before an election."
These incidents have predictably cemented Gregory's identity asExhibit A in the conservative case against the liberal media. Afterthe "jerk" outburst, he was forced to apologize publicly. Theconservative group Accuracy in Media printed up postcards forsupporters to sign and send to Gregory, informing him that "peoplewho watched the briefings were astounded that a White Housereporter for a major news organization would behave in such aninfantile or childish manner." And an anonymous critic created thewebsite firedavidgregory. com, which called Gregory "anembarrassment" and accused him of suffering from "Bush DerangementSyndrome."
None of which has slowed Gregory. When the Iraq Study Group releasedits recommendations for administration policy, Gregory asked thenew press secretary, Tony Snow, "Can this report be seen asanything other than a rejection of this president's handling of thewar?" Snow dismissed the question as "partisan." But, the next day,instead of encouraging conservative bloggers and pundits to turntheir 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 praiseGregory during an interview with the conservative blog Powerline.After years of seeing journalists cowed by White House flacks, it'snice to see those flacks a bit cowed themselves. That's why FirstAmendment-supporters everywhere should raise a perfectly mixed CapeCod to David Gregory.
By Zachary Roth; Zachary Roth is an editor of The Washington Monthly.