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David Gregory: Pressing guests on ‘Meet the Press’

FRAZIER MOORE, AP Television Writer

Publication: The Day

Published March 11. 2013 4:00AM
NBC, William B. Plowman/AP Photo
NBC News shows moderator David Gregory on the set of "Meet the Press" in Washington.

You can only imagine the rush David Gregory felt when his "Meet the Press" guest, Vice President Joe Biden, took a cue from him and blurted out some history.

Midway through that memorable interview last May, Biden seized the bait when Gregory happened to ask his position on gay marriage.

"Once he mentioned the societal impact of 'Will & Grace,'" says Gregory, "I knew we were off to the races."

Biden surprised everyone (maybe even himself) by declaring he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex married couples enjoying the same rights as heterosexual married couples, thus inadvertently prodding President Barack Obama to publicly affirm his own support for same-sex unions days later.

That kind of Beltway Booyah moment helps account for why Gregory loves hosting "Meet the Press," NBC's venerable Sunday morning public-affairs program he took over four years ago (and where he recently accepted what the network calls its "long-term commitment" for his services).

"This is an agenda-setting program," says Gregory. "What happens on 'Meet the Press' can definitely make news and frame the debate."

But it isn't just the bombshells that give Gregory a kick. On "Meet the Press," he also experiences the occasional interview that, as he describes it, seems akin to a dream-state.

Like the recent visit by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"I was so engaged in talking to him," says Gregory, "that I wasn't thinking about the fact that we were on television, in the middle of the show. That's a pretty great feeling."

But such interrogatory rapture isn't the norm, he notes during a recent chat at NBC's New York headquarters.

"I sometimes have a sense that, 'Wow, I'm not getting anything here, so how hard do I want to drill into this stone before I move on and try something slightly different?'

"Above all," he stresses, "the program needs to be a civil forum."

It generally is - even when Gregory faced National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre not long after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

That interview "got pretty aggressive on both ends," Gregory acknowledges.

And in the heated atmosphere of the gun-control debate, this interview's substance was largely upstaged by a prop Gregory pulled out in the course of his questioning: a high-capacity ammunition magazine, the possession of which turned out to be against local gun laws. (After an investigation by the District of Columbia's Office of the Attorney General, prosecutors said in January that Gregory wouldn't face charges. He now says he is legally prohibited from commenting.)

But during the LaPierre exchange, "I got to ask questions that I thought were important to really test him and push him," says Gregory, "and I think he felt like he was able to push back and say what he wanted to say. I think that's important." (LaPierre did not respond to requests for his opinion of the meeting.)

The 42-year-old Gregory was named "Meet the Press" moderator in December 2008, a few months after the sudden death of Tim Russert, a dogged interviewer and, after 17 years as host of the program, a TV institution in his own right.

The Los Angeles-born Gregory, who joined NBC News in 1995, came to the program after serving as chief White House correspondent during George W. Bush's presidency.

"I'm not Tim," Gregory told viewers when his "Meet the Press" appointment was announced. "But I can just work real hard to make him proud."

Notable for his prematurely silver hair and his 6-foot-5 frame, Gregory has brought a crispness and amped-up pace to the broadcast.

"I want people to see that he's going to be tough," says Gregory, lapsing into the third person, "that he's going to force some accountability - but he's also going to try to engage (his subjects) in a conversation and draw them out.

"I'm trying to get to something real."

Although "Meet the Press" has been on the air since 1947 - it is billed as "the world's longest-running television program" - Gregory faces stiff competition in a crowded Sunday-morning yack pack.

Currently, CBS' "Face the Nation" claims the lead in the audience sweepstakes. Season to date, it's averaging 3.25 million viewers (though CBS only counts the program's first, higher-rated half-hour), while "Meet the Press," which calls itself the most-watched HOUR, is averaging 3.13 million viewers. ABC's "This Week" and Fox's "Fox News Sunday" take third and fourth place.

"Meet the Press" must also compete for high-level guests, going up against all sorts of talk shows airing all week.

But Gregory is working to move beyond the Beltway-centric guests and topics that have long characterized the Sunday-morning talk shows.

"I want to expand the repertoire of our conversations," he says, which has led to booking corporate figures and state and local officials as well as celebrities engaged in social issues, like George Clooney. "It's not just a discussion of what Washington is doing and not doing, but also what kind of country are we, and what kind of society do we want to be?"

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