On the morning of Sunday, July 20, NBC News paterfamilias Tom Brokaw was wrapping up Meet the Press, where he has been anchor since the sudden and untimely death of Tim Russert.
The weekly round table had ended, and it was time to say goodbye to his guests, NBC political director Chuck Todd and NBC White House correspondent David Gregory.
When the segment ended, both reporters sat with their hands neatly folded in front of them and awaited the frugally dispensed approval of Mr. Brokaw.
“Thank you very much, David Gregory, our NBC White House correspondent and, of course, star of MSNBC’s The Road to the White House,” said Mr. Brokaw.
Mr. Gregory managed not to grimace. His show is called Race for the White House.
“Chuck Todd, our political director,” continued Mr. Brokaw. “We’ll be seeing a lot more of you, here, on Meet the Press … in the weeks to come,” Mr. Brokaw said, it seemed, to Mr. Todd.
Mr. Gregory kept smiling as the credits rolled. But if deep inside his mind there was a momentary flicker of career anxiety, the ambitious newsman could be forgiven. Since Russert’s death, speculation about the future anchor of Meet the Press has tended to favor the 36-year-old Mr. Todd and Mr. Gregory, 37. And it was Mr. Todd who got the public invitation to return.
Of course, it’s not Mr. Brokaw’s decision. But the slip was a reminder that nobody in Washington seems to be paying attention to Mr. Gregory’s new show.
Created when the network liquidated Tucker Carlson’s evening program, Mr. Gregory’s show was a fitting placement for the man who is arguably the most famous current White House correspondent. Over the past seven years, Mr. Gregory has become master of the dark art of theatrical confrontation, and the perfect whip-smart, self-important foil to Mr. Bush’s aw-shucks anti-elitism. For a long time, when the president was hot, so too was “Stretch.”
Along the way, he racked up more face time on the evening news than any other reporter in broadcast journalism. His blustery dust-ups with Mr. Bush and a succession of White House press secretaries became YouTube classics, heroic to those on the left, more proof of liberal bias to those on the right.
“He was that guy for the Bush administration,” said Mark Leibovich, a Washington-based reporter at The New York Times. “In a sense, he was the perfect Bush foil. Everything you hear about how George Bush felt alienated at Andover and Yale, and how he felt aggressively anti-elitist towards the people he thought were full of themselves, well, David Gregory would certainly fit that mold.”
But lame-duck presidents create lame-duck White House correspondents. And so identifying the silver-haired heartthrob with the big political story of the day was a blessing from the network.
From the moment the show kicked off on March 17, things looked grim. The format was essentially a high-tech version of, say, The McLaughlin Group, with various journalists sitting around debating topics of Mr. Gregory’s choosing.
There was one innovation: Instead of sitting around a table, the heads of the various guests appeared in boxes. An unfavorable review of the show in The New Republic promptly described the look as “intergalactic Nancy Grace.”
The show was minimally staffed. In the absence of an experienced, aggressive booker, the decision was made to cull each evening’s guests from the long roster of NBC and MSNBC political contributors. As a result, on each day’s show, Mr. Gregory spends much of the hour debriefing fellow reporters and pundits such as Michael Smerconish, Eugene Robinson, Harold Ford Jr., Tony Blankley, John Harwood, Michelle Bernard and on and on.
“It’s not particularly good practice for Meet the Press, where you’re having formal interviews with newsmakers,” encyclopedic TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall recently told NYTV. “I don’t think he ever has newsmakers on there. The function of the show is to showcase NBC’s in-house political analysts. There’s not much heavy lifting there for him to do. His current job is merely debriefing. The good debriefers are actually rather self-effacing. Couric was very good at that on the Today show. When she had the big ego political people come in, she would be a patient listener. And not really show off by asking too many questions. That sort of style—O.K., tell me about this, and then sort of shutting up and letting the person do their bit—it doesn’t fit his special skills.
“Add all those things together and he’s getting the face time, but he’s not getting the opportunity to display his journalistic skills,” added Mr. Tyndall. “On the other hand, if you’re a White House correspondent with this president and this White House, you’re just happy for any bone they’ll throw you.”