WASHINGTON — Seasoned broadcast journalist and former “Meet the Press” host David Gregory sized up the presidential election, emphasized the growing role of social media in Washington, looked back on career moments — many of them humorous — and promoted his new book in his keynote speech Wednesday at the American Boating Congress.
“I’ve been in the news business for 25 years and had some wonderful experiences,” said Gregory, the author of “How’s Your Faith?” — an examination of his own faith journey. “I started when I was 18 years old. I went to school here at American University, and when I was 18 I was on the air.”
Before he began his lengthy career in Washington, Gregory “dreamed of being a European-based foreign correspondent,” he said. “But then the Berlin Wall fell down and that was it.”
Gregory went on to establish a reputation as a journalist who asks tough questions. The former NBC chief White House correspondent was the host and moderator of “Meet the Press” and did anchoring work on all of NBC’s major programs, including “NBC Nightly News,” where he reported Osama bin Laden’s capture and death.
Gregory’s 45-minute speech was filled with memorable career moments, such as the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials, the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh’s trial.
“I was actually in the courtroom when [Simpson] tried on the bloody glove,” Gregory said. “It was such a significant moment … because it marked a moment when the government did something really stupid, which was make a demonstration they did not know the outcome of. … It was a disaster for the prosecution.”
In the McVeigh trial, Gregory met the prosecuting attorney, Beth Wilkinson, who argued for Timothy McVeigh to get the death penalty. “She very pointedly told the jury that this notion that McVeigh was a patriot was completely unfounded and that he targeted innocent lives,” said Gregory, who subsequently married Wilkinson and had three children with her.
His future wife of 15 years told jurors that they “must have the ability to look him in the eye and tell him he is a coward and no patriot and deserves to die.”
He said the key to Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House will be her ability to “prove she represents the future and not the past,” referring to Bill Clinton’s administration. He also said “it was not easy for a party in power for eight years to win a third term.”
Gregory talked about some dead-serious issues, such as his tour of Ground Zero with President George W. Bush (he was the only network journalist allowed to do so) and the president’s history-making vow to hunt down the 9/11 terrorists. Gregory, who was the chief White House correspondent during the Bush presidency, realized he was seeing history being made in real time. He also described the tense situation that occurred when Bush met Russian leader Vladimir Putin for the first time.
But he also consistently used humor to describe incidents in his career.
He appeared on “NBC Nightly News” from a ranch in Texas adjacent to George W. Bush’s ranch. “I was a boy from Los Angeles; I thought there were cows behind me. I did not realize that they were Black Angus bulls owned by this particular ranch. I also did not know how to dress. I was covering the recount of the 2008 campaign and had my Dick Cheney casual blue blazer on and an open shirt. And Tom Brokaw, who was from the Mountain West, didn’t miss an opportunity at the end of my report to say on the Nightly News, ‘Thanks very much — David Gregory, ladies and gentlemen, introducing the blue blazer to ranch wear.’ ”
Gregory’s imitation of Brokaw drew hearty laughter from the crowd.
Gregory also imitated Bush several times, the first when Bush poked fun at him for asking a question in French of President Jacques Chirac of France at a news conference by the two leaders in 2002.
Gregory, who knew the French language, figured he would ask the French leader a question in his native tongue. Bush “ripped off his translation headset as if I had committed a war crime and said, ‘Gregory, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘The guy memorizes four words in French and plays like he’s intercontinental.” Gregory got so much flak from the public about the incident that he was forced to change his email address.
Gregory said journalists are always looking for politicians to speak frankly and “put away their talking points.” Vice President Joe Biden obliged on many occasions, he said. Gregory recalled an interview on “Meet the Press” with Biden in which the vice president used the television show “Will and Grace” during a statement that was deemed to be a shift of the administration’s position on gay marriage. After Biden referred to the show, Gregory knew he had a juicy story and said to himself at the time, “Yes, we’re off to news-making town now.”
Gregory described the heightening influence of social media on conventional journalism coverage and politicians’ use of it, which results in them avoiding the “filter” of the media.
“The candidates can reach you directly, which displaces established journalists,” Gregory said. “The brands still matter, but platforms don’t matter as much. “Politicians will go to local cable stations and the media sources they want.”
Gregory also talked about the media’s need to spark interest and debate; the level to which Americans want to disengage from Middle East strife; and the decline of television, or appointment television.
After his speech he fielded questions about Putin, Brian Williams, ISIS and Jon Stewart. He described Stewart, the host of the satirical news program “The Daily Show,” as having “an impactful, serious voice … that influenced through humor.”
Of Brian Williams’ suspension from NBC, Gregory said he would “hate for his career to be judged by this one mistake,” noting the media’s tendency to “tear people down.”
He described Putin as a leader who “senses tentativeness” and “responds more to strength.”
On ISIS, he said, “America has to lead the effort against ISIS somehow, but additional players need to be involved.”
He discussed “leaving NBC under pretty difficult circumstances.”
“I had different intentions on how things would work out, [and] faced a lot of criticism and speculation about whether I would be fired,” Gregory said. “When I finally did lose my job at ‘Meet the Press’ it was a difficult time, especially to have it done so publicly.”
But Gregory’s faith steadied him and prompted him to ask himself, “Who am I, really?” My faith has helped me realize that there is more to me … a deeper identity as a husband, a father and a person who is closer to God.”
The title of his book came from a conversation with Bush, who asked him: “So Gregory, how is your faith?”
“I don’t think I have been asked that stark of a question by anyone — and it sits with me still,” he said.