Q&A: David Gregory on Losing His Dream Job, Brian Williams, and His New Book About Faith

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Today - Season 61
David Gregory on the Today show. Photo: NBC NewsWire/2012 NBCUniversal Media, LLC.

It’s been a year since NBC News dumped David Gregory out of the moderator’s chair of Meet the Press. Gregory’s messy exit from the network where he spent 20 years became one of the headline-generating scandals that rocked NBC. (The others, of course, being Brian Williams’s suspension and ouster from NBC Nightly News, and the ongoing off-camera drama at Today.) Gregory has remained mostly silent about the public ordeal of losing his dream job, but now he’s resurfacing. Yesterday, Gregory sat down at DGS Deli in Washington and over lox, latkes, and crispy chicken skin (no bacon!) talked about leaving the longest-running show on television, why he doesn’t think he was fired, and how George W. Bush inspired him to find God and write a book titled How’s Your Faith?

In the book you write about how you didn’t want to tell your kids that you were fired from Meet the Press because that would imply you did something wrong. For the record, were you fired?
No. I wouldn’t reduce it to that. I made it clear to [NBC] that I was becoming too much the story and that for the good of the show they had to shore me up. If that wasn’t going to be the case, then I needed to move on.

They did support you early on. Especially after that Washington Post story reported that NBC hired a psychological consultant to study you.
Which was false. You know, there were a lot of leaks that were coming out and speculating about the future of the show that could have only come from within NBC.

I reported how [former NBC News chairwoman] Patricia Fili-Krushel called Chuck Todd’s agent and told him to stop leaking. Why didn’t you confront Chuck?
I decided not to do that. I decided not to plug the leaks. I think it’s unfortunate that the leadership of NBC was not capable of dealing with it. I understand Washington and there was blood in the water about me.

Why didn’t you do something else at NBC?
It didn’t come up.

If you had better relationships at NBC would they have backed you up when things went south?
I think I could have done a better job building a community so when I was facing tough times people would have been rooting for me and not thinking, Yeah, he deserves his comeuppance. I didn’t do a really good job of that. After I left there was a colleague who wrote me a note that said, “We always knew you were unstoppable.” I thought at the time this was probably meant as a compliment, but I took it in a more pragmatic way that it’s not a good thing to have someone say that about you. It means you’re too interested in yourself.

Do you think about what you could have done differently to reverse the ratings decline?
First of all, NBC at that time, if you remember, was having a lot of different difficulties. Nightly News was starting to suffer. The Today show fell out of first place. There was no question we were struggling in the ratings. But remember I was No. 1 for three years of my tenure. The show was still profitable and I was trying to do things and make changes to help the show evolve.

Like what?
We were getting away from the predictable guests on the show. We introduced a lot of new voices, from Baltimore’s mayor to Atlanta’s mayor. People who are on all the time now, we were the first to put them on. I wasn’t going to put a marching band on the show and have croissants and eggs in front of a live audience. It’s not what people expect and it detracts from the integrity of the show.

I’ve written about how NBC News president Deborah Turness wanted to have a band play after a segment on Nelson Mandela, for example. Why didn’t you two see eye-to-eye?
All I’m going to say is we had some differences about what we ought to do to the show. That’s all I’ll give you on that.

If you could do things differently on specific segments, what would you do? Let’s take the segment on the NRA when you showed a gun magazine on the air.
[Laughs] That’s a leading question.

Would you do it differently?
Yeah.

Why?
Well, you know, I should have done a better job of vetting that and not doing it.

The other segment that got a lot of attention was your interview with Glenn Greenwald. What do you think about that now?
I’m in the business, as a journalist, of asking tough questions. I would do it again. And so is he. And I found his response surprising and his fans’ [response] surprising.

In what way?
He has no problem taking people on and asking people questions and probing and pushing. And yet, he seemed to not like when it’s done to him.

Was there a sense of relief after you left? I get that from the book.
I miss covering the stories and doing good work. But I don’t miss being at NBC. So from that point of view, I feel at peace.

Watching what happened to Brian Williams, what did you think?
I have a lot of respect for Brian. I’ve been around him a long time. I never did anything wrong, and I faced a lot of scrutiny. No one questioned my journalistic capability or my integrity. But I don’t like to see him judged just by this. But you know, the other side is: My wife was in the military. My father-in-law was a nuclear-submarine captain. My father was in the military. I know how seriously any military family would take that kind of exaggeration or embellishment, and as a journalist it’s so core to what we do to build up our integrity, and he was wrong.

How does it make you feel now that his suspension is winding down? He has a job and you don’t.
It’s just not something that I think about.

But is the lesson here that TV news is about ratings? His ratings were better so he could screw up and he’s back in the tent. Your ratings were troubled and you’re now out of the tent.
Yeah. I’m not going to conflate the two things.

There were reports that NBC talked with Jon Stewart about taking over Meet the Press. What would that have done to the franchise?
The Sunday shows are changing and he’s a person of a lot of integrity and credibility. I’m sure if he came to Meet the Press he would have done a really good job and he would have taken it in a different direction and maybe the audience would have been really welcoming to that.

You would have done it?
Well, I don’t want to be overly like, I would have stood up and given him my chair. But yeah, I understand why they wanted to have Jon Stewart. It could have been a really interesting idea.

If you could book one interview now, who would it be?
I’m still bummed out I never had President Bush on the show.

I was surprised that the title of your book comes from something President Bush told you. [During an Oval Office meeting in late 2008, Bush asked Gregory: “How’s your faith?”] There’s a fondness for him that comes across in the book.
To be asked a question like that, it’s such a penetrating question. I thought about it more deeply as time wore on. The question was increasingly important for my life. I think I respected his personal growth and how he spoke about faith and how he spoke to me about faith.

But the critique is he put faith above reason.
That’s something that I don’t think is accurate. I just have never put much stock in the idea that he had a messianic view of Christianity that led him to make certain decisions or that appealing to a higher Father rather than his own father was somehow code for God tells me what to do. For me, I feel like his faith was something that helped him stop drinking and helped him deal with weakness in himself and get a little more self-mastery.

Until a friend of mine told me that you’re an observant Jew and that you’re studying Judaism, I didn’t even know you were Jewish. You didn’t bring it up on the show.
It came up a couple of times. Eric Cantor during an interview said twice, “You know, you’re Jewish.” It was like he was going out of his way to point it out.

I’m neurotic and I kind of look Jewish and sometimes it’s just assumed. For you, it’s the identity you’re actively choosing, society’s not putting it on you.
As a more religious person, I know that this identity is who I am. And from an ethnic point of view I’m Jewish enough for Hitler whether I like it or not. [Gregory’s father is Jewish.] So I don’t feel like it’s a choice. I feel like I’ve inherited this tradition.

I was moved by the passage in the book where you write about experimenting with Tefillin and praying in your room because you didn’t want your children to see you. It reminded me of that scene in Homeland where Brody is praying to Mecca in his garage.
For reasons I think you’ll appreciate I don’t like the comparison. I know there are Jews who would say, “You’re hiding, why are you doing that?” To be honest about it, though, it was not how I grew up. It felt very foreign to me. I don’t think I was very comfortable with it and I was experimenting with it to grow in faith and become more centered in my Jewish faith.

Do you still do it now?
No. I stopped doing it. It was a ritual that wasn’t carrying so much meaning to me.

In the book you don’t really engage the question of Israel.
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that Israel is the centerpiece of my Judaism. As a journalist I’ve always treaded carefully about being Jewish and caring a lot about Israel and having that not become too big of an issue that could affect my journalism. But I also don’t think it’s essential to my Judaism as I think it might be for some other people.

If you could interview one Old Testament figure who would it be?
Moses comes to mind. There’s so much drama, so much leadership.

Your wife is Methodist. What is it like for you, going to church?
I really enjoy it.

It makes me totally anxious when I do it.
Yeah. I have a different reaction. I find myself very drawn to the experience of church. I love to be in a surrounding that’s so welcoming. People come shake your hand. That’s not always the case in most synagogues I’ve been in. I also find more of an emphasis on how to live and grow as a person. And I have to say, I’m very inspired by Jesus.

Do you struggle with salvation?
It’s a really important question. I haven’t resolved it and it’s not something I think about a lot.

For years, you would say the motto “If it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.” So now for you, if it’s Sunday it’s what?
To be honest, it’s not waking up so early.

* This interview has been edited for clarity and length.