NBC News David Gregory

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Journalist assesses the immigration debate in an election year and offers his thoughts on protecting the Meet the Press brand.

Journalist David Gregory has moderated NBC's venerable Meet the Press since December '08. He's also a regular contributor to and back-up anchor for the Today show. He previously served as the net's chief White House correspondent and led its coverage of the Bush presidency. Since joining NBC News in '95, Gregory has covered the past three presidential campaigns and nearly every major story. The L.A. native began his journalism career as a summer reporter in Tucson, AZ and worked for NBC's flagship West Coast affiliate in Sacramento.


Tavis: David Gregory is the moderator, of course, of “Meet the Press” on NBC, the longest-running show in the history of television. (Laughs) If you are a regular viewer like I am, you’ve probably noticed a new look for the venerable program. The show recently debuted a new set and is now in HD.
This Wednesday, NBC is doing a network-wide look at the immigration debate called “A Nation Divided,” and I’m told next Sunday on “Meet the Press,” “Meet the Press” will dig into that topic, immigration. So you ready for that? That’s a heated – (laughter).
David Gregory: It’s a big deal. I come home to California and it’s hot. It’s hot out here, but it’s hot everywhere. The politics of this are kind of ugly and I don’t think that if you look at what’s going on in Arizona it’s sort of given this a new charge.
But the issue is not ready, politically. A lot of people think it should be and the president won’t say that he’s not going to pursue it, but there’s pursuing it and there’s pursuing it. If he were really behind it he’d give it that healthcare kind of push, and I don’t think he’s prepared to do that.
Tavis: When you say “It’s not ready politically,” you mean by that what, it’s not ready politically?
Gregory: Well, it’s just not ripe yet. In other words, you don’t have – Republicans don’t want any part of it because it divides their party completely. George Bush tried it, President Bush tried it and his party took him down on it, so he wanted to combine strengthening the border, more border controls, more security, along with a legal path to citizenship for all the undocumented people who are here in the States.
It was that piece of it that led to well, you can’t, this is amnesty, this is – all the rest. So the conservatives are so split on this thing that a lot of mainstream Republicans just don’t want to go near it, especially in an election year. They think it’s just problematic for them.
Tavis: Is the president’s argument on this going to work? As they say down in Texas, is this dog going to hunt, and that is this notion that I can’t do this without Republican support. Is the Hispanic community going to buy that argument come November?
Gregory: Well, there’s a lot of pressure. Hispanics, as you well know, the largest-growing voting bloc. They’ve grown some 20 percent even since 2000. Jose Diaz-Balart, who I think you know, on “Telemundo,” he makes the point, look, we can talk about all these other issues that are important to Hispanics; you can talk about the economy, you can talk about healthcare, but if my family’s going to be deported that’s what I care about most. So immigration is where everything starts for a lot of Hispanics in the country.
The president has been interesting on this. On the one hand he said, “We’re going to do this this year,” and it was actually Majority Leader Reid who said, “Well yeah, we’ll put climate change aside, we’ll do immigration this year.” Then he said, “Well, I don’t think we’ve got the political clout to do that this year, it might be too heavy a lift.” Now he said he’s going to try to do it again.
But as I say, this is all a matter – presidents can say they want to do things and it’s a priority; making it a priority was healthcare. That’s what you saw. When a president wants to get something done, healthcare happened, and that almost didn’t happen.
So that’s the kind of effort he would need, and I think there are Democrats who are under a lot of pressure to get it done, but they’re looking at whether it’s independent voters or some of the influence of the Tea Party, and it’s just very difficult on both sides. Unions have issues with it for the left as well.
Tavis: I was waiting for you to walk on the set, assuming that there would be steam coming out your ears, but I assume you calmed down now about Rand Paul canceling on you (unintelligible). How often does that happen, when people cancel on “Meet the Press?”
Gregory: Betsey Fisher, our executive producer (laughter), is here with me. I think it’s only happened three times in the history of the program. Louis Farrakhan was one, Prince Bandar and now Rand Paul.
Look, this is certainly not about me. Institutionally, it’s an institution to protect about “Meet the Press.” I think where this became a story is about him making the decision to duck the national spotlight. That he’d gotten overexposed, that he was getting himself into political trouble, and I think that’s sort of what happened.
So I think the fact that he canceled was a story not because of me but because of what it said about how far he had traveled from Tuesday till the end of the week, where he’d really gotten himself in trouble.
Tavis: But is there a lesson to learn, though, from that strategy of ducking the national press? Sounds Sarah Palin-esque, ducking the national media.
Gregory: To be fair to him, he certainly hadn’t ducked it. It’s by not ducking it is what got him into all the trouble. I also want to say that there’s an aspect to Rand Paul that I think should be celebrated. We want politicians to come out and talk about what it is they believe, and it’s not as if he was caught unawares by this or that he was caught off-guard.
He has well-developed views about the role of the government. Now, a lot of people think that’s misguided, particularly as it relates to the Civil Rights Act, but he was even nuanced enough to say it was a title of the Civil Rights Act that he had a problem with.
So he knew what he was speaking about. The difficulty is in politics, when you get undisciplined like that, when you become that honest, you can get scrutinized and then it becomes a distraction. So Republicans said to him, “Don’t go on ‘Meet the Press,’ stop talking about this and get out of the national spotlight. Start talking about issues in Kentucky. That’s where you’ve got to win an election.”
Tavis: As moderator of “Meet the Press,” is there anything that you have definitively been able to take, any line you’ve been able to draw, a linear line, from what happened on Election Day to November, because the results were so disparate in so many ways.
Gregory: I think that everything is still pretty unsettled, so whatever we think the narrative could change. Yes, there’s an anti-incumbent wave, you saw that. You saw that in Pennsylvania, you see it in Arkansas. The Tea Party is really on the map in a big way, so you saw that in Kentucky.
The establishment in Washington doesn’t have a lot of power, so whether if you’re the White House, you can’t really affect change out there. If you’re the Republican establishment trying to do it in Kentucky, you can’t really do it there.
But then you see a race like in Pennsylvania 12, the John Murtha seat, where you had an actual election, not just a primary, and you had President Obama and the Democratic rule on trial, so to speak, politically, where there was a referendum on what they were doing, and the result was that the Democrats, with a good candidate, well-run campaign, come out okay.
Our political director, Chuck Todd and his team, with our First Read blog, made the point and I thought it was a good one, which is if Democrats can find a way to get engaged this year, Democrats might be just fine. Because the issue is that conservatives are engaged right now.
They’re engaged because they see a path forward for their party and they see a lot of government spending, and they see President Obama, in their view, leading from the left, and that’s a matter for debate but what’s certainly true is that government is expanding. There’s the notion of big government is here under President Obama.
Tavis: What did you take – we all have our answer to this and I’m curious as to David Gregory’s answer – what did you take from Arlen Specter getting spanked the way he did in Pennsylvania?
Gregory: I think it’s just in this climate you can’t say, “I’m going to change parties to win.” I spoke to a Democrat last week who made a good point, I thought, was just he said, “Look, Democrats have been trying to beat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania for 30 years. They finally had an opportunity to do it.”
I just think that was too difficult. I think having the president try to help him from afar didn’t make things any better. I think this was a lot more about Arlen Specter than it was even the anti-incumbent mood, and I think Joe Sestak did a good job sort of running against the establishment and saying, “I’m an outsider guy.”
Now, as I tried to point out on the program on Sunday, it is striking that a guy who’s a congressman now and who supported all the major elements of the Obama agenda is running against Washington. But we’ll see how voters take all that in.
Tavis: You referenced earlier this brand that has been placed in your hands to be the caretaker of for as long as you will host it, which I hope will be for many years to come.
Gregory: Me, too. (Laughter)
Tavis: From your mouth to God’s ears, huh? What’s fascinating is that I’m tracking your progress pretty much along the lines of Obama. He becomes president in January, you take over “Meet the Press” literally a few weeks prior to that in December, so how do you feel about – we’re talking about how Obama’s doing; how’s David Gregory doing a year and a half later?
Gregory: I feel really good. I feel like I continue to grow and make adjustments, and I think that I’ve just continued to get really comfortable. I think as a lot of people can imagine my initial approach to it was to measure up in the eyes of the audience, because to succeed Tim Russert is just about the hardest thing you can do.
So I tried to focus on the fact that I had to just measure up. I had spent a lot of time studying Tim, learning from Tim, who was a great mentor, and sometimes I would sort of channel him and think well, what would he do, how can I do that?
I went through that period and I think I was able to get over that period and then stop thinking about him and stop thinking about what he would do and start to feel what I wanted to do and drive the program in the way that I wanted to drive the program.
I feel like that has really happened and it is starting to happen, and I’ll keep making adjustments and keep growing, and I think people would sort of chart that evolution. But I feel like it makes more sense to me when people say well, how are you going to put your stamp on the program? I feel now that I can say, “Well, watch, and I think you’ll get the sense of how I’m doing that.”
Tavis: I feel like I’ve not done my job because while you were here today I didn’t get around to doing my research to pull tape of something you had said a year ago. (Laughter)
Gregory: Exactly.
Tavis: To see if you are still consistent in what you’re saying a year later. (Laughter) Next time you come on, I’m just telling you now.
Gregory: Okay.
Tavis: I’m being nice to you the first visit.
Gregory: Yeah, right. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m going to pull tape next time and make you live up to what you said, like you do everybody else on Sunday morning. Good to have you on, David.
Gregory: All right, my man.

Tavis: Okay.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm