David Gregory’s Tim Russert Problem

Mark Leibovich, in his 2008 profile of Chris Matthews, reported that the MSNBC talking head lived under the constant shadow of then-Meet the Press host Tim Russert.

Russert, the inquisitive jackhammer host of “Meet the Press” — is a particular obsession of Matthews’s. Matthews craves Russert’s approval like that of an older brother.

Following Russert’s death several months after that profile was written, David Gregory took over Russert’s seat. And since then, it’s always seemed to me that Gregory, much more so than Matthews, has suffered from attempts to live up to Russert. While Matthews wears his liberalism on his sleeve, Gregory feels he must maintain a tough-talking ‘pox on both houses’ approach that has become increasingly difficult as the Republican party has veered rightward. Take, for example, today’s Meet the Press.

Earlier this morning, Gregory asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to explain why Romney rarely gets specific about his proposed policies. Christie dodged the question, responding that it was Obama who needed explain why, among other things, he rejected the recommendations of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. (He likely rejected it, by the way, because Congress wasn’t adopting it either, so doing so would needlessly hurt him with the base, which wasn’t happy with the entitlement reductions enumerated in the plan.) And why didn’t Congress adopt the plan? Because Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan almost single-handedly derailed it.

Ryan [was] “clearly was the leader” of House Republicans in setting the terms of a grand debt bargain, said Andy Stern, a panel member and Democrat….Ryan’s support would have likely drawn votes from (David) Camp and possibly (Jeb) Hensarling and made it all but impossible for the president to reject a plan created by his own self- appointed commission.

But rather than push back agianst Christie, Gregory shifted gears and asked him about his RNC speech. Gregory’s reluctance to mention Ryan’s complicity in the failure of Simpson-Bowles–not to mention the President’s 2011 commitment to a ‘grand bargain,’ or the general fiscal absurdity of the Romney/Ryan budgets–is borne out of his crippling obsession with impartiality. More specifically, I’d argue it stems from his instinct to honor ‘Meet the Press’s’ reputation for being ‘tough on both sides’, a trademark the late Tim Russert helped cement. Here, however, the admittedly tame Gregory’s attempts to live up to Russert’s attack-dog style serves him badly.

In Russert’s seventeen years at Meet the Press, Republicans and Democrats feared his acerbic approach equally. But it’s unclear that Russert would have remained equally balanced were he alive today. He never covered a House so radical and a Senate so obstructionist as the current models. He never encountered a Republican Party platform as extreme as this year’s. He never even got to interview Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, depriving us of the thorough grilling he might have unleashed upon her. In that way, Gregory who’s made it something of a trademark to exchange nuance for balance, has foolishly tried to live up to the Russert model in an era that doesn’t allow for it.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.