Lonely journalist of faith

Veteran NBC reporter David Gregory takes on an unlikely topic in his first book: Spirituality.

By
September 24, 2015 10:54
David Gregory

David Gregory interviews former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in 2010. (photo credit: COURTESY NBC)

David Gregory has something that often seems rare in the world of journalism. Even rarer still among the DC power elite. He has faith.

The veteran NBC journalist has penned his first book – How’s Your Faith – part memoir, part soul-searching and part spiritual exploration.

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Gregory, who served for years as the chief White House correspondent for NBC before becoming the host of Meet the Press, chronicles the ups and downs of his childhood, career and faith.

The book’s title is the very same question he was asked once by then-president George W. Bush.

“It was startling and memorable to be asked that question by a president of the United States, especially because, as a White House reporter, I was known for asking tough questions of that president and for pushing him hard in press conferences,” Gregory wrote. “But president Bush was aware that I’d started down a path of religious exploration...and he was curious about it.”

Gregory, born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, was raised with a strong Jewish identity. He said his religious experience was more of a “cultural identity” – he was bar mitzvaed and attended High Holy Day services at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where “Judaism was commingled with the signs and symbols of Hollywood success.”

“Identity, Jewish history, and peoplehood were bigger in my upbringing than theology was,” he wrote.

The father of three grew up with strong feelings of Jewishness, and when he married his wife, Beth, who grew up Methodist, she agreed to his “core principle” of raising their children in his faith. While they made the joint decision to bring their kids up Jewish, neither quite anticipated the sacrifice it would entail for Beth.

“My Judaism was a cornerstone of my identity, and she was willing to accept it as our family identity, in spite of the obvious drawback for her – that she does not get to share her religious beliefs and traditions with her kids,” Gregory wrote. Their decision to raise their family as Jewish, he added, included not exposing them to both religions, “because we thought it might confuse them.”

More than 10 years after the decision, Beth still considered it “by far the biggest sacrifice I’ve ever made in my life,” Gregory wrote. “Over time,” he recalled Beth saying, “I’ve come to feel it more, not sharing my religion with our kids… it has come to feel like a loss.”

Gregory gets deeply personal in the book, discussing his mother’s lifelong battle with alcoholism, his often strained relationship with his father, his occasional and well-publicized outbursts of anger and “the lowest moment of my professional career” – parting ways with NBC after close to 20 years with the network.

After taking the helm of Meet the Press in 2008, Gregory presided over the show for several years before its ratings began to steadily decline. In 2014, rumors began to swirl that he was being replaced, and Gregory was struggling to keep his head above the fray and figure out the best path forward.

“I didn’t want to leave, but I was not happy,” he wrote. “I was getting a lot of bad press about falling ratings, and many of the stories speculated on whether I would be replaced.” He described his relationship with the show’s executives during his final year there “like a marriage that you know is bad but you can’t leave.”

Eventually, they parted ways, and Gregory had to come to terms with the end of a major chapter in his life and with it playing out on the public stage. But, he recounts, despite the overwhelming fear, sadness and confusion, he felt a certain peace as well, emanating in large part from his faith.

Gregory has penned a fast-paced and entertaining first book, if a slightly disjointed one. Like a memoir, it covers a lot of ground – his childhood, the beginnings of his career, meeting his wife and starting a family. But ever the journalist, he also peppers the book with interviews with spiritual and religious leaders and thinkers, some of which are insightful and others merely distracting.

The most engaging parts are Gregory’s honest reflections on his life choices – particularly his struggles in an interfaith marriage. While he notes repeatedly how his faith guided him throughout his life, it at times feels like a surface panacea, a catchall idea for remaining strong in the face of adversity.

At other times he deflects from his own personal journey with discussions of others’ faiths and beliefs. But his emotional discussions with his wife over the loss of her own faith traditions, as well as his reflections on some of his regrets and mistakes, paint an engaging portrait of a man humbled – and educated – by his religious path.

Gregory spoke via phone with the Magazine from New York during his book tour last week, about family, his relationship with Israel and George W. Bush. The interview has been condensed and edited.

The book details your flirtations with a more observant Jewish life, including experimenting with putting on tefillin. How do you define yourself now, and what Jewish traditions remain a big part of your life? My teacher, Erica Brown, a modern Orthodox woman, likes to describe me as post-denominational. I have certainly made choices in my life – like having a non-Jewish spouse – that put me more squarely in the Reform movement, and the fact that my mother’s not Jewish, even though I was bar mitzvaed, puts me in the Reform movement. But I don’t easily classify myself; I feel like I’m still learning and still growing.

If there’s one ritual more than anything that speaks to me, it is keeping Shabbat. I’m not observant in the way that more observant Jews keep Shabbat for 24 hours, but the fact that we gather and we have Shabbat dinner – and it’s a time of family and observance and prayer and kind of more reflection – that just has become the most important ritual in my Jewish life. I take so seriously the idea that we should separate those moments from the rest of the week; that we should stop working, that we should stop building and that we should take time to observe and to just be and to give our souls a rest. I’ve come to cherish these times and to cherish Shabbat in the way that I never have before.

You don’t mention Israel in the book in any personal way, though for many US Jews the Jewish state is a big part of their religious life. What role has it played for you? First of all, I love Israel and I care about Israel deeply – as a Jew and as an American – and I am moved emotionally to be in Israel, to be at the holy sites; I find myself just moved being there. I haven’t yet been to Israel enough; I sort of think of my adult life as an ongoing Birthright trip, where I’m doing it in stages.

I’ve had moments there that were really powerful – a year or two ago when I went to Yad Vashem for the first time, afterward there was a group of us and we met with president [Shimon] Peres. I remember asking him: “What is the lesson for Israel, what is the lesson for Jews in the Diaspora of everything that’s been accomplished here?” And he said Judaism cannot survive without morality. As someone on a spiritual path, that meant a lot to me, because I felt like it’s so core to what it means to be Jewish.

And I say this, and you would point out – okay, this is not in the book.

It’s my view that for a lot of American Jews, Israel occupies too much of a place of centrality in their faith and their Jewishness.

As opposed to being on a spiritual path, one’s Jewish identity is wrapped up in Israel’s politics, threats facing Israel, Israel’s foreign policy, Israel’s difficulty with the Palestinians.

I am very interested in those issues as a journalist and as a Jew, but it’s not where I find God, and it’s not where my soulful connection is. The way I feel about Israel doesn’t define who I am as a Jew. I would like to see, in America, more Jews think about the beauty of Judaism informing their spiritual lives, as opposed to the politics and security issues of Israel dominating their Jewish identity.

It is also true, as a journalist, that I try to be careful and remember that my journalistic principles are most important to me.

So when I cover Israel, when I interview Israeli leaders, I can separate my sense of peoplehood – my sense of Jewish identity and ethnic identity and even my Jewish faith – from whatever duties I might have as a reporter.

So was it a conscious decision to leave Israel out of the book?
It was just not very central to my journey.

While I describe that meeting with Peres in Yad Vashem, I just didn’t include everything [in the book]. There is no other reason except that certain things were left out.

As a Jew, there is no doubt in my mind about the importance of Israel to a religious Jew, there’s no question about that.

But as a modern person, and a Jew living in America, I do strive to make Jewish spiritual growth, and not Israel, the centerpiece of my faith.

You discussed how George W. Bush came under criticism for being perceived as making faith-based decisions as president. As part of the deeply skeptical worlds of journalism and politics, did you feel such criticism as well?
I don’t think a person of faith in the media is going to be clouded in judgment as a journalist. I think we understand as journalists what our job is. If you’re interviewing the prime minister, your own religious views aren’t going to cloud how you question him and how you pursue answers to certain questions.

I never felt like I would be subject to that at all, but I do think that there could be a little bit more of an understanding in the secular world and in the secular press about the role that faith can play in a leader’s life.

George W. Bush is a strong character in the book, not just because he provided the title, but he also was a big part of your career and even your spiritual process. Have you spoken to him since he left office? Did you reach out to him while writing this book?
Yes, I have and I did. I have sent him the book and I know he’s read it. I don’t think he’s expecting royalties for me using his question for the title.

I’d never covered politics before covering president Bush, and I covered him for eight years and I really got a sense of him. The question that he asked me was so personal and so penetrating – and not at all inappropriate. He’d heard that I was studying with an Orthodox scholar and was trying to deepen my faith and he was supportive and talked about his own journey.

The biggest headlines about the book over the past few weeks have focused once again on your somewhat messy departure from ‘Meet the Press’ and NBC. Are you worried that will overshadow the message of the book? I knew people would be interested in these questions – media covering media seems to be of interest. But I think what’s more important to people who might be reading the book is how I internalized a very disappointing exit from a very public job, and how it strengthened my faith. I would say it grounded me more in faith... I really did struggle when I left NBC, with this question of who am I and what’s my identity. It was a pretty big blow to lose my job and feel like I was losing my career at that time.

I’m not worried about that as a distraction, and, as I said, I had a lot of great experiences at NBC and I’m grateful for them.

What’s next for you? I am a journalist, I love journalism, I love doing interviews, I love covering politics – but I’m also passionate about this faith journey, and I would love that to be a bigger part of my journalism. I’m having a lot of interesting conversations right now and figuring out what the right next step is.


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