Written By: Robert Cocuzzo
CNN commentator David Gregory shares his insights on the media, the presidency, and the future of the country.
N MAGAZINE: In recent days, we’ve learned about a number of high-profile sexual harassment cases in Hollywood and the news media, most notably Bill O’ Reilly’s $32 million settlement. Are we watching the beginning of an unraveling in these industries? Is this behavior more pervasive than we were aware of?
GREGORY: I think what is changing is that women are feeling more empowered to report what has happened to them. And finally, people are listening and taking action. The environment at Fox News was clearly one where this behavior was wide-spread and tolerated. Too many men were getting away with it. There was also a conspiracy of silence. That has changed.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think it’s limited to Fox News or is it throughout the industry?
GREGORY: It’s everywhere. And I know women are not surprised by that. It’s behavior that I have not seen very often in my experience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t pervasive. What we are hearing about takes place in private, and often it goes unreported. Now, things are changing and it’s clearly being taken more seriously.
N MAGAZINE: One of Harvey Weinstein’s early defenses when the New York Times broke the story about his many transgressions against women was that he was part of an older generation in Hollywood where that kind of behavior was commonplace. You grew up in that industry. Your father worked in the entertainment industry. Did you ever see that kind of behavior?
GREGORY: I really didn’t see it growing up, but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t going on. It’s always been pretty rampant. The problem is that there were enough people who were willing to excuse it or who thought they could get away with it. You’re seeing more and more women who are courageous and are standing up to say, “No, that’s not right.” But the real onus here is on men. This is true of sexism, of harassment and of assault. Men are the ones who have to step up and say this is wrong and that they’re not going let this happen. This is not something that anyone should be tolerating. They should be willing to be good listeners and be willing to take action to stop this from happening. And when it does happen, they need to make sure that there are consequences for it, instead of just looking the other way or being silent about it.
N MAGAZINE: Certain media outlets have come under attack by the president, which in a way has galvanized the media’s efforts. Is it possible for them to report objectively on the president when they are being attacked so fiercely?
GREGORY: I think it’s possible to be fair to the president. He’s attacking news outlets, but what he’s really trying to do is delegitimize mainstream news sources. That is something that should be resisted. In many cases, he’s saying things that are not true. There’s a distinction between pushing back against coverage that he thinks is unfair, calling things fake that are true and calling things that are true fake. You have to understand that the president is a modern media creature. He knows how to manipulate the media. He knows how to use it as a foil. He knows how to use it to stay at the center of the storm, which is where he wants to be so that he’s at the center of everyone’s attention. I think the challenge for news organizations is not to get caught up in any kind of personal dispute with the president and simply do their jobs.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think the president has been effective in sowing distrust of the media in the hearts of average Americans?
GREGORY: I think he’s been pretty effective. He has a pretty dedicated political base who support him and are frustrated with large institutions like Congress, government and the media. There’s a lot of skepticism about the media. He’s pushing on this open door of skepticism about the news media and exploiting the political divisions that tend to dovetail with where people like to get their news and information. You have liberal communities and conservative communities, and they tend to go in different directions to get their news and information.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think there will ever be a return to the old Walter Cronkite style of news in which people get their information from the same place?
GREGORY: No, I think that’s a bygone era. But I think CNN has been very successful. The New York Times and The Washington Post have been very successful. People approach news and information more critically than ever before, and they’re looking for bias. I don’t see us reverting back because the center of gravity has changed completely in news and information. I think those figures who were the go-to figures are now viewed more skeptically and being scrutinized in ways they haven’t been before.
N MAGAZINE: Given how volatile the news cycle has been in the last year and a half, with a new story breaking seemingly everyday, are Americans getting beaten into complacency?
GREGORY: Society gets conditioned to different things. We have to remember the broad sweep of history. We’ve had periods of political polarization that were really nasty. There’s stories of people being caned on the senate floor. Or you look at the Civil War. We’ve had these periods of intense polarization and disagreement. We have to remind ourselves of that when things get particularly sticky.
N MAGAZINE: But with all the stories breaking so frequently, is there anything shocking enough to change people’s position?
GREGORY: There’s a glut of information and two things happen. People get numb to the notion of breaking news all the time. At the same time, there’s a tremendous appetite for news and information right now. Trump, for good or for ill, has been the source of that. The other piece of it is that voters are making judgments about Congress, the president, the media, about North Korea. People are making those judgments and then going about their lives. There’s so much news and information, there’s so much exchange of ideas, that we forget most people aren’t able to keep up because they’re doing other things. And they’ve made fundamental judgments and they’re not necessarily changing because of the latest news item.
N MAGAZINE: Is Trump impervious to the news?
GREGORY: People may not agree with President Trump, they may not like him, they may think he’s not fit for office and that he may not last, but look at everything he’s survived so far. The things he’s said. The tweeting controversies. I don’t know of any other political figure who could have weathered this — and he has. What that means is we have to think about all of this differently. We have to try and understand it differently. We have to try to understand the audience, the American people, voters — we have to understand all of those differently than we have before.
N MAGAZINE: Just recently we heard Senator Flake’s forceful rebuke of the president. We’ve also heard less direct criticisms from President Bush. Do you expect this critical refrain from the Republican leadership to continue?
GREGORY: The Republican establishment is beginning to really turn against Trump. But we saw some of this during the campaign and Trump prevailed. The misreading is to think that this is the beginning of the unraveling. What we’ve seen so far have been more established Republicans saying Donald Trump is debasing the country, or he is embarrassing, or he is not fit to be president. But they’re not necessarily saying that they have a big ideological split with the president. They’re saying they don’t like his character, and that’s a different matter.
N MAGAZINE: You’ve said in the past that you don’t think the Russian investigation will yield anything impeachable. Do you still believe that?
GREGORY: It’s the developments in the Mueller investigation that we don’t know about. Is the president guilty of obstructing justice in how he fired the FBI director? I don’t know. Ultimately, we’re not going to know for a while whether there’s any evidence of cooperation with the Russians. I don’t know where it goes. I think it’s just as easy to see this netting some figures around the president shy of implicating the president himself. Or it may amount to arrogance, inexperience and naiveté dealing with the Russians short of a crime.
N MAGAZINE: What could force the president out of office?
GREGORY: I think the biggest political peril for the president is the question of competence and achievement. What has he accomplished legislatively? How has he helped the people he’s promised to help? Does he seem like a force for change in Washington, or is he seen as unfit to be president? Is he leading the Republican Party in a new direction or is he standing on his own? Do voters judge him harshly on how he responded to Puerto Rico or how America is getting along with its allies and dealing with threats like North Korea? You have to worry about war or some kind of military confrontation that endangers the country. You have to worry about political competence. His political vulnerability can be judged somewhat by the midterms, but we’re not going to know that until he runs for reelection. We don’t know what the alternative is to Trump, but I still think it would be wrong for us to underestimate his political strength.
N MAGAZINE: While he hasn’t had any major legislative accomplishments, can you point to any of his successes as president? What are some of his positive contributions to the country?
GREGORY: He’s still seen as someone fighting the establishment, which matters to a lot of people. Conservatives will look at aspects of his tax reform and say that it’s conservative. They’ll look at his judicial nominees, including the Supreme Court. They’ll look at his stand on certain business regulations and ending certain Obama-era regulations, and they’ll say that’s a pretty good record. The international picture is a lot more mixed, because we don’t know what will become of his promises on trade. He’s certainly alienating some of the foreign policy establishment. I think getting something done through Congress is really, really important.
N MAGAZINE: To take a page out of the president’s book, what letter grade would you give his first year in office thus far?
GREGORY: [Laughs] I’m not going to do that. It’s not for me to say. He’s politically vulnerable, but I still don’t know if I’m using a conventional playbook to make that assessment. I have to believe that the Republicans are vulnerable because they’re not achieving much. But we just don’t know. I think the Democrats are sufficiently disorganized and are saying we don’t know what the future holds.
N MAGAZINE: What does the Democratic Party have to do to rebuild and regain strength?
GREGORY: Democrats thought it was possible to disqualify Trump, but that hasn’t proven possible. Again, the rules of politics have changed. The question is: Do they have the kind of figure who can take Trump on? Do they have to become a more working class party? I think a lot of the energy is pushing to the left, becoming more populist and working to secure a coalition of voters who look similar to what President Obama had. But I don’t know who the standard bearer is — and I don’t think they know. I think we’re looking at a 2020 race that has fifteen-plus Democratic candidates. It will look a lot like how the Republicans looked in 2016.
N MAGAZINE: Do you have any ideas of who could be coming up as a leader of the Democratic Party?
GREGORY: There’s lots of familiar names. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders seem to catch a lot of the energy of the party. But that still may be the afterglow of 2016 and that sense of what the Democrats think Hillary did wrong. I don’t see an obvious counterweight to Trump. The Democratic Party is still very much the party that identifies with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. They’re not breaking any molds yet here. Obama seems like a singular sensation and the party is now trying to figure out what’s next.
N MAGAZINE: Regarding Hillary Clinton, can you pinpoint what her greatest shortcoming was?
GREGORY: It’s difficult to pinpoint. I think Hillary Clinton brought a lot of the Clinton baggage to the race. She was the victim of sexism on the part of a lot of male voters. She mishandled key aspects of the campaign. The bottom line was, in a year that voters were looking for massive change, she was not seen as a change candidate. She was seen as much too old guard and damaged. Nothing that represented turning the whole place upside down like Donald Trump.
N MAGAZINE: Joe Biden is coming to Nantucket for Thanksgiving, as he’s done many years in the past, and will be speaking to the community. While it’s unclear whether he would ever run for president again, if he did, do you think that would help or hurt the party?
GREGORY: There’s still great fascination with Biden. I don’t know if he’s poised for a run. He has statesman-like qualities and broad appeal. I don’t think it will happen, but he’s smart enough not to rule it out and keep himself in the conversation.
N MAGAZINE: What’s your greatest concern for the country today?
GREGORY: Military conflict. I worry that we’re going to fight a war with North Korea or China or elsewhere. I worry that it could be the result of miscalculation. World War I was the result of miscalculation. More recent wars highlighted people in the foreign policy establishment who knew what they were doing, but they still made tremendous errors. I worry about the impulsiveness of the president and just how cohesive his team is.
N MAGAZINE: What are you optimistic about as far as the country is concerned?
GREGORY: I like the performance of the economy overall. If you look at how companies are performing, how the stock market is performing, I think those are positive signs. I’d love to see the economy in a more pro-growth mode and achieve real economic growth. But I also am confident in our resiliency as a country and the strengths of our institutions and of our democracy. People really despair who don’t like Trump, but we’ve been in these periods before, and we’ve been strong enough to get through it.