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But during the LaPierre exchange, “I got to ask questions that I thought were important to really test him and push him,” says Gregory, “and I think he felt like he was able to push back and say what he wanted to say. I think that’s important.” (LaPierre did not respond to requests for his opinion of the meeting.)

The 42-year-old Gregory was named “Meet the Press” moderator in December 2008, a few months after the sudden death of Tim Russert, a dogged interviewer and, after 17 years as host of the program, a TV institution in his own right.

The Los Angeles-born Gregory, who joined NBC News in 1995, came to the program after serving as chief White House correspondent during the presidency of George W. Bush.

“I’m not Tim,” Gregory told viewers when his “Meet the Press” appointment was announced. “But I can just work real hard to make him proud.”

Notable for his prematurely silver hair (readily evident to viewers) and his 6-foot-5 frame (undetectable on TV, since he’s seated), Gregory has brought a crispness and amped-up pace to the broadcast.

“I want people to see that he’s going to be tough,” says Gregory, lapsing into the third person, “that he’s going to force some accountability _ but he’s also going to try to engage (his subjects) in a conversation and draw them out.

“I’m trying to get to something real.”

On that score, Gregory pursues a calling similar to his wife’s: Beth Wilkinson is a prominent Washington-based trial attorney.

Gregory met her in 1997 while covering the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. She was one of the federal prosecutors working to convict him.

“What first struck me about her questioning the jurors during voir dire was, she had great legs,” Gregory recalls. “Then I got to see her at her job and doing it so well. After the trial we got together, and 12 years and three children later, we’re very happy.

“And she’s a great adviser to me for the program,” he adds. “She’s got great ideas and often can help me prepare, and she can give me very tough feedback afterward. I couldn’t be any luckier to have her in my corner.”

Although “Meet the Press” has been on the air since 1947 _ it is billed as “the world’s longest-running television program” _ Gregory faces stiff competition in a crowded Sunday-morning yack pack.

Currently, CBS’ “Face the Nation” claims the lead in the audience sweepstakes. Season to date, it’s averaging 3.25 million viewers (though CBS only counts the program’s first, higher-rated half-hour), while “Meet the Press,” which calls itself the most-watched HOUR, is averaging 3.13 million viewers. ABC’s “This Week” and Fox’s “Fox News Sunday” take third and fourth place.

“Meet the Press” must also compete for high-level guests, going up against all sorts of talk shows airing all week. “It’s not as if guests are always saving themselves for Sunday,” he points out.

But Gregory is working to move beyond the Beltway-centric guests and topics that have long characterized the Sunday-morning talk shows.

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