David Gregory Anchor Dad

updated 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/16/2009 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At the counter in David Gregory's bright white kitchen, if it's Saturday, it's time for Meet the Kids. That's when the moderator of Meet the Press spends his morning at home in Washington, whipping up eggs and pancakes for his children Max, 6, and twins Ava and Jed, 3. "I pretend I'm this French chef and I make them call me, from the movie Ratatouille, 'Monsieur Gusteau,'" Gregory says. "I put on this French accent and flip the eggs to make them giggle. Being able to flip in the pan is a big deal."

So is being able to land an interview with, say, the top White House economic official in the middle of a global financial crisis. And since Gregory, 38, took over as moderator of NBC's venerable Sunday-morning political talk show on Dec. 7, 2008, he's shown he can reel in big guests and manage thorny topics as adroitly as that egg in the frying pan—all while keeping the show ahead of the pack in ratings. "It is a dream job," Gregory says over coffee. "I love getting so deep into all the substance in these long interviews. I've never had this much fun in journalism. Ever."

Really? What about boogeying to Mary J. Blige during his previous gig, as stand-in host of the Today show? "I've always been into dancing," admits the 6'5" Gregory. "But with Meet the Press, I have a unique opportunity to do a job where my kids and my wife can see me doing something with great purpose."

It is an opportunity Gregory always dreamed of having. After spending his childhood in Los Angeles, he graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in international studies. Once he landed at NBC, he climbed the ladder from roaming correspondent (at the O.J. Simpson and Timothy McVeigh trials) to political reporter on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign plane and, then, White House correspondent. It was only after beloved longtime Meet the Press host Tim Russert died of a heart attack last June that network executives, with the blessing of NBC godfather Tom Brokaw, ultimately turned to Gregory. "I thought Tim would do the show for a long, long time," he says wistfully, adding that his preparation for each Sunday's broadcast is guided by Russert's advice: "Learn everything about your guest, then take the other side—but with a tone of civility."

Gregory has a single researcher helping him "learn everything" and often calls up experts to discuss that week's topic. "David is always a reporter and that's what it takes," says Brokaw. "You don't just show up on Sunday; you're working the beat Monday to Monday."

The interviewer whose talent Gregory most admires isn't Russert or Brokaw—but his wife, Beth Wilkinson, 46, a trial lawyer with keen cross-examination skills. "She's such a go-to person for me," he says. The pair met in 1997 when Wilkinson was prosecuting McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombings. He was the only reporter who didn't pump her for information—"I had a much longer view," he says now with a grin. They married in 2000, when Gregory was 29. "I almost fell out of my chair when I found out how young he was," she says.

The prematurely graying hair was inherited from his father—but it's been a career blessing since his early 20s, Gregory says, when he wanted to be taken seriously as a broadcaster. "I always wanted to try to act older," he says. These days, however, he's happy with things just as they are. Now that he has the predictable schedule of a once-weekly show, Gregory revels in being able to take Max to violin lessons and Ava and Jed to gymnastics. He brings his children to temple and is studying the Torah with an Orthodox scholar, saying that if he wants his kids to grow up spiritually, "I have to be the real deal; I want them to see me doing it." It's this togetherness, more than any interview advice, that Gregory considers Russert's most lasting legacy. "Family life is what Tim was all about," Gregory says. "I certainly hope I'm making him proud."

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