Keeping Up With Chuck Todd

"I’m in a business where I’m not allowed to miss right now"

It’s 6:50 a.m. on a drizzling New York morning and Chuck Todd is standing behind a wall on the cluttered Today Show set, safely out of shot as he waits to talk America’s early risers through the upcoming day in politics. He is sipping from a paper coffee cup as a makeup artist brushes down his charcoal suit—“I can’t pull off green,” he tells me as Al Roker passes by, snug in olive-colored tweed.

The moment is what Chuck Todd calls a “pause” in his workday—a rare sliver of respite in a 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. day that sees Todd shoot spots for Today and Morning Joe, write or edit ten posts for MSNBC’s First Read blog, pitch stories for the Nightly News—reporting them if they go ahead—and host his own daily cable show, The Daily Rundown. Always, he’s stopping at a computer or unlocking his BlackBerry to Tweet his thoughts, read a blog, check his messages (“I subscribe to every e-mail alert known to man”), or watch a new campaign commercial.

So, naturally, the pause doesn’t last long.

By 7:08 a.m., Todd is behind a desk on the Today set, riffing into camera on the day’s big beltway stories. Twenty-five minutes later, Todd is wedged between Mika Brzezinski and Jon Meacham on the Morning Joe set, a flashy, futuristic table-and-flatscreens setup at one end of the main NBC newsroom on the third floor of Rockefeller Center. When the segment wraps, Todd heads to an unused studio to find a computer from which to prepare for The Daily Rundown. He scrolls through a draft script, deleting chunks, adding others. He’s on in just over an hour. His earpiece dangles from a clip on his shirt collar, ready for action. It’s a little before 8 a.m.

Chuck Todd might be the busiest politico on television. Since Tim Russert brought him over in 2007 from National Journal’s The Hotline to fill NBC’s political director role, Todd has been adding to an already vast job description. In 2008, after Russert died suddenly of a heart attack and White House correspondent David Gregory moved to Meet The Press, Todd became co-White House correspondent with fellow NBC newcomer Savannah Guthrie. Then in late 2009, Todd and Guthrie started prepping to launch MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, the 9 a.m. weekday hour they have co-hosted since January this year.

Rundown is, like many daytime MSNBC shows, a brightly colored and briskly paced mix of politics, news, and good humor. The idea for the Rundown, said Todd, was to take advantage of his and Guthrie’s positions in the White House press corps—and of NBC’s swath of correspondents across the country and the world—to show people what the news of the day would be. Usually filmed in D.C., Todd sees the Rundown as a counterpoint to his favorite political program from the 1990s and early 2000s, CNN’s Inside Politics, which wrapped up the day’s news after it had happened. “I think in the nineties we were all of the mindset in the news cycle where everybody wanted to know what it all means. I think now everybody is in the mindset of: ‘What’s going to happen today?’”

Tailing Todd through the hallways of NBC, where his star shines bright and passersby are quick to smile and nod, it’s easy to forget that outside of the network—and outside of the White House press room—Todd faces his share of critics. Charging mostly from the blogosphere, they see him as the ultimate embodiment of Washington insiderism, a horse-race reporter who puts far too much emphasis on polls and numbers and races and districts and candidates in lieu of issues. It’s that oft-lambasted style of reportage, conducted through off-the-record chats with White House insiders and discussions with others who live and breathe in the bubble. And for some, the thirty-eight-year-old Todd is its biggest proponent.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who in 2009 debated Todd over his contention that George W. Bush should not be investigated by the Justice Department for allegedly sanctioning torture, told me: “If there were a dictionary that had a term in it called ‘conventional Beltway political reporting,’ you could easily have a picture of Chuck Todd next to it. He’s as conventional as it gets.”

Such accusations don’t rankle Todd, who sees his knowledge of the capitol, and his position within it, as important to his mission. He’s in the Beltway to help those who are not. “I want to do two things,” says Todd. “Help people understand why something happened in the political world and demystify the political world. I like the idea of being a person who can help make sense of it all.”

Chuck Todd’s quick success in television comes down to more than sheer hard work. He may lack the twinkle of a Brian Williams, the bluster of a Keith Olbermann, and the lantern-jawed good looks of a standard-issue TV anchor. But Todd’s a refreshingly calm and watchable presence armed with an ability, like Russert before him, to speak clearly and plainly about a very unplain subject: politics.

Todd’s political smarts were on full display the day I followed him. At about 8:00 a.m., I sat with Todd in NBC’s Studio 3B, a dark collection of desks, computers, and a small, unbuilt set from which he will host the network’s election coverage on November 2. He was at a computer editing the Rundown script when my minder for the day, a watchful member of NBC News’s press office, mentioned that she hails from Louisville. Todd couldn’t help turning around to give a brief political rundown of Derby City. Louisville can be a bit of an anomaly in Kentucky because it is so urban, said Todd, clearly enjoying a pause to tout his political chops. “Mitch McConnell’s a Louisville guy, and even he doesn’t connect with Republicans in the rest of Kentucky.”

Those who work with and watch Todd say it’s this intricate knowledge of the nation’s politics—often down to the obscurest congressional districts—that makes him a formidable political director. “I’m constantly amazed by his encyclopedic knowledge of politics,” said co-host and co-correspondent Guthrie. “I grew up in Arizona and he will cite some obscure political figure from the 1980s who I’ll barely remember. But Chuck will remember.”

Todd’s obsessive interest in politics began in the southern Miami suburb of Kendall where his dad, suffering from throat cancer, took care of him while his mother worked two retail jobs. His father was a staunch conservative and “political junkie,” and when Todd had to read books in middle school, would direct him towards political biographies. “I read Profiles In Courage for an eighth grade book report—I think I was the only kid who was reading that.”

Todd’s political interest grew through high school, where he became a Kennedy assassination conspiracy buff—he’s still angry at Oliver Stone for “totally screwing up” JFK—and in college at George Washington, where his handiwork on the French horn earned him a scholarship to study political science and music. In April 1992, at the end of his sophomore year, Todd landed an internship reporting on House races for National Journal’s daily political briefing, The Hotline. He immersed himself in the job, and when his scholarship dried up after four years, dropped out to work full-time. He was just six credits short of his degree.

Though he says he’s “black marked” himself for dropping out of college, it did his career no harm—Todd thrived at The Hotline. It was the perfect training ground for an up-and-coming political junkie, a kind of pre-Politico outfit that aimed its scoops and tidbits directly at Beltway toilers. “The Hotline was the web before there was a web,” Todd explains.

David G. Bradley, now owner of the Atlantic Media Company, remembers Todd from 1997, the year he bought the National Journal. “My gift is spotting the gift in others, but this took no gift to see,” he told me. “Chuck was impossibly interesting, and impossibly creative. He wasn’t yet running The Hotline but you could see that he was on a vertical path.”

Todd would go on to be The Hotline’s editor-in-chief and launch innovations like Hotline TV, an early online-only political webcast, and Bradley’s respect for his talents only grew. One night in 2000 before a dinner party at Bill Frist’s house honoring the King of Jordan, Bradley stopped by Todd’s desk to gather up some talking points. He left with exactly ten minutes of material: a mixed bag of Al Gore and Republican nominees and the end of the Clinton administration. When it came time to talk at dinner, “for ten minutes I was interesting, and it was plenty.”

Russert saw the same qualities in Todd, signing him on to NBC when political director Elizabeth Wilner stepped down. And though Todd had just signed a three-year contract with the Atlantic Media Group—a hybrid role that would have him working on The Hotline, The Atlantic, and overseeing the relaunch of The Atlantic online—he took the job in February 2007, just in time for a tumultuous primary season. “It was more than disappointment. Defeated would be the word,” said Bradley.

Over the past three years, as well as expanding the role of political director, Todd has redefined it for the new media age. He is not only a constant presence on cable and network TV, but also a constant voice on MSNBC’s First Read blog and on Twitter, which he constantly surveys for news—“I think it’s the most powerful wire service ever invented,”—and is known to Tweet thirty times a day. It’s part of the job, said Todd. “I don’t ever feel like I stop reading-in. It used to be that you read-in in the morning and then you went through your day. Every time you think you cannot check in for a while, you miss something. I’m in a business where I’m not allowed to miss right now.”

Something that becomes apparent when you spend time with Chuck Todd is that despite his reputation as an innovator in the political director role, he is somewhat old-fashioned in his view of American politics. He blossomed in the Beltway but remains un-jaded by it. The public got a glimpse of this last month when Todd took exception to Stephen Colbert’s appearance at a House subcommittee hearing on immigration and farm labor, asking Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC’s Hardball (which he’d found time to guest host): “What if Al Franken was in character in the U.S. Senate? What if he decided to be Stuart Smalley in the Senate?” And later: “I’m asking you, is this good for the system, bad for the system, or is it simply the system?”

Liberal bloggers called Todd everything from a “full-blown concern troll” to an “inside-the-Beltway tool” following the comment. But he makes no apologies. “We demonize politics so much in the American media,” he told me. “And I hate how we’ve demonized the institutions of Congress so much that it’s now okay for somebody to go in there and make a mockery of it. I understand that Congress has certainly not earned the respect of the American voter. But like I said, the first book I read was Profiles in Courage. For me that put senators on a pedestal.”

He is similarly old-fashioned in his view of journalism. Todd sees “Rupert’s influence”—the “rise of activist journalism”— as dangerous to the neutral and skeptical voice that has defined modern American journalism. “Obviously, good journalism has been broken by point-of-view folks,” he says. “But if activist journalism becomes the norm, and if we’re supposed to be the watchdogs, the credibility of the journalism is always being questioned.” When the Daily Caller published its incriminating pieces on JournoList, a liberal media listserve in which Todd did not take part, he told Politico that the group had damaged journalistic credibility. “This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It’s very depressing.”

Despite those beliefs, Todd’s own credibility has faced its fair share of dings. In the middle of 2009, Salon’s Greenwald wrote a column bashing Todd for suggesting on Morning Joe that President Obama should refrain from investigating possible war crimes committed by members of the Bush administration. Todd responded in an e-mail, and Greenwald set up a debate for Salon Radio. Though Greenwald gives Todd his due for fronting up, he says the political director is symptomatic of a political media that is cowed by the corporate interests of the companies for which they report and the insider circles in which they report.

“For me, the thing journalists should want to do more than anything else is be adversarial to people in political power,” Greenwald told me over the phone from Rio de Janeiro, where he spends much of his time. “It’s the same journalists who see objectivity as their guiding star. And yet they’re willing to depart from that when they feel safe doing so—typically when they’re mouthing Beltway conventional wisdom or the consensus of the powerful officials they are supposed to be covering.”

On Todd, he adds: “Beyond that, he does nothing but repeat every outlaid media cliché that is whispered to him by the political officials he covers and the media friends who he has. That’s what he is and what he does.”

Obviously, Todd disagrees. “I think for Glenn and others, those of us in the prominent journalism assignments will always be viewed skeptically because we don’t cheerlead or we don’t advocate their beliefs,” he told me later in an e-mail. “We also have constraints that I wish we didn’t have, including the issue of being a business so we can’t delve as deep into some policy debates as many of us would like, because someone has decided it’s not good for ratings. I do believe we do our best at NBC and MSNBC to figure out how to keep pushing the envelope on this front.

“But ultimately, the blame on ‘process’ coverage lies with the elected officials. It’s amazing to me how little substance most elected officials will engage in. I think the unsatisfied partisan media critics would be wise to spend more time engaging policymakers than those charged with covering them.”

By 9:05 a.m., Todd’s back in the newsroom, anchoring The Daily Rundown solo from the same set the Morning Joe team vacated ten minutes before—Guthrie is away for the day. Though Todd insists there were teething problems when he began full-time TV reporting—writing too long, issues with tracking—he moves through the hour pretty expertly, if without too much pizzazz. He reads through a segment on “Decision 2010,” discusses Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral run with two pundits in D.C., and ends with a wry bit on a beard and moustache competition in Europe. Later, the famously goateed Todd tells producer Frederico Quadrani, “We should have played ZZ Top coming out of that.”

The day is just beginning. Todd will then sit down with me for over an hour in a small glass office—not his own—to talk for this piece, before heading into an NBC editorial board meeting and hitting the phones with senior producers from Nightly News. He will pitch them stories and report out anything that gets the green light; with any luck, he’ll be on a train back to D.C. by the afternoon to settle in with his wife and two children in Arlington for the night.

The schedule can be grueling. “That’s the hardest part of this,” he said. “I always say it’s more like being a doctor; you’re always on call. I’m mindful of that to the point that I drink less, which is kind of sad. I’m just mindful in general. You’ve got to always be sharp.”

Todd is also mindful of the critics—both reasonable and crazed—who have taken their aim at his rising star. And his response to them belies his idealistic view of politics and the media; and the similarities he is beginning to see between them. “I know that some people are always going to judge me and that’s their business,” he told me. “The sad part of this is that members of the media are now living life the way elected officials live—everything is under scrutiny. I’ve gotten crazy hate mail. My wife’s gotten crazy hate e-mail. There are elements on both sides that are trying to destroy journalism, to destroy elements of the mainstream media—for sport.”

Later, in an e-mail, he elaborated on this point: “The easiest thing to do these days is criticize the media in some sort of ‘collective’ attack. The left and right see it as good politics, or perhaps that the more the so-called MSM is discredited by partisans, the more the partisans will get the ears of the policymakers, and that in turn could lead to more ‘bubble’ elected officials who don’t even engage with anyone other than folks who agree with them.”

The sentiment reminded me of something Todd said the day we met. As our interview wrapped up—and his last long pause of the day came to an end—he stopped to reflect: “I feel like we all know the media has a serious cold, a serious virus. We all know it’s sick, but we’re not sure how and when it’s going to get better.” Whatever you think of Todd, there’s no denying he’s working very hard on his own version of a cure.

With that we say goodbye. Todd heads off to a meeting, and later, to catch the 5 p.m. train back to D.C., to do it all again tomorrow.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.