NBC News Political Director and Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd is a real charmer. In some respects. “You know, I’m never crazy about it to be honest,” he says at the onset of our phone interview late last week when I ask if he likes this sort of thing and if he minds being interviewed. “It’s part of the business. I get it. Not to name-drop, but Washington is such a fishbowl these days. Literally. I’m not trying to suck up. Everybody is part of the process.” He pauses for a few beats. “I don’t think it’s how I would like to see the system redesigned.”
Todd, 39, has a wry, sometimes cornball sense of humor. He likes puns. On one morning in April, the White House Soup of the Day was Chili Con Carne. “It’s not a soup, but it’s a good one,” Todd remarked on “The Daily Rundown.” And the kicker? “Chili Con Carne cause everything’s better with Carne!” Like it or not, he has been a part of this system since 1992 and in a sense helped create aspects of the fishbowl by honchoing NJ’s “The Hotline,” which, in the 90s and beyond was an absolute must-read in Washington newsrooms. Today marks the day that he sets off on his own uncarved path as he goes it alone on “The Daily Rundown.” For the past year and a half Savannah Guthrie has been stationed to his right. Now she journeys on to the third hour of NBC’s TODAY show, leaving Todd to try to make the show work without her.
Miami childhood causes minor delusion on tanning
Believe it or not, the auburn-haired fair-skinned Todd was born and raised in Miami. He resents the implication that just because his complexion is the color of glue that he doesn’t fit the Miami image and insists he has seen a beach or two. “The best picture I ever took was on a fake ID,” he says. “I look like a total beach bum. I look John Boehner tan. My problem is, I still see myself as this guy who was constantly tan his whole childhood.” He concedes he often ends up burned to a crisp.
Todd looks back at his pairing with Guthrie with relief. “I didn’t know her very well,” he says. They had offered him the position but didn’t say who his partner would be. “They had hit a wall,” he recalled. Eventually they chose Guthrie. Todd phoned her and asked, “Are you ready for this?” She put him at ease, saying, “I’m just so relieved it’s you. I think I can work with you.”
And so it was. Two correspondents with eerie similarities, one being that their fathers died when each was 16. The anchors are four months apart in age. “I imagine this is what it’s like to have a sister,” says Todd, an only child. “We literally lived in a 8 by 15 ft. space, cooped up on buses, on planes, you get to know each other.”
Which isn’t always a good thing, Todd says, explaining that some pairings can be disastrous with vicious competing. “If you like each other it’s great,” he says. “If you don’t, it’s toxic.”
When Tim Russert calls, it’s hard to say no…
Todd came to NBC in 2007 when Tim Russert called. At that point he had been at “The Hotline” for well over a decade. His answer was an immediate no. He’d just signed a contract with NJ and had no desire to leap from print to TV. But within a week Todd accepted the job offer and Russert became a new mentor. “Turned out I liked it a lot more than I thought,” he says. “He taught me how to think about politics.”
He grows quieter and uses fewer words as the conversation proceeds inevitably to Russert’s death. I ask what it was like to talk about the media giant on air for days on end after his passing. “Therapeutic,” he says. “He’s still a contact in my Outlook. You don’t want to delete certain things. He’s still around.” After a pause, he says, “Let’s just put it this way, this building still has a lot of Tim in it.”
A question that often comes up around Todd’s career is the fact that his name was seriously floated to succeed Russert on “MTP.” How disappointed was he to not get the job? “I never knew I was really up for it,” Todd says. “I was always bemused by it. I felt like, I’m the new guy here. I’m still learning. It’s hard to dissed by something you didn’t know you were up for and weren’t expecting.”
What his colleagues think
His colleagues give him mixed reviews. Jake Tapper, his colleague over at ABC News, would be an excellent reference for Todd. “Chuck is a sage political analyst and a good friend,” Tapper wrote in an email. “I feel very lucky to have him as a competitor — he makes me better, and I enjoy his company tremendously. Daily Rundown is a lot of fun, though of course I will miss Savannah.”
Guthrie also holds him in high esteem: “The best thing about working with Chuck is he is a genuine, good-hearted person. Yes, we all know he is a deep repository of arcane political knowledge and wisdom – but most importantly to me, he is authentic and really fun to be around. I will miss him every single day.”
Mediaite‘s White House Correspondent Tommy Christopher cast Todd in a favorable light: “Chuck is very well thought-of by his colleagues,” he wrote in an email Sunday night. “People might not know that he’s a really funny guy in person, something that’s come through every time I’ve interviewed him. He and the other NBC reporters have been really good about letting me use their 4th row seat when they don’t need it.
“The only complaint I’ve ever heard about Chuck is the same one the back rows say about all the TV guys, they take up too much time. That’s the biz, though. They deliver eyeballs, they get the most questions. He and Ed Henry both have this disarming quality that makes you miss just how hard they are pressing Gibbs/Carney.”
If there’s real criticism about Todd it comes from some reporters in the White House Press Corps. who don’t think the White House is ideal for him. They say he gets too jokey in briefings and, like Christopher, note that he hogs up time with too many questions. They say he knows more about campaigns than he does about the bigger, broader issues. They refused to be quoted on the record.
“Chuck has never been a great fit at the White House,” said a reporter. “He is all about politics, campaigns and the horse race, and seems at times to struggle with policy. The administration likes him a lot, but he doesn’t have the heft of Jake Tapper, or the sourcing of Ed Henry. It’s not a question of being smart enough — he is just wired differently. He always seems happier and more comfortable talking about some Senate race than, say, immigration reform or Medicare.”
Todd has great nostalgia for “The Hotline.” He says, “Always I miss it. It’s weird that I always miss it. Personally, I just miss editing something. [That feeling] that it’s always a start-up, that you’re running your own store. You don’t need to get permission. And here’s what I miss: I would have loved a shot at taking on Politico. For so long we didn’t have competition.”
Secret notes that would spell trouble
For the past year, “The Daily Rundown” was unchartered territory for Todd. He says he and Guthrie were a good match in that they lifted each other up and tried to put the other in a comfort zone. “We’re all sort of weird on TV,” he says, explaining that he’ll miss the banter with Guthrie. “There’s no bones about it,” he says. “I’m going to miss her.”
He’s also going to miss those secret notes he and Guthrie passed to each other while on air. He says if anyone ever found the notes they’d be in hot water – and he doesn’t seem to be entirely joking about that. “If anyone ever got a hold of those there would be trouble, he says. “We can actually speak with just one letter sometimes.”
I ask how he handles grumpiness and can he hide it on air? “It’s everyday,” he says. “If you’re annoyed about something that happened at work, not read in or not feeling well, I’d say, ‘Look, you’re going to have to pick me up today.’ That’s is something we’ve had to do frequently. One of us would try to have extra energy.”
With such effusiveness, it’s hard to imagine he and Guthrie ever really duking it out. Neither would admit to anything broaching that. Guthrie says the worst thing about Todd is that he’s messy in their shared White House booth. “Sorry Chuck, but you know it’s true,” she said over email. These two would get crushed on a show like “The Newlywed Game.” Todd says, “Like anybody you get annoyed with each other about something. Usually it would have to do with the other taking the day off and the other feeling overburdened by it. We would never verbalize it. And then finally we would say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m over it.’ “
The goatee: should it stay or go?
The culture of TV is less forgiving. Todd’s facial hair, which has been with him roughly since college minus a few years like this one photographed at left, is a hot topic for viewers. “Sometimes it’s nastygrams I get about it, sometimes nice grams,” he says. “Everybody has a opinion for it to stay or go.”
The real reason Todd won’t part with his facial hair is surprisingly much deeper. “Now I’ll be honest and I don’t want to sound corny,” he says. “I look in the mirror and now I see my dad. He had a full beard. If I shave it off I’d be erasing him.” Todd said he knows his rationale sounds loopy and quickly retreated to lighter but no less firm reasoning. “It’s not going away. It’s like saving a piece of clothing. I think eventually it’ll be cool again but I’m keeping it in my closet. Deal with it.”
Something else Todd is known for now seems barbarically less touching. It’s the fact that Gayle King gives him shout-outs any chance she gets. Why so chummy? “There’s certain things like, really?” asks Todd, acutely aware that him being friends with Oprah’s BFF sounds absurd. “Gayle King. That’s one thing away from Oprah. It’s like almost getting the Oprah sticker on our book.“
Todd explains his feelings for Gayle like this: “I had this moment with Henry Winkler of all people on the TODAY show. He was the first costume I wore as a kid. I had a Fonzi cup. When I met him I was speechless. I feel the same way about Gayle – she’s my adult Fonz. It’s mutual admiration. I enjoy people who want to do serious things and don’t take themselves too seriously.”
Struggling to find work-life balance
While Todd says he’d be content to have his current job for the next 30 years, he worries about the affects on his two young children. Just recently he and his wife took off to Vegas on a three-day jaunt with another couple. They stayed at the Wynn. “We did what you do in Vegas,” he told me after I pried. “Golf, gamble too much and eat.”
Back on the home front he still finds it difficult to shut down his gadgets. And there are consequences. “My daughter asks me if this is a 6:15 a.m. week or a 7:15 week. I can’t wait until that’s not a question. It’s hard,” he admits. “My 7-year-old will tell me ‘Daddy put down the phone!’ Nothing makes my stomach feel sicker.”
But something that comes close is the scandal involving ex-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.). Anyone who watched Todd on MSNBC after Elizabeth Edwards died last December, saw a visibly angry correspondent who squarely empathized with her and did not hide his contempt for Edwards. “It’s weird,” says Todd, the tone of his voice clearly shifting to disgust even now. “I feel like we were taken for a 1o-year ride. Yes, everyday politicians manipulate us and the public. That saga more than any other exhausted me in a way and made me more cynical about politicians, so I want to block it out. I can’t explain it. That episode more than Clinton created a cynical strain in American journalism that we’re still recovering from to this day.”
Short term assessment
Look for changes on “The Daily Rundown,” but nothing drastic. The roundtable, for instance, will have three people instead of two for a looser feel. And to switch things up post Guthrie, Todd won’t always sit at the desk. “I like standing,” he says. “Being behind the desk you feel a bit locked down, a bit stiff.”