I’m Not Ron Burgundy
Chuck Todd isn’t your stereotypical newscaster. And yet television cameras can’t seem to get enough of him.
Chuck Todd is on the phone 900 miles from his Arlington home, his BlackBerry likely tucked between his shoulder and that now infamous goatee. He’s toggling his attention back and forth between this interview and the occasional producer or colleague talking into his other ear. Then the line goes dead. He’s apologetic when he calls back. “Sorry, dude, bad reception here.”
Here is Iowa, and Todd is on the campaign trail. Again. A week earlier it was to cover the GOP primary debates, the outcome of which he pronounced less than game-changing. Now he’s hitched a ride on a presidential bus tour, reading the play-by-play as President Obama gets skewered by conservative Midwestern voters in a series of town hall-style meetings.
Capitalizing on a momentary lull in his itinerary, we chat about his unlikely ascent at NBC, his killer workload (he routinely puts in 14-hour days), how he never imagined he’d one day be on camera. Then, just as suddenly as he ended the previous dropped call, he says, midsentence: “Gotta go. Here comes the president.”
Presidential sightings are hardly a novelty for Todd, who was following Barack Obama long before the young senator from Illinois announced his candidacy for the White House in 2007. Todd’s exhaustive knowledge of every congressional district, underdog candidate and obscure ballot issue is partly what got him to where he is now.
And these days he’s hard to miss. As NBC’s political director and chief White House correspondent, host of The Daily Rundown on MSNBC, editor of NBC’s “First Read” blog and an occasional prognosticator for The Atlantic, Todd is the go-to guy on many a media outlet’s speed dial—the decoder who translates every presidential speech, congressional filibuster and straw poll into plain English. Flip through the channels or surf the Web on any given day, and it’s easy to wonder if he’s cloned himself or mastered the art of teleportation. He’s everywhere.
But for all his wonkish followers, the “goateed guru”—as media critic Howard Kurtz dubbed Todd back in 2008—doesn’t fancy himself much of a celebrity. Despite the requisite makeup and primping that precedes each on-air appearance, he loathes the thought of seeming like a blow-dried “big deal,” à la Will Ferrell’s caricature, Ron Burgundy, in the movie Anchorman.
This is clear as we walk away from the set of The Daily Rundown at NBC’s Nebraska Avenue studio one day last August. Todd high-fives the janitor and squeezes into his 10-by-15 office, where pictures of his family and drawings by his kids sit alongside two shots of him with President Obama. Off to one side is a Tassimo coffeemaker—a gift that Today show co-anchor Ann Curry offered as an olive branch after remarking on the air one day that he looked “tired.” He fidgets and tosses a Nerf ball in the air.
We talk about sports.
“I played football [in junior high], but I stopped growing and everyone else kept growing,” says Todd, who stands about 5 feet 11 inches “in the morning.” The first book he ever read voluntarily was Packers lineman Jerry Kramer’s autobiography, Instant Replay, and to this day he can rattle off NFL and college football point spreads as readily as presidential approval ratings. That knack extends to baseball stats, too.
“Arlington screwed up the baseball deal,” Todd asserts, referring to the vote that nixed the possibility of a Nationals stadium in Rosslyn.
“OK, imagine today we could have had this beautiful baseball stadium on the Potomac River, where you would actually see a view of the monuments. And it would look like the team was playing in the nation’s capital. Unlike this monstrosity that was built in the city, all because of stubbornness, but doesn’t make common sense. That is a frustration of mine. Arlington somehow still believes that it is 1945.”
Then he switches to his other obsession—politics—and his tenor changes.
“[My dad] made me read Profiles in Courage, as a kid,” he says of the 1965 best-seller by John F. Kennedy, which chronicles eight senators whose decisive actions in office changed the course of American history. (Many of them bravely crossed party lines, defying the wishes of their constituents.)
Of the eight men profiled—an elite list that includes John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Sam Houston—Todd’s unlikely hero is Edmund G. Ross of Kansas. “[He] was the guy who cast the vote to keep Andrew Johnson in office after Lincoln was assassinated,” he explains. Johnson had been impeached by the House for violation of the Tenure of Office Act when he replaced Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, with his own appointee, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson’s full impeachment would have set off another round of Civil War uncertainty. Ross crossed party lines (he was a Republican at the time) and voted for acquittal.
“That story sticks out for me more than any other,” Todd says. “The decision not to throw Andrew Johnson out of office … that section gave me my love of the U.S. Senate.”
Most likely it was that political idealism that led Todd to the nation’s capital. Born and raised in Miami, he attended George Washington University on a music scholarship (he plays the French horn) and worked on Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s 1992 presidential campaign. That same year, he landed an internship at The Hotline, the daily insider political news roundup that would later be acquired by National Journal Group. As that position evolved into full-time work, he rode out the scholarship at GW but never bothered to finish his degree.
It’s a decision he now regrets.
“It’s just one of those things. It’s stupid,” he says. “I only had four years’ worth of scholarship money. When that ran out, I was six credits short. And I didn’t have the money [to finish].”
Still, the missing piece in his résumé mattered little once he joined ranks with 11 like-minded political junkies in the cramped, boisterous Falls Church headquarters of The Hotline, where he earned just enough to cover the rent for an apartment at the corner of Glebe and Pershing—the first of his four addresses in Arlington.
At the Hotline office, everything was a competition, be it election forecasting, street hoops, pingpong or a challenge to see who could inject the most Elvis lyrics into the week’s headlines.
“We worked in an attic, where there was very little air-conditioning, very little heat in the winter,” recalls his buddy and former colleague Vaughn Ververs, now political editor of msnbc.com. “[These were] the days before the Internet. There were no cellphones. We used to [put] stories on a disk and throw [it] around the room. That is how we assembled our publication.”
Eventually, Todd rose to become editor-in-chief of The Hotline, pioneering some of the first political webcasts. “Hotline was more about analysis than breaking news, although there was the occasional coup,” he says with some pride.
At the same time, his colloquial style and natural proclivity for numbers-crunching—“He has a steel trap for a brain,” says Ververs—set him on a path toward official punditry. He started working the political talk-show circuit, making frequent guest appearances on Hardball with Chris Matthews; Inside Politics with Judy Woodruff; and Meet the Press, where he made a particularly strong impression on veteran politico Tim Russert.
In Todd, Russert saw a kindred spirit with an instinct for the real grit of political coverage—not the glad-handing of campaigning but the voting patterns and trends that really place a candidate in the Oval Office, the Governor’s Mansion, or the Town Hall. Todd loved every race, and he knew how to call them.
“He knows [every district] intimately,” says his friend and former Daily Rundown colleague Savannah Guthrie, who now co-hosts the third hour of NBC’s Today show. “Not just national races, but House races, too. And not just this year’s House races. He knows the House races from 20 or 30 years ago.”
That savvy began to earn Todd more and more airtime. In 2007, Russert invited him to join NBC as the network’s political director. Within a year, he had become the lead commentator as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama duked it out in the 2008 Democratic primary race.
When Russert died suddenly of cardiac arrest in June that same year, many speculated that Todd was on the short list to fill Russert’s shoes as host of Meet the Press. But when David Gregory assumed that role, Todd became one of two chief White House correspondents for NBC (the other being Guthrie). He was 36.
Since then, Todd has been steadily acquiring new jobs without, it seems, giving up any of his existing ones. It’s a heady, adrenaline-filled existence, although keeping pace with the news cycle that never sleeps has proved tough on him and those closest to him.
Carving out family time is a constant struggle. As a rule, he takes Saturdays off and works only half days on Sundays, but that schedule is often trumped by unanticipated news events. Sometimes it’s catch-up time with his wife, Kristian Denny Todd, that gets interrupted, as it did when the phone rang one Sunday evening last spring. “When I got that call, I knew it was Osama [bin Laden who had been killed], even though they couldn’t tell me it was Osama,” Todd says. “I had to go in. I mean, I knew it was Osama. That is what they pay me for.”
Other times his kids—Margaret, 7, and Harrison, 4—get shortchanged. “Yeah, I missed a parent-teacher meeting the other day,” he confesses. “Not good, not good.”
Such milestones weigh heavily on his conscience as he approaches his 40th birthday this April.
“My dad died at 40,” he says. “I idolized the old man in many ways, even though he had many flaws. He and his cousin would get drunk together on the front porch and play this game, ‘Name all 100 senators.’ And they could do it.”
Still, the chronology of his father’s passing “absolutely sits there,” says Todd, who was 16 at the time. “[He] had Hep C, and his drinking exacerbated it. That said, a journalist’s life isn’t the healthiest lifestyle either. You don’t eat at the normal times, you don’t exercise as much as you would like. But I’ve got kids. I can’t die now.”
For all his political gravitas, Chuck Todd is no politician. One can’t help wonder how many epicurean egos he bruised a few months ago upon bidding farewell to Guthrie, who was relocating to New York. “You’ll love it there,” he said to her on the air. “They have much better restaurants.”
To Guthrie, this blunt remark didn’t seem the least bit out of character. “Chuck just says what he thinks. He doesn’t fit anyone’s concept of a network television star,” she says. “He’s a real person and he comes across that way. I think that’s why people respond to him. There’s no artifice, no show. He’s very authentic.”
Clearly, the journalist whom some critics deride as a textbook Beltway insider has his opinions, which he’s happy to share. And they extend well beyond the local restaurant scene.
“I don’t like the fact that [Route] 66 is not six lanes,” Todd says of the commute he drives regularly in his pick-up truck. He scoffs at shortsighted homeowners who he says resist development at their own expense.
“The absurdity is that sometimes residents forget that if it weren’t for all these people commuting, home values [in Arlington] wouldn’t be as high.”
At the same time, he bemoans the fact that he can’t unload his old house in Arlington’s Williamsburg neighborhood—the one he and his family lived in before moving to the Old Glebe neighborhood next to Country Club Hills.
“You are talking to someone who is stuck with a second house,” he says. “I can’t sell it for what I need to get out of it. What I’ve learned in Arlington is that if your house is [listed] under $900,000 you’re going to sell it.
And if it’s over a million and a half, you’re going to sell it. This house is a tweener, and I can’t sell it.” So for now it’s a rental.
Todd is playing with his goatee. He’s back to matters on the Hill, ruminating on the ideological rancor that has the current Congress in a state of gridlock.
“I am concerned that Washington is a mess right now. Suddenly both sides have decided they have to scream louder…and say mean things,” he says, betraying a certain pessimism about today’s national politics.
The issue weighing most heavily on his mind is the deficit reduction plan and its impending bipartisan supercommittee resolution. Lawmakers have until Christmas to find $1.5 trillion in debt savings, but he’s not holding his breath. “I would say even that agreement is destined for a stalemate.”
For Todd, that’s a particularly tough pill to swallow. For all the petty squabbling and grandstanding, he still sees America’s system of governance as a hallowed institution worthy of ivory tower status.
“I [still] want the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives and the presidency to be something people respect,” he says. “There are people who want to demonize the place. I want people to think that Washington can still be an ideal.”
For levity, we switch to the politics of facial hair and the chin beard he’s been sporting on and off since 1994.
“I had one person, an executive at NBC, who was always obsessed with me shaving,” he recalls. “He used to say: ‘You look like a Marxist. You don’t want to look like Lenin on TV.’ ”
But the unconventional look suits Todd just fine. It’s his thing.
Besides, “no one wants to see what is under that beard,” he says. “One chin is enough on television. Do they want to see a second chin?”
Jack Curry is a freelance writer in Arlington and former editor of USA Weekend.