A Political Junkie Finds His Fix in Television

On the day we met, NBC News’ Chuck Todd had woken up at 1:45 a.m. Having gone to bed early the night before, his body, now conditioned to getting four to five hours of sleep in the hectic final weeks before the presidential election, woke him up in the wee hours. He watched an episode of A&E's Storage Wars, one of his favorite TV shows, to lull him back to sleep.

As NBC News' political director, chief White House correspondent and host of MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Todd keeps a busy schedule. He typically wakes up about 15 minutes before his 5 a.m. alarm, and often not in his own bed. In the run-up to the election, he has been traveling about three days to every two that he is home in Arlington, Va., with his wife and two young children.

On this day, his list of commitments includes appearing on Morning Joe, hosting the 9-10 a.m. Daily Rundown, moderating a panel at NBC News’ Education Nation summit and prepping a piece for NBC Nightly News. He tries to shut down every night between 9 and 10 p.m.

Todd usually travels to New York two or three times a month, though he finds it harder to be plugged in to Washington politics when he’s away from home. But he keeps up with a media diet that includes an email inbox full of various news alerts as well as Twitter, where he follows the feeds of state newspapers to keep a handle on national politics, his knowledge of which colleagues call “encyclopedic.”

“He is almost savant-like in his knowledge of the congressional seats, of the races that have happened in different places. He has an enthusiasm for it that is infectious,” says NBC Today show coanchor Savannah Guthrie, who cohosted The Daily Rundown with Todd from 2010-11. “Whenever Chuck gives a take on something that is happening, I always feel that he offers something unique or a perspective or opinion that is not immediately obvious.”

Todd attributes his interest in politics to his family. He remembers being mesmerized as a 13-year-old watching his political-junkie father, a “dyed-in-the-wool conservative,” and his liberal cousin drink and argue about politics.

That love of politics brought him to Washington for college, where he attended George Washington University on a music scholarship (he played French horn) and doublemajored in political science. In his sophomore year, Todd took an internship at the online political tip sheet The Hotline and was soon working full-time. Like others inside the Beltway, Todd got swept up in the job; he fell six credits short of graduating, which he calls a “Washington disease.”

Hotline was in many ways the Internet before the Internet, aggregating political stories from newspapers around the country and topping them with pithy headlines. Todd viewed his job there as that of an analyst of the political markets, and never thought of what he did as journalism until the early 2000s.

Though Hotline groomed other TV journalists including CBS’ Norah O’Donnell and ABC’s Amy Walter, Todd figured his career path would lead him to magazine editing, not television. Even when he joined NBC News as political director in 2007, he assumed his onair role would be limited. But in 2008, he became one of the network’s White House correspondents. In 2010 he took on the weekday Daily Rundown, though he says he still finds writing for television difficult.

“Spouting off and saying things on TV, that’s not hard,” Todd says. “The harder part is the traditional correspondent role, narrating packages, writing for images. It’s more of an art than is appreciated sometimes.”

Todd credits late NBC newsman Tim Russert and Nightly News anchor Brian Williams with helping him learn the art of communicating on television and serving as his mentors.

“I first spotted him at Hotline—he was obviously an inside player, a guy who loved the game. I was not surprised that Tim took a liking to him—because there’s a lot of Tim in Chuck. And as a college dropout myself, I’ve always believed there are too few of us on the air,” Williams says dryly. “Television is full of over-educated people! When people see me talking to Chuck Todd on TV, they should know: We didn’t get to where we are based on education—rather, our charm, our wit, knowledge of the subject area, and in his case, facial hair.”

At 40, Todd doesn’t want to predict what’s next in his career: “I don’t feel like I’m at the end of my road here at NBC. But I don’t want to linger here,” he says. “Who knows how long that is? I know it’s only a finite amount of time.”

One future scenario is to move outside Washington and teach so that he can spend his weekends traveling to a different college football game every Saturday. (A native of Miami, Todd roots for his hometown University of Miami Hurricanes.)

But for now, Todd is focused on Nov. 6, when he will be rolling up his sleeves at NBC News’ studio in New York to cover the returns with Williams just as he did on Election Night in 2010, an experience he calls the pinnacle of his career so far.

“It was one of those 'I wish my father could see me now' types of things,” says Todd, whose father died when he was a teenager. “He lived for Election Nights. He’d probably yell at me half the time, but in a good way.”

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito