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.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.