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.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.