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.
Over the past three years, as well as expanding the role of political director, Todd has redefined it for the new media age. He is not only a constant presence on cable and network TV, but also a constant voice on MSNBC’s First Read blog and on Twitter, which he constantly surveys for news—“I think it’s the most powerful wire service ever invented,”—and is known to Tweet thirty times a day. It’s part of the job, said Todd. “I don’t ever feel like I stop reading-in. It used to be that you read-in in the morning and then you went through your day. Every time you think you cannot check in for a while, you miss something. I’m in a business where I’m not allowed to miss right now.”
Something that becomes apparent when you spend time with Chuck Todd is that despite his reputation as an innovator in the political director role, he is somewhat old-fashioned in his view of American politics. He blossomed in the Beltway but remains un-jaded by it. The public got a glimpse of this last month when Todd took exception to Stephen Colbert’s appearance at a House subcommittee hearing on immigration and farm labor, asking Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC’s Hardball (which he’d found time to guest host): “What if Al Franken was in character in the U.S. Senate? What if he decided to be Stuart Smalley in the Senate?” And later: “I’m asking you, is this good for the system, bad for the system, or is it simply the system?”
Liberal bloggers called Todd everything from a “full-blown concern troll” to an “inside-the-Beltway tool” following the comment. But he makes no apologies. “We demonize politics so much in the American media,” he told me. “And I hate how we’ve demonized the institutions of Congress so much that it’s now okay for somebody to go in there and make a mockery of it. I understand that Congress has certainly not earned the respect of the American voter. But like I said, the first book I read was Profiles in Courage. For me that put senators on a pedestal.”