Juggling act: NBC's White House duo

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010; 9:59 AM

Chuck Todd began tweeting at 6 a.m. -- "the big race is in WV where another DC incumbent could lose a primary" -- and now, nearly three hours later, he is crashing minutes before airtime.

Tapping on a computer in a wrinkled blue shirt, Todd has just finished updating a blog post on Arlen Specter when he asks a producer to find some videotape for his new program, "The Daily Rundown."

"Watching Eikenberry yesterday was like a hostage tape," he says, referring to a strained performance by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, when Todd and other reporters questioned him at the White House. "Can we get the Eikenberry tape in here? I know it's late, sorry."

Peering over the shoulder of his co-host, Savannah Guthrie, he bats around phrases for the opening script on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington. Moments later Guthrie, wearing a ruffled white blouse and thigh-high boots, raises her BlackBerry in triumph.

"I have the CIA soup of the day -- bacon corn chowder! Yes!" Guthrie exclaims as if she has unearthed a state secret.

Covering the White House these days is no longer a matter of hanging around the briefing room and taking the occasional road trip. It is an all-consuming assignment in which reporters are expected to be multimedia performers, covering everything from soup -- the White House soup-du-jour feature on "Rundown" has been oddly popular -- to the nuts and bolts of foreign policy.

Todd, 38, is NBC's chief White House correspondent, the network's political director, an MSNBC anchor, a blogger on its "First Read" tip sheet and a prolific voice on Twitter. He and Guthrie, also 38, share the beat. When President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Guthrie did the "Today" show while Todd appeared on "Morning Joe"; they take turns sticking around for the evening news.

"We're tired," Guthrie admits.

"There are days you can really feel stretched," Todd says.

A passion for politics

"Chuckie T," as he's sometimes called, is an unabashed political junkie from Miami who fed his habit during 15 years at the news digest Hotline. He seems most passionate on television talking about obscure House races and has an encyclopedic storehouse of political knowledge.

"It's one of the enduring mysteries of Chuck Todd," Guthrie says. "I marvel at it every day."

Todd, who left George Washington University six credits short of graduation, was hired by the late Tim Russert three years ago. He was brought in as a backstage numbers-cruncher who would get an on-air tryout. He proved to be a natural, but even now describes himself as a wordy writer who is always tempted to add a parentheses to jam in extra details.

"She is 10 times better a writer for television," he says of Guthrie, a Tucson native who has worked for Washington's WRC and Court TV and did a stint as a Washington lawyer before joining NBC. "I've been learning from her since the day I took this job."

The White House beat was once a springboard for the likes of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Sam Donaldson and Lesley Stahl; now someone in that coveted post can be an anchor simultaneously.

With his goatee, infectious grin and steady stream of pop-culture references, Todd doesn't look or sound like a classic television correspondent, and that made him a long shot for the "Meet the Press" job that went to David Gregory. He still peppers his speech with phrases like "you know what?" But the daily grind is sanding off some of his rough edges as he and Guthrie spin through the day's top stories.

Todd is aware of the pitfalls of seeming too slick, saying that while scripts are necessary for hitting the right time cues, "neither one of us wants to be cookie-cutter anchors."

He is clearly more freewheeling when the talk turns to politics -- he beams when reporting that Jimmy Carter's grandson is running for a Georgia state senate seat -- but his partner doesn't let political chatter dominate the show. "We are each other's conscience," Guthrie says. "We don't want it to be so insidery that it alienates people."

They follow Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, whose program is more personality-driven; the Chuck-and-Savannah duo plays the more traditional role of bantering (and never bickering) journalists.

The two also depart from the format of much of MSNBC's programming in rejecting what they call "fake" debates. "We never have left-right" guests, Todd says. For them, avoiding such partisan face-offs "is an obsession."

"We're trying to bring news back to cable," Guthrie says. She shoots a glance at a publicist: "Am I allowed to say that?"

Since the 9 a.m. program debuted in early January, the ratings, while up 15 percent from the same hour in the previous quarter, have been modest. "Rundown" has averaged 362,000 viewers so far this year, behind Fox's "America's Newsroom," with 1.4 million, and CNN's "Newsroom" with 504,000.

Between their anchoring duties and the live cable hits they do throughout the day, Todd and Guthrie have less time for old-fashioned reporting. But they say there are compensations. "Sometimes the White House is talking to us more, getting us information earlier," Todd says.

"It's not like we're doing a cooking show," Guthrie adds.

And "Rundown" gives them valuable real estate. In the past six months, says Todd, there has been a higher bar for getting White House stories on NBC, after a long run in which all things Obama were considered news. Now "Nightly News" might take White House stories just two days a week.

"In the same way the country got exhausted by it, the New York folks got exhausted by it," he says, referring to the executives at 30 Rock. Todd says the morning show can be a "notebook emptier" for the information he vacuums up but can't get on other programs.

Chip Reid, CBS's White House correspondent, says that when he was at NBC and MSNBC during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, "I would start on 'Imus' at 6 in the morning and finish on 'Geraldo' at 10 at night." But he says Todd can handle it, as he did, because "you just get into that hyper-adrenaline mode."

Obama's 'disdain'

On this Tuesday morning, Todd punctuates the news stories with offhand comments. After a report on the frantic efforts to clean up the gulf oil spill, Todd says the situation is "looking like the plot of a bad B-movie. Unbelievable." But he sounds more authoritative in saying, "There's a presumption that Elena Kagan is a shoo-in."

Guthrie is the smoother interviewer, and when Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is on, Todd slips into Beltway-speak. If Hatch were up for reelection this year, he asks, "given what happened to your colleague in Utah, could you survive?" Todd doesn't explain to viewers that he's talking about Sen. Robert Bennett, who was defeated days earlier at a state GOP convention.

They have just enough time for the kicker: "How to train a hamster" -- literally footage of a rodent taught to run an obstacle course. It is television, after all.

The next day Todd flew to New York to analyze the network's latest political poll with Brian Williams, and the day after that he substituted for Chris Matthews on "Hardball." During last Tuesday's primaries -- Todd unsuccessfully pushed MSNBC President Phil Griffin to do wall-to-wall coverage -- he did cable live shots until 12:30 a.m., showed up at 7 on "Today" and then on "Hardball" and "Nightly News." ("Americans want candidates, Democrats or Republicans, who are as angry at Washington as they are," Todd told Williams.)

The backbreaking schedule, he freely admits, leaves him with less time than he would like for his wife, Kristian, a former Democratic consultant who now works for FedEx, and their two children, 6 and 3.

Todd has surprisingly little patience for those who slam the profession he chronicles. "I hate people that denigrate politics," he says. "Yes, everything is politicized, but that can be a good thing." While it has an undeniably nasty side, says Todd, politics is ultimately "a battle of ideas."

Despite his newfound prominence, Todd, like his colleagues, has limited access to the man he is covering. "Obama himself is the one who doesn't like dealing with the press," he says, exonerating the White House staff. "You can't even do shouted questions."

Todd, who first met Obama in 2002, when the then-Illinois state senator came to a meeting at Hotline, has a theory about Obama's frequent criticism of the 24-7 media culture. Once Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004, "he didn't need to woo the press anymore. The press was there at the drop of a hat. To him, almost all the experience with the press is invasive. . . . He's developed this disdain for us."

Not that Todd is complaining too loudly. White House officials, he says, are quite responsive "to those of us with bigger platforms" -- which obviously includes television anchors.

Todd was an avowed opponent of Twitter, but he and Guthrie have done an about-face. Todd often weighs in on sports -- especially his beloved University of Miami Hurricanes -- and has become online buddies with several football commentators. He keeps up a steady patter of wry political observations and says the 140-character limit imposes great discipline in compressing his thoughts.

The morning before last week's primaries, Todd spoke of having "20, 20, 24 hours to go." Plenty of Twitter types wondered whether they had just heard a reference to the Ramones lyric from "I Wanna Be Sedated." Thirteen minutes into "The Daily Rundown," Todd tweeted back: "Oh yes you did!"

Fergie's Tabloid Nightmare

News of the World runs an undercover sting against Sarah Ferguson -- the amazing video is here -- but should a reporter be posing as a businessman? Here's my report.

As long as we're looking at British papers, the Guardian drops this, uh, bombshell: "Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state's possession of nuclear weapons."

Cuomo Gets Personal

Andrew Cuomo announced his run for governor Saturday and made this remarkable reference to his ugly divorce from Kerry Kennedy: "I . . . went through a very difficult time in my personal life. It was a public humiliation." He gets points for candor.

The Paul Puzzle

You know the GOP has a problem when party chairman Michael Steele distances himself on "This Week" by saying he doesn't vote in Kentucky.

While Rand Paul has tried to walk back his reservations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even canceling yesterday's planned "Meet the Press" appearance, the controversy continues to boil. Slate's John Dickerson sees a potential boost for the Democrats:

"As a political matter, this just isn't something a candidate says out loud -- even if he believes it. At worst, it makes him seem to take racism lightly, and at best, it's distracting. Before lunch, Paul had put out a statement that he would not support the repeal of the law.

"This is what it looks like when the anti-establishment bumps up against the establishment. Now that Paul is the official GOP nominee, he has a higher profile. He's added to his newsworthiness by claiming his campaign is at the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. That gives him a higher profile still. It also invites the Democratic Party to try to make him the symbol of the entire GOP and means the Republican establishment may have to answer for the things he says.

"Democratic Party operatives must have melted their servers with all the e-mail messages they sent to reporters questioning Paul's views on racism and his libertarian beliefs. Were they so extreme that he would not support one of the signature laws of American equality?

"This is what opposition parties do. With Paul, the Democrats have ample material from his past. But rarely does the candidate help his enemies by providing a fresh moment to paint him as an extremist."

Salon's Joan Walsh says Paul at least triggered an honest debate -- until he backed off:

"I'm coming to regret using the term 'racist' about the Tea Party. 'Racist' is a personal insult, and it's almost as impossible to prove it as to disprove it. It's not a terribly illuminating term, either: If you call me a racist, you haven't really described anything I've done that's objectionable. You've just somehow designated me, and my so-far unchallenged arguments, outside the pale, so to speak. . . .

"So: I am willing to take Kentucky GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul at his personal word that he is not a racist, whatever it turns out he really believes about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. I don't know the man, I can't see into his soul. All I know is that we seem to differ, hugely, about the impact that centuries of slavery, legal segregation and discrimination have had on African-Americans, and on what to do about it. . . .

"I'm actually sorry that Paul caved on the question of the Civil Rights Act, because if he'd stuck to his guns, we could have had a debate about the correct remedies, past, present and future, for the enduring legacy of legal discrimination against black people."

National Review's Rich Lowry sees the political downside, but still kinda likes the guy:

"Paul said that he supported the parts of the law that ended state discrimination and he abhors racism. None of which prevented him from getting smeared as a mild-mannered George Wallace. It turns out that a Senate campaign does not offer the same friendly confines for the discussion of libertarian doctrine as a seminar at the Ayn Rand Institute. . . .

"Paul captures the tea party's understandably apocalyptic worries about the debt, its constitutionalist principles, its emphasis on the politics of sincerity, and its rejection of Bushian compassionate conservatism.

"He supports eliminating the Department of Education, a position that hasn't been heard from a Republican politician of note since about 1994, the last time limited-government politics had any real purchase. If Paul makes it to the Republican Senate caucus, he will help mark out the party's rightmost flank on fiscal issues. That will be good for the nation's balance sheet and welcome to tea partiers, if not always to his colleagues. They will have to learn to live with a problem like Paul."

What about the role of Rachel Maddow, whose interview boosted this story into the media stratosphere? Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates gives her two thumbs up:

"As a opinion journalist, what distinguishes Maddow, for me, is not simply to bring people on who she disagrees with. I think hosting the opposition should be the bare minimum. It's that when hosting the oppositions she hones in--specifically--on the issue she finds disagreeable. She doesn't berate. She doesn't yell. She just arms herself with facts, and refuses to relinquish the terms of the debate.

"That interview would have went a lot better for Rand Paul if Maddow had have just thrown her notes in the air and accused him of being a bigot, and a covert member of the Klan. That's what they want. And I don't simply mean conservatives--I mean people you disagree with. . . .

"Much scarier is the opponent who takes your argument, with whatever nuances it may or may not possess, and politely disagrees with the argument as it is."

Why wasn't this a big issue back home before Paul's interviews with Maddow and NPR? Josh Green has a theory:

"The local Kentucky media -- in particular the newspapers, and especially the flagship Louisville Courier-Journal -- has been decimated by job cuts, as has happened across the country. This came up several times in discussions with Kentucky politicos and local journalists. The reason it matters is that because there is no longer a healthy, aggressive press corps -- and no David Yepsen-type dean of political journalists -- candidates don't run the same kind of gauntlet they once did. They're not challenged by journalists. And since voters aren't as well informed as they once were (many are 'informed' in the sense of having strongly held views about all manner of things -- they're just not 'well informed'), they can't challenge the candidates either."

And then it's welcome to the big leagues.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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