With an office shelf stocked with a George W. Bush bobblehead, every conceivable issue of the Almanac of American Politics and a trove of recent electoral ephemera, it’s hard to see Chuck Todd, the new host of NBC’s Sunday morning mainstay “Meet the Press,” as anything other than a creature of Washington, D.C.
“Everyone likes to say, ‘He’s the ultimate political junkie, how’s he going to get out of Washington?’ ” Todd says, munching on salad, but eyeing the big cookie and bag of Reese’s Pieces on his desk. “Do I get annoyed by this characterization? Sometimes yes, but I try not to get angry about it.”
Todd, who has been a political reporter in Washington for 22 years — he worked at political tipsheet the Hotline, serving as editor-in-chief for his last six years there, before moving to NBC in 2007 — points out he grew up in unincorporated Miami. His father wasn’t fully employed for the first five years of his life. He says there were times that his family all slept on one mattress.
“I’m not trying to Horatio Alger,” he verbs. “But it’s an advantage that I grew up middle class in South Florida . . . I feel like I understand that resentment that can build when the New York perspective or the Washington perspective doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on in America. Tim Russert had that advantage because he grew up a middle-class kid. I do think that helps.”
As Todd takes the reins of the longest-running program on television this weekend, there are plenty of people who think his show, along with the other Sunday morning talkers, is in need of help. Endless information streams, the ability of newsmakers to control their own message online and a younger generation that won’t watch Sunday morning television threaten to eventually make the traditional experience obsolete.
But there’s more at play with the Sunday shows than questions of medium. And there’s a reason that Todd bristles at being labeled as nothing more than a Washington insider. There’s also the question of the Sunday show’s soul.
“As people have become more and more frustrated with Washington, the Sunday shows don’t seem to have adjusted to that,” Jay Rosen, a media critic at New York University and regular needler of “Meet the Press,” says in a phone interview. “We have the same people having the same arguments. The political class is still invited on in the same way. There needs to be some recognition of that.”
The New York Times quantified this on Friday, tabulating the appearances by the most frequent guests of Sunday programs since 2009. The list is very unsurprising: Republican Sens. John McCain (97 guest spots) and Lindsey O. Graham (85), former Obama strategist David Axelrod (83) and Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin (78) have logged the most face time. Asked whether “MTP” would implement some type of “McCain cap,” Todd laughs.
“The funny thing is, McCain hasn’t been on the show this year,” he says. “But if he shows up with Candy Crowley [on CNN], people say, ‘Oh, there he is on “Meet the Press” again.’ If he shows up with George [Stephanopoulos, on ABC’s “This Week”], ‘There he is on “Meet the Press” again.’ I respect the other four shows a lot, [but] they’re all derivatives of the original.”
It’s a nice compliment for the show, that it has become the Xerox or Kleenex of Sunday programs — a single brand that represents an entire industry. But it also means that “MTP” hasn’t done much to move away from the pack. Todd says he agrees with the assessment that people are suffering from familiar-face fatigue and promises that viewers are going to see lots of new guests from outside the Beltway. He did, however, give detractors hoping for fresh perspectives something to grouse about with the announcement this week that Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” would become a regular contributor, accompanied by rumors that Luke Russert would get a similar gig.
This comes with the territory of trying to straddle the line of being both for the insiders and a general audience. Todd doesn’t shy away from loving “the game” (politics, when done well, he notes, allows for things to get done) and he doesn’t pretend that he is going to come at this as an outsider. “It’s important that the person who sits in this chair understands the insider part of this,” he says. But he also says he isn’t about to engage in a televised love affair with “This Town.”
“I’m as pissed off as anybody else is at Washington,” he says. His plan: make sure he’s well versed enough in every topic to knock people off their talking points (“enough of this crap, let’s get to the root of the issue”) and to highlight more news from outside of the Beltway.
There’s a lot of pressure for him to get it right. Previous “MTP” host David Gregory’s six-year run was marked by a serious decline in ratings. President of NBC News Deborah Turness said the show needed to regain its “edge,” telling the New York Times: “I think the show had become a talking shop that raked over the cold embers of what had gone on the previous week.”
NBC has gone all in on the new show; Todd’s first interview subject on Sunday will be President Obama. This proves at least one thing: the Sunday show remains important to important people.
“If the White House wants to announce a policy change, they do it on a Sunday show,” says Tammy Haddad, the president of Haddad Media and former vice president of Washington for MSNBC. “If you are a presidential candidate in waiting, you have to appear presidential on a Sunday show. It’s a measurement of where you stand in the political food chain. The Sunday shows are about the exercise of power, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
One Republican staffer, whose boss is a regular on the circuit, puts it this way: “There is a certain status on the Sunday shows: It shows the people at home that there’s their guy, he’s on there, somebody is listening to what he has to say.”
But the trick is for a Sunday show not only to remain important to the Beltway crowd that will watch pretty much anything that starts with an image of the Capitol, but also to expand and reach an audience that has become more than a little disillusioned with Washington.
Can Todd be both an insider and an outsider at the same time? Listen to him try.
“Most political journalism is insular to the Acela corridor, and my job is to channel that frustration of the rest of America,” he says.
“I had a consultant friend of mine tell me . . .”