Chuck Todd has interviewed Donald Trump many times, and he’s noticed something somewhat disquieting about the unquiet president-elect.
The man doesn’t laugh — not in a normal, spontaneous, regular-human kind of way.
“[It] drives me crazy. Do you know what? I’ve never seen him laugh,” the “Meet the Press” host told me during an interview for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast earlier this month. “I challenge somebody to find him laughing, and that person has yet to find an example, in my opinion. He’ll smile, but he smiles appropriately. Watch him at the Al Smith dinner [the roast in New York City in October] … He doesn’t really laugh. He looks for others to laugh. It is just weird.”
And there’s one other thing that Todd thinks is odd: After several of his Sunday appearances as a candidate, Trump would lean back in his chair and request that the control room replay his appearance on a monitor — sans sound.
“Then there’s the amount of time he spends after the interview is over, with the sound off. He wants to see what it all looked like. He will watch the whole thing on mute,” Todd told me, sitting in his cluttered office in NBC’s nondescript, low-slung Washington headquarters on Nebraska Avenue.
“He’s a very visual guy,” says Todd. “He thinks this way, and look, it’s an important insight in just understanding him. The visual stuff is very real beyond just himself.” It’s a source of his political effectiveness, an understanding of the blunt force of imagery that Hillary Clinton, crushed by her briefing books, could never understand.
Todd, the 44-year-old steward of a venerable broadcast journalism franchise most memorably occupied by the affable and acute Tim Russert, predicted — like everyone else, including me — that Trump was toast heading into Election Day, and remains puzzled and fascinated by the man who has upended the country’s presumed political order. He’s the former editor of the pioneering insider tip sheet The Hotline, and an unapologetic politics geek in a way that rivals, and sometimes surpasses, Sunday competitors John Dickerson and George Stephanopoulos — so his appreciation of Trump’s upset win is enhanced by his precinct-level knowledge of turnout and regional electoral history, especially in his home state of Florida. Then there’s the element of class: Todd grew up in a working-class Miami household, and intuitively understands the new president’s appeal from the perspective of a kid whose family sweated the rent in a way that the other two men on the legacy broadcast Sunday programs simply can’t.
Yet he shares something in common with his rivals. Todd feels burned by the process he just slogged through — and is aware that Trump played the media in ways that no other candidate had ever done before.
In March, New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg reported on a phenomenon that many of us print types had been griping about since mid-2015: the decision by Todd and other Sunday TV hosts, to allow Trump to conduct “pajama interviews” — phone-in calls to the shows that flouted the tradition of an in-person sit-down format. “It’s why the programs were named ‘Face the Nation’ and ‘Meet the Press’ — not ‘Call the Nation’ or ‘Phone the Press,’ Rutenberg quipped.
Soon after, Todd, following the lead of Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, banned disembodied Donald from his show.
The topic still gives him agita. “It was copycat. I’m just going to straight-up say it. I didn’t want to do it,” he told me — adding that it was unclear who had initiated the practice. “A competitor did it first, and I’m not going to sit here and whine about that. We did it in response to somebody else who did it, and we felt trapped. … I didn’t like the phoners either, and I just finally stood my ground and was the first Sunday show to say, ‘No more.’”
“I’m not going to do it anymore,” he added.
Todd sees his rejection of phone-ins as a small victory in the eternal Trump mind-checkers game vs. the media — and it hasn’t cost him in terms of access. “I’ll be honest with you. We said no. He threw out a phoner; we said no,” he added. “We said, ‘Why not a TV studio in Palm Beach?’ And they said yes.”
Still, he won’t abide being lectured about it, not from print scribes, and he called me out when I called him out. “First of all, every print reporter out there, you know what?” he added. “You let me know how many telephones interviews you’ve done, how many email interviews, all that stuff. There was no criticism I accepted less, that I took less seriously, than criticism from a print reporter about doing a phoner.”
Todd’s relationship with his late father is a theme he returned to often in our conversation, and it gives him insight into Trump — whose relationship to his own father, hard-driving Queens real estate titan Fred Trump, is a critical element in understanding the president-elect’s opaque personality.
“Look, he’s not the first president to have daddy issues,” Todd said with a laugh. “There’s nothing like a parental issue to add a chip… My name is Chuck Todd and I have a chip on my shoulder about my dad … Everybody has the chip. For Barack Obama, it was where is dad? For Bill Clinton, it was where is dad? For George W. Bush, it’s living up to dad. For George H.W. Bush, living up to dad. It is fascinating, and there’s something about — look, I think one of the undercovered aspects of Hillary Clinton is her relationship with her father was very, very troubling.”
With the exception of Obama, whose memoir revolves around the vacant emotional center of his oft-absent Kenyan father, presidents don’t tend to venture voluntarily into Freud-land. But Todd’s relationship with his father Stephen — who died at age 40 when Todd was in high school — is central to his life, his ambition and his sense of self. Like Dickerson, who wrote a book about his fraught relationship with his mother, a successful TV newswoman and socialite, the NBC host sees his own accomplishments in the context of his own challenging childhood. Unlike Dickerson, who grew up in a mansion — the scion of a wealthy and glamorous D.C. power couple — Todd was raised in a cramped Miami apartment, the son of a hard-working and steady mother and a brilliant, erratic father who couldn’t seem to catch a break.
“So, my dad was — he had a lot of jobs,” Todd said. “He wasn’t successfully employed very often, but my dad, when I was really young, was a record company local promoter … So, that was my dad, and my mom was the one that always had two jobs.”
When Todd was 16 in 1988, his father suffered a flare-up of his dormant hepatitis C — a disease he’d contracted after a bad blood transfusion following a car accident in the Keys years before. The drinking only made the ailment progress faster, and he died, leaving Todd alone with his mother and a house full of his father’s intellectual and artistic artifacts — including hundreds of vinyl records the pack-rat Todd still treasures.
The loss lingers, and Todd is tormented by TV commercials for a one-pill treatment that would have saved him. He is an accomplished French horn player (and studied music composition for a time at George Washington University before he was swept away by politics) — and took up the most challenging of the brass instruments because his father played it, and encouraged him to follow suit.
“He was tough,” Todd recalled. “He was ridiculously supportive … but it was a weird dynamic. He wasn’t comfortable pushing it. The only reason I picked it is because of him, and then all of a sudden, he backed way off. Looking back, I’m disappointed in that, but I think it was his own personal failures in his life. I think he felt as if he wasn’t very successful, career-wise. For him, it was a reminder of yet another unfulfilled path in life.”
One of Stephen Todd’s unfulfilled paths, he believes, is the one that has brought his son household-name fame.
“The bottom line,” Todd told me, drumming his desk for emphasis, “is I feel like I am finishing the career my father always should have pursued. He would have been very good at this. He never got there.”
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