TERRY GROSS, Host:
If you became a cable TV political junkie during the presidential campaign, chances are you saw plenty of our guest Chuck Todd. As NBC's political director, he became a regular on MSNBC and built a reputation as a numbers cruncher who could make the intricacies of delegate counts and the electoral map both understandable and interesting. In a cable world dominated by sharp opinion and shouting matches, Todd earned praise as a straight shooter whose analysis was always supported by hard information. He's now NBC's chief White House correspondent. He replaces David Gregory, who took over hosting "Meet The Press" following the death of Tim Russert.
NBC: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election." When he spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Chuck Todd said he went back to look at the candidates' official announcement speeches, and he found that John McCain had never officially announced and neither had Hillary Clinton.
CHUCK TODD: Hillary Clinton announced via the Web. It was at first supposed to be the exploratory - it was very reactionary when she announced. It was within days that Obama announced that he was about to do this same thing. He made this Web announcement in January of 2007, and he said that February 10, 2007 is when he would have a final decision and make a formal announcement in Springfield, Illinois.
All Hillary Clinton did was do this via the Web that first time, where she said the famous phrase, I'm in it to win it. John McCain never did an announcement speech. He just went on Jay Leno, "The Tonight Show," and said he was running for president. And when you sort of look back and say, well, geez, what did this say about the Clinton candidacy, the McCain candidacy and the Obama candidacy, well, Obama had his organizing principle of why he was running for president. He gave the why-I'm-running-for-president speech. Hillary Clinton never gave a why-I'm-running-for-president speech. John McCain never gave a why-I'm-running-for-president-speech. At times they may have touched on it, but they never gave that original organizing principle.
It's campaign 101. If you're running for the city council or you're running for president, you write down why you're running. I've talked to many a political consultant who tell me it is the first question they ask any potential client. If they don't have three or four reasons why they want to be that position, they're usually not going to succeed.
DAVE DAVIES: So in the Democratic primary battle, I mean, it very early shapes up as Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama.
TODD: Not just early, immediately.
DAVIES: Right. And so Obama takes Iowa. Clinton has the great comeback win in New Hampshire. And then you say it was really on Super Tuesday that Clinton would lose the nomination, and this was despite the fact that she scored very big wins in very big places like California and New York.
And I remember you were the first one, I think, at least that I saw, watching you on television, looking carefully at the delegate count and concluding at the end of that night that seemed like a Hillary Clinton win, that she was in a deep hole. Or not a deep hole, but...
TODD: She lost the night.
DAVIES: Yeah. Yeah.
TODD: No, I remember doing it - it was funny. It was out of - six months before that Super Tuesday, one of the things that, you know, I got the political unit and I said, guys, we need to learn this delegate math. I said, you know, I've - you learn it every four years. You relearn it. And it is formulaic once you learn it. And once you learn it, then it actually is easy to figure out, as many a - probably a listener here knows that there were quite a few bloggers who eventually picked up on it and got it and figured it out.
But the bottom line was the Obama campaign went to the DNC Web site and got the rulebook for how to get the nomination. The Hillary Clinton campaign did not. And we found out on that Tuesday night, that Super Tuesday night, February 5th, that that is exactly what happened.
I mean, there are multiple reports about how Mark Penn, the chief political strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign, didn't know there was proportional allocation of delegates and didn't know that a 20-point victory in California wouldn't translate into a landslide victory of delegates wouldn't translate to a winner-take-all of those huge delegates, while the Obama campaign understood the rules and basically realized that this - they were running against the Clintons. They were never going to get her out of the race early and quickly. They made the decision that they were going to have to set up a 50-state campaign early on. Not because they thought it was good for the Democratic Party but because they thought it was their only chance at getting the nomination.
DAVIES: So from that point on, it was clear that Clinton was behind in delegates and it would be very hard for her to catch up. And you write in the book that Clinton staying in as long as she did only helped Obama. Why?
TODD: That's right. And I think it's something that Obama himself realizes, even as his campaign team to this day is still bitter about it. But it did a couple of things. Number one, Obama, you know, he hadn't been tested in a tough race. You know, losing defines a winner at some point. But Obama, even in that one loss when he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush years ago, it wasn't - in a weird way, it wasn't a tough race, and he didn't have a tough race for the Senate. Well, with Clinton in this primary it was tough, and it toughened him up a little bit. It gave him some political body armor that he didn't have.
But she was also so good at talking about the economy, watching her husband do it in the '90s and the feel-your-pain type of politics that was very successful for him. And because when the economy - when the - you know, we were watching and - remember, Iraq was still the number one issue to Democratic primary voters pretty much all the way until about Super Tuesday, and then you could see everything turning. As the economy was going downward, the economy was moving up and moving up and moving up as an important issue.
And most of those last three of four debates that were really one-on-one debates between Clinton and Obama were dominated almost more by the economy than anything else. And forcing him to learn how to talk about the economy not as an anthropologist but as a feel-your-pain politician - he's still not great at it. I think he's still finding his sea legs talking about the economy. You know, being able to put - you know, make it - make that person who's hurting right now feel as if they - you understand their problems.
Obama can still come across as professorial or, you know, someone told - I think it's Paul Begala one time said to me, he says, you know, Obama's a creature of his mother. His mother was an anthropologist by trade. And going that distance with Clinton forced him to get better at that, to talk to voters, not at voters. And it made him better at being able to take advantage of what was an economic opportunity for him in the fall campaign against John McCain.
DAVIES: You know, when you talked about the McCain campaign, I was startled by a fact that you presented, which was that McCain was able to wrap up the nomination by campaigning in all of four states.
DAVIES: It's almost a photo negative of the Obama campaign. Not having to run hard meant he didn't have to sharpen his skills and build an organization.
TODD: Yeah, absolutely.
DAVIES: Was it an advantage or a disadvantage to win it so easily?
TODD: Well, you know, you present this to a political strategist, and they would say, boy, if you could get through your presidential primary in four states and wrap it up, should be an advantage. It gives you more time to prepare for a general. But when the gap was Obama had a campaign in 48 states - because of the whole Florida-Michigan mess, he ended up not campaigning in those two states during the primaries - and you realize McCain only really campaigned in four, and the four were New Hampshire, Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida. Sure, he ended up - when I say campaigning, he really only set up organizations and ran TV ads in the primaries and tried to win four states. The goal was run the table in all four.
Well, he ended up losing Michigan, but he was able to still pull off South Carolina. And New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida he wins, and it's over. Sure, Mitt Romney stayed on one week after Florida. Sure, Mike Huckabee won a few primaries, stayed in the race. But it was essentially over, and he wrapped it up in four states. Financially and organizationally he wrapped it up in four states. He didn't have real organizations in Texas, in Virginia, in these places that Obama had to truly set up true, big political campaigns in.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Chuck Todd. He's the political director of NBC News and its new chief White House correspondent, also the author, with Sheldon Gawiser, of the new book, "How Barack Obama Won." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Chuck Todd. He is NBC's new chief White House correspondent. He was also an analyst in the past presidential campaign and the author, with Sheldon Gawiser, of a new book, "How Barack Obama Won: A State-by-State Guide to the Historic 2008 Presidential Election."
Well, Chuck Todd, you were a prominent face and voice on cable TV in a year in which cable coverage of the presidential race got a lot of attention and more influence, I think, than it has had before. And of course, cable is known at times for being outrageous and offering extreme points of view. You got attention by being thorough and fair and straight and balanced. Were you tempted to be more sharply opinionated on the air? Did you feel a tension as you went on the air, particularly surrounded by people who had more hard-edged opinions?
TODD: I never did, and there's never been that pressure there. You know, my role model was Tim Russert. And you know, you can be hard-edged with your analysis, and that's what I enjoyed doing. I mean, you know, I was - sometimes you can be cold and calculating about the facts, and that's - you know, that's what I love. And I love that sort of the game of politics and understanding it and the numbers and the demographics in it.
You know, that's just never - that's not how I was brought up covering campaigns. You know, I originally came - my first journalism job was with a publication called The Hotline, which is a - basically a trade publication that covers politics for professionals and campaigns for professionals. So to me it was all about, you know, it's like covering sports franchises, and you know, you're a baseball beat writer, I was a political beat writer. Not a political beat reporter, you know, explaining why team A was beating team B, not to say why I was rooting for team A over team B or whether I was rooting for team B instead of team A.
DAVIES: Well, you know, it raises another interesting question to me. As you are taking on a new job here as chief White House correspondent for NBC, and of course, you've had many, many years in the political trenches of this country covering congressional elections, and you know politics throughout 50 states perhaps as well as anybody out there. And one of the things that's always troubled me to some extant about coverage of Washington is in a city that is so partisan, so much gets analyzed in political terms.
And of course, a reporter - you can't report nearly all of the information you gather on a day, and so you have a lot of discretion as to what to leave in and what to leave out and what angle to take. And I'm wondering, since the debates in Congress and with the White House are both debates about policy but also expressions of political rivalry and ambition, are you worried you'll be too tempted to go back to what you know, which is politics, and write more about the politics than these important policy debates?
TODD: It's funny. You bring up in public the number one cautionary tale that every - what I would call mentor of mine, and I don't want to say that I have many that have been very helpful to me in my career, but the big warning I've gotten from a lot of my smart friends and colleagues is just what you said. You know, you don't have to assume everything is a political - that there's a political debate and a political reason behind it. But I've always felt like I should enter that way, and I think that that's obvious in what you want to do. The problems are very serious, and so you want to present - you know, I do think the ultimate job of a journalist is to seek the truth.
I don't think - in fact, I've always said the phrase, fair and balanced, balanced is incorrect. You can't balance the truth. The truth is the truth. So you can be fair about how you present the truth, but it's actually difficult to balance the truth. How do you do that? You balance the truth with a falsehood? It's always been a weird phraseology to me because I think that they don't go together, oddly enough. And I think that's the way I need to enter this.
At the same time, you know, you can't be Pollyannaish about it. There are motivations. You know, when people get frustrated with us in the media that we will cover things too much as if through the prism of red versus blue or through the prism of D versus R, and sometimes here in Washington through the prism of Congress versus the White House, which actually more policy debates are about that more often than they are the two parties.
You know, yes, we can simplify it, sometimes too much. And I actually think the public now doesn't want the simplification that we in television sometimes were trained to deliver, that they actually want more information, more guts. And I think you will see more of that coming out of our newscasts going forward.
But I do think it's important to understand the motivation of a policy, to explain how we got to that policy. Sometimes the motivation is safety. Sometimes the motivation is helping the poor. Sometimes the motivation is politics.
DAVIES: Before I let you go, I have to ask you, how do you think covering the Obama White House might be different from having had to cover the Bush White House? You weren't there, but you certainly know people. How's it going to be different, do you think?
TODD: Well, I think it's going to be more similar than people realize. I think this is a very disciplined - the Obama administration, I think, is going to be very message disciplined in the same way the Bush folks were. I think that in many ways Obama is going to be more - as combative with the media as Bush was. So, I think that the small differences will be, you know, here you're going to have a new White House press secretary who's very close to the president when every single White House press secretary barely had a personal relationship with President Bush. That isn't the way he believed the White House press secretary's job should be. This is going to be different. That in itself is unique in that the person that I'll interact with every day and the person that the public, other than the president, will see every day, Robert Gibbs, is somebody who might be closer personally to the president than the chief of staff.
DAVIES: I would think that has to be good for the journalists, right?
TODD: I think that's good for journalists. We haven't had something like that, say, since the days of Kennedy, you know, when there was more of a personal relationship between press - or even Marlon Fitzwater, who was press secretary to former President Bush 41. He was in the room and part of the inner circle. So that will be a big difference, and I'll be curious to see how long that lasts.
I think Robert's got a tough job because he is - I've known Robert a long time. He's not - he doesn't lie. He's not a deceptive guy, and he is either going to have to be - not know certain pieces of information so he doesn't have to be deceptive, or he may end up realizing he's got to take himself out of the role.
George Stephanopoulos early on tried to be the spokesperson - everyday spokesperson and realized he couldn't - it was tough to be in the room knowing certain pieces of information - you know, nobody likes - you know, in being put in a situation where you knew a piece of information that a reporter asks about but you couldn't give it out. You know, you don't want to be in that situation.
DAVIES: So effectively - to effectively deflect questions, you need to not know the answers.
TODD: Where you're being honest sometimes. Sometimes. Arguably, the Bush White House took it to the extreme. The - what seemed to be the right balance would seem to be what Clinton and McCurry had, Bill Clinton and Mike McCurry, who was probably the best known of the press secretaries for Bill Clinton.
DAVIES: Well, Chuck Todd, good luck on the new assignment and thanks so much for spending some time with us.
TODD: Well, Dave, this is the longest I've been able to talk in months. So I love it.
GROSS: Chuck Todd is NBC's chief White House correspondent and co-author of the new book, "How Barack Obama Won." He spoke with Fresh Air contributor, Dave Davies, who's a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Earlier this week, we noted the death of guitarist Ron Asheton, who co-founded the influential proto-punk band, the Stooges, along with his brother Scott and Iggy Popp. Asheton died Tuesday at the age of 60, so we ended our show Tuesday with a Stooges recording, which we said featured Asheton on guitar. Turns out, he played bass on that one, as several of our listeners pointed out. So we're ending today's show with another classic Stooges record, this time with Ron Asheton on guitar. This is "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I WANNA BE YOUR DOG")
STOOGES: So messed up I want you here In my room I want you here Now were gonna be face-to-face And I'll lay right down in my favorite place And now I wanna be your dog Now I wanna be your dog