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MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow May Be the Future of Political Punditry

June 16, 2008

Because primary season lasted five months instead of five weeks, I spent many nights in front of the TV watching voting results trickle in.

That’s how I got to know Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow, the number-cruncher and the pundit who were hired not long ago to beef up MSNBC’s election coverage.

Have they ever.

Todd’s endlessly interesting breakdowns of delegate math recently got him named “MVP of the primary season” by the Huffington Post. The Washington Post ‘s media critic called him “the campaign season’s most improbable TV star,” which may have been a reference to his on-air delivery, his facial hair and his abundant use of the word “fascinating,” such as to describe voter turnout in Indiana.

As for Maddow, the onetime barista and morning-zoo sidekick has seen her airtime grow exponentially, most notably on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” where she now fills in when the host is gone.

“She’s terrific,” Olbermann said. “Wonderfully informed, totally prepared, forceful and yet respectful.” Also young, gay, geeky and one of the few unapologetic left-wing voices in mainstream media.

The arrival of Maddow and Todd signals a generational change at MSNBC, which after years of missteps seems to be finding its way. I’ve always enjoyed “Countdown,” and “Hardball With Chris Matthews” is amusing, but the rest of MSNBC’s lineup was unwatchable for a long time. It tried to imitate CNN and Fox News but just made them look brilliant by comparison.

Today MSNBC is No. 3 with a bullet. It’s surging among the 25-to-54-year-olds who have always eluded cable news channels. In this demographic MSNBC is regularly beating CNN in prime time and even starting to challenge Fox News Channel.

For the record, Fox News continues to swamp MSNBC in total audience. But advertisers will pay richly to reach young viewers, even in small batches. So it did not go unnoticed last month when Maddow guest-anchored “Countdown,” and her rating in the age 25-54 “demo” was higher than Bill O’Reilly’s for the same hour on Fox.

Before Chuck Todd covered politics, he worked on various national campaigns in D.C. and his native Florida. In 1992 he joined the Hotline, the National Journal’s daily political briefing aimed at Washington insiders.

He started by covering House races, “because nobody wanted to cover those in ’92. But it’s the local crime beat of politics. You understand how congressional races are going, and everything from there is easier.”

Todd became editor in chief of Hotline and a favorite guest on “Hardball” and other talking-heads programs. For most of us, though, it wasn’t until Tim Russert hired him in March 2007 that he drifted into view.

There’s a genial, unassuming nature to Todd, on and off TV, that helps take the edge off being the smartest kid in the room. You never get the feeling (unlike with, say, CNN’s William Schneider) that Todd has been brought in to take a complex topic and make it very, very simple. Usually the opposite happens.

Take last weekend on “Meet the Press,” where Russert and Todd spent three minutes enthusing over Todd’s electoral maps, showing the U.S. color-coded into five groups _ solidly Obama, leaning Obama, toss-up, solidly McCain, leaning McCain _ as a roundtable of NBC reporters looked on quietly.

The next day, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Todd spent eight minutes talking about how young evangelicals in states that lean GOP might break for Obama (“he’s more comfortable talking about Jesus”) and how McCain might bring Democratic leaners into his column (“he sees himself as the last of the Rockefeller Republicans”).

He knows he’s getting typecast as a mathlete. But he’s more than spreadsheet deep. When I asked how he thought history would remember the Democratic fight of 2008, he expected the current storyline _ Obama’s message of hope, Clinton’s gaffes, the media’s sexism _ wouldn’t last.

“I think it’s going to be about Bill, the complicating factor of Bill Clinton,” he said. “In a year that was clearly a change election, when people were willing to flirt with something that was less familiar, the biggest impediment against Hillary Clinton was her last name.”

Rachel Maddow went to Stanford and won a Rhodes Scholarship. She earned a doctorate in political science at Oxford. So far so good.

The logical next step would have involved “either Yale Law School or McKinsey,” she said, referring to the global management consulting firm. Instead, she went to work as an activist in HIV-AIDS and prison-reform issues. To support herself she took “innumerable odd jobs on the side.”

One day, thinking it might be a fun way to earn some cash, Maddow auditioned to be traffic and news reader at a local radio station in Amherst, Mass.

Radio “just bit me and interested me far more than I thought it would,” Maddow said. After hosting a morning show in Northampton, she joined the fledgling liberal Air America Radio.

She started out as the third leg of “Unfiltered,” a show co-hosted by “Daily Show” creator Lizz Winstead and rapper Chuck D. One year later, in 2005, “The Rachel Maddow Show” was launched.

Tucker Carlson booked her on MSNBC, but it was Olbermann who put her on the map. In an e-mail, he told me he’d been pushing Maddow to be his fill-in since last year. She agreed, but only after Olbermann said he’d show her exactly how a teleprompter works.

“She had clearly mastered it in 10 minutes but then started asking questions I really hadn’t previously articulated answers for: How do you keep from looking like you’re reading? What’s your purpose in looking away and reading quotes from the script?”

When her debut came in April, Olbermann recalled,”I don’t think she made one prompter mistake in her first hour using one, live, on national television (I average four or five a night).”

Now she appears on a new roundtable show, “Race for the White House,” hosted by NBC’s David Gregory at 6 p.m. EDT weekdays.

She sits next to Pat Buchanan, the old Nixon hand and Republican presidential candidate who often tacks to the right of the party. Their rapport is not warm, but at least they don’t yell across the room at each other, as Eleanor Clift and Buchanan do every week on “The McLaughlin Group.”

Watching them on MSNBC, I’m reminded how many Buchanans are represented in the chattering class, yet how few Maddows there are, tacking to the Democrats’ left. And if you think the party’s nominee is left-wing, you haven’t heard a progressive pundit lately.

“Honestly, there’s enthusiasm for Obama as the guy running against McCain,” Maddow said, “but it’s not like what he’s putting out in policy proposals is energizing the left. I know that’s going to sound weird because he’s being caricatured as a liberal, but honestly, his platform is pretty centrist.”

Of course, many think the whole blinkin’ network is left-wing. The charges that MSNBC is hopelessly biased will persist as long as Olbermann is there, but that’s missing a bigger point. More than CNN or Fox, this news channel has figured out a way to tap into younger viewers’ interest in this campaign.

A couple of years ago I wondered in a column if Olbermann was the future of TV news. I’ve since realized that he’s a singular figure _ part sports anchor, part “Bob and Ray Show,” part Murrow seance _ and not likely to be cloned. The future of TV news, rather, now looks more like Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, two clever nerds who don’t believe in information overload and are fluent in irony.

Like many technophiles, Todd doesn’t even surf the Web anymore; he uses an RSS reader to quickly scan headlines at scores of blogs. Maddow, who calls herself a “totally online animal,” watches no television other than clips on Web sites and her cell phone.

She and Todd have a noticeable edge in online support. At least two fanblogs are devoted to him: Viva Chuck Todd (sample headline: “Chuck Brings a Gun to a Knife Fight”) and the borderline-stalker www.ChuckToddFacts.com. The gay and lesbian blogosphere has been rooting for Maddow for years.

Of course, all of this enthusiasm is happening in 2008, the most exciting political year this generation has seen. What happens next year? Well, that’s next year.

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WHEN TO CATCH RACHEL AND CHUCK

Chuck Todd is the political director for NBC News. He often appears on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Today” and MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” (8 and 10 p.m. EDT weeknights).

Rachel Maddow contributes to “Countdown” and MSNBC’s “Race for the White House” (6 p.m. EDT weeknights).

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Aaron Barnhart: aaron@tvbarn.com

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