Chuck Todd: The Goateed Guru of Politics

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Alex Wong / Getty for Meet the Press

NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd.

Barack Obama wasn't the only winner to emerge from last year's historic presidential race. Chuck Todd has surged to TV prominence and Beltway influence since being tapped as NBC's political director in 2007. For millions of NBC and MSNBC viewers, Todd's analysis of election arcana, especially during the drawn-out Democratic primary, was an invaluable guidebook on the campaign trail. Recently named NBC's chief White House correspondent, Todd has written a book on the race along with NBC's Sheldon Gawiser, How Barack Obama Won. He spoke with TIME about where the media's election coverage went wrong, how bloggers make him nicer and why his famed facial hair isn't going anywhere.

What struck you about the 2008 race?

I think the most telling fact of the campaign is that, of Obama, Clinton and McCain, only Obama ever gave an announcement speech to explain why he was running. That tells you more about why Obama won — and why the other two could never get on message — than any delegate count, campaign finance figure or exit poll number.

Since Election Day, we've focused mainly on Obama's historic win. What else deserves attention?

There are a lot of trends going on that should be scaring the daylights out of the Republicans. Democrats are on the upswing in their control of Congress, in state legislative seats, in rural areas. It's all the way up and down the ballot.

What could NBC, and the rest of the media, have done better during the campaign?

We spent more time covering the primary race than the general election. There's something backwards about that. Why were there 40 debates, and 37 of them took place in the primaries? That's a weird ratio. We all contribute to this— it's the political community and it's the news media. We should have pushed back.

This was the single toughest year for NBC News in its history. To lose Tim Russert when we did, how we did— we never got to catch our breath. So, I'm not going to nitpick at what we could have done better. We were in unchartered territory, for all of us.

You've said reporters should try to be fair, but not "fair and balanced." Why not?

There's no such thing as balancing the truth. It's a well-done straw man, probably a creation of marketers, not journalists. If a fact is staring you in the face, you don't balance a fact with a non-fact.

Before coming to NBC you spent 15 years working as a journalist in Washington, but only C-SPAN junkies would have recognized you. Now millions see you, all the time.

There are so many people, even people that I work with, who think I was born 15 months ago. I've actually covered politics longer than most of my colleagues or counterparts.

And online, "Chuckolytes" seem extremely, even strangely, devoted to you. The "Viva Chuck Todd" site says you "make sense of the senseless" and sells trucker caps in your honor.

I am ecstatic that I have fan sites. I'm just glad there are no enemy sites yet. There are counterparts of mine in this business that have hate sites. I know that what goes up must come down, so I'm preparing myself. It is inevitable that people who love Obama aren't going to like something I ask. It's going to happen, it's the nature of the job.

One thing I'm mindful of is, you never know who's a blogger. You never know who you're talking to that might be posting something online, or who might be taking a picture. You learn to be nice to everybody.

We know politics is your passion, but you went to college on a French Horn scholarship. Do you still play?

I don't. It sits there. I have it, I wish I could find the time to play. It was a pretty good escape, and I don't have the equivalent escape now. My hope is to get my daughter interested.

Most reporters are clean-shaven. You have one of the more celebrated goatees on TV. Is it here to stay?

It has to be! I can't imagine getting rid of it at this point, I feel like I'd be just another pasty white guy. People don't realize, I've got a second chin there that nobody knows about.

People point out the old-school way of television would say you've gotta be clean-shaven. But nobody has told me I've had to do it here.

Could that be part of your appeal, do you think? That you're not a cookie-cutter talking head?

It's not as if there's a whole bunch of Brad Pitt lookalikes on television anymore. There are so many other choices now, I think when people watch the news it's because they really choose to do it. Obviously you have to be able to speak well, but speaking skills and the ability to explain something simply trump looks. Thank God.