Sunday Gab

Todd Brings Goatee and Game to MTP Debut

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. Chuck Todd makes his blushing debut on Meet the Press.

NBC NewsWire via Getty

Chuck Todd solemnized his marriage to Meet the Press, NBC News's 67-year-old public affairs program, much like a blushing bride. For his debut as moderator, he brought something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (as in blue state politics).

Actually a lot old, or at least bracingly familiar to the shrinking pool of viewers for all these broadcast and cable outlets and their inside-the-Beltway gabfests, usually populated by what New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin aptly lampooned as "the Sabbath Gasbags."

But Todd made some real news with a 35-minute sit-down in the White House Cabinet Room with President Barack Obama, who generously made himself available for Todd's gala premiere. True, there was an abundance of well-worn examples of the form: an obsession with "optics," a surfeit of sports metaphors and actual sports team references (prompting the heretical thought that this is exactly how ESPN would cover American politics), and Todd's roundup of the usual suspects to trade bon mots concerning issues of the moment. All the conventions from every other Sunday talk show were there.

There was the usual rotating panel of guests, with familiar faces like NBC's Andrea Mitchell, The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson and MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (who was test-driving his new role as MTP regular and NBC News Senior Analyst.) But perhaps the one radical departure from standard operating procedure was the elaborately tattooed forearms of Buzzfeed Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton, who showed up on his panel sans jacket and rolled up his sleeves for maximum impact. That had to be a first.

"We didn't have enough goatees," the somber-suited Todd quipped, seizing upon a rare similarity of self-presentation between himself and Stanton.

So how did Todd do in his inaugural outing? Pretty well, I think. Drawing on his five-and-a-half years as White House correspondent and NBC political director, as well as the host of MSNBC's The Daily Rundown, he seemed comfortable in the studio, running the table (albeit on an awkward-looking long desk on which everybody sat side by side by side) and used his time with Obama (in an interview conducted Saturday) pretty effectively, only once resorting to gimmickry, making the president lean over and squint at a small makeshift chart listing all the policy initiatives left unaccomplished from his last State of the Union address.

Still, he drew the president out on controversies ranging from the U.S. military's action against ISIS, to his decision to delay executive action on immigration, to the government's response to the Ebola epidemic in Africa, to Obama's ill-timed foray to the golf course in Martha's Vineyard right after to reacting to the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley.

"I should have anticipated the optics," Obama said, admitting that "it's part of the job" of being president to engage in political theater. This prompted a lengthy discussion of optics and theatre among the panelists. "It was good to hear the president say 'I'm not really good at it,'" Scarborough ventured, as Todd's presidential interview was edited into bite-sized chunks and a presented in installments, after which panelists chimed in with what passes on these shows for Talmudic commentary.

The program moved along at a steady pace, with Todd breaking up the Obama snippets by grilling three medium-sized city mayors about how they get things done without partisan bickering, never mind that MTP and its competitors are essentially about partisan bickering.

However, Todd and his team might want to go back to the drawing board on a new feature titled "What everybody in Washington knows but is afraid to say." Judging by the first installment — on the flagrant obviousness of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign plans — the segment should be called "What everybody in Washington knows but keeps saying over and over and over again until everybody in the rest of the country dozes off."