Admittedly distinguishing between two "Meet the Press" hosts can be a little like differentiating shades of white (is that Papaya Whip or Lavender Blush ... umm, dunno!). Chuck Todd, who began his tenure Sunday, is smart, literate, well-prepped, and deeply familiar with the tangle of wordplay that determines how that deeply disappointing city on the Potomac speaks of itself.
But then, so was David Gregory, who was fired two weeks ago.
So what's the difference? Todd essentially laid that out Sunday (in his opening interview with President Obama), and didn't have to spell it out either -- so familiar a TV presence is he, and so familiar with this format, too.
His affability seems to come to him naturally -- it never did with Gregory.
His ease with people, certainly his hand-picked ones on the panel, is never studied, and as a result his ease with himself doesn't feel like a put-on either.
It's strange to refer to a young guy like Todd as "avuncular," but he is avuncular -- it's that "a" word that has made Bob Schieffer such a durable presence for so many decades.
Bluntly put, Todd's likable. Gregory was not.
But Todd has another advantage over Gregory, a much greater one -- he's not the first guy to follow Tim Russert.
Gregory's tenure -- even before it became a "tenure" -- was compared, unfavorably with Russert's, which really spelled his inevitable doom.
Todd is the first host to follow Gregory. It's a vastly better place to be.
And at this point, I defer to Mark Leibovich, and his excellent 2013 book on Washington power games and the miserable corruption that pervades the place -- "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -- Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital" -- which lays this out very well indeed. Here are two longish extracts from the book, which is well worth buying (only a few bucks on Kindle) or reading if you have not.
Here's Leibovich on Russert, who died in 2008:
Russert became more famous than most of the people he interviewed. After a while in Washington, the fame itself becomes the paramount commonality between the parties. You are a commodity, Someone on TV, with an agent and a chief of staff. (Even Chelsea Clinton has a chief of staff now!) You start using “impact” as a verb.
After a while, the distinctions between the clans all run together -- the journalists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the superlawyers, the super lobbyists, the super staffers, the supercommittee's, the David Gergens, the Donna Brazile's, and the loser on Facebook who says he’ll be on Headline News at 2:20 p.m. They run together like the black-tie dinners, or the caricature drawings of notable Washingtonians on the wall at the Palm on 19th Street. If you’re lucky and you stay long enough, you can get your picture taken with some really notable Washingtonians and then show off the photos on your office “Me Wall.”
Yes, Russert was the mayor of This Town. To be sure, the “real” city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that’s just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita income to a mere $ 71,011 -- still higher than any American state but much less than what most anyone at the Russert funeral is pulling down.
Yes, Washington is a “real city,” but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity. Russert was such an intensely present figure, his face filling the whole screen like he was right there in front of you. People would approach him at Reagan National or after one of his paid speeches, where he would tell the same jokes and stories over and over, like a politician does. Non? Meet the Press?worthy lawmakers chased him into the men’s room, trying to make a charismatically folksy impression.
Strangers told him all about their cousins from Buffalo and commended Tim for “holding our leaders accountable” and for being so real, because somebody in Washington had to be real. That was Tim’s job. Fans would ask him to deliver a message to the president, as if everyone in This Town lived together in the same high-rent group house and bickered over the rent and shared Bob Dole’s peanut butter. *
And here he is on Gregory:
His tendency to project prima donna airs was leavened (some) by a playful and self-deprecating sense of humor. He once participated in a skit with Karl Rove at the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner. He was a regular on the city’s dinner-and-cocktail circuit and a participant in a Torah study group with other well-known D.C. political and media figures. He tweeted about giving his young daughter $5 after she lost her first tooth. Gregory had struggled in trying to fill Russert’s chair on "Meet the Press." He acknowledged as much in a short speech at the unveiling for the new HD set. “This has not been an easy transition,” Gregory said, choking up while invoking the legacy of Tim and raising a glass of orange juice, or maybe it was a screwdriver.
That about sums it up. By the way, I don't think Todd was hardly mentioned in the book. Another auspicious sign for a long and happy tenure?