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Chuck Todd is trying to live up to Tim Russert’s legacy

When I first met Chuck Todd at the memorial service for Tim Russert in Washington, D.C., after the South Buffalo native’s unexpected death in 2008, I asked him if he would be interested in Russert’s job as the moderator of “Meet the Press.”

“I’m not the fool who is going to try and replace Tim Russert,” Todd replied.

I noted then it would be much better to be the person who followed the person who replaced the legendary Russert. Sure enough, that happened. Todd replaced Russert’s replacement, David Gregory, in September 2014.

It has been a successful switch in Buffalo. “Meet the Press” is by far the highest-rated of the Sunday morning political talk shows on broadcast stations here.

A Miami native, Todd came to Buffalo recently, for the first time since taking over “Meet the Press,” to host the MSNBC-sponsored town hall-style meeting with Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz at UB.

Todd didn’t stay in town long. After all, his schedule is as busy as Russert’s used to be during the presidential political season. Todd appears often on “Today,” his daily MSNBC program and “The Nightly News.”

In a wide-ranging interview at the Anchor Bar, Todd was engaging as he talked about Russert’s influence, the evolution of “Meet the Press,” his Buffalo family ties and whether the country should be scared after one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in years.

“It is the first time I’ve been in Buffalo with Tim’s title,” Todd said. “And that is the way I look at it. I have Tim’s title. I am sitting in Tim’s chair. I’m a custodian. It belongs to NBC, it belongs to ‘Meet the Press,’ it belongs to television history. It doesn’t belong to any individual and yet to me, it’s still Tim’s chair. I’m sure for Tim, it was (previous host) Lawrence Spivak’s chair. You can’t believe someone has given you this chair. So I still feel that way and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since coming here.”

Hired by Russert about a year before Russert’s death, Todd said they got to know each other in the first six months and built a bond the last six months. “It made (Russert’s death) that much more painful,” said Todd.

He acknowledged that other NBC staffers knew Russert much longer, but added he and Russert became closer covering the intense 2008 Democratic primary campaign between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

“Every day felt like there was a new turning point and twist and turn,” he said. “We felt like we were in the trenches together. We were spending more time with each other than we were with our spouses. I’m learning at the feet of him and I’ve been thinking about those experiences while trying to deal with this campaign. It is now ‘WWTD:’ What would Tim do in this situation?”

Unlike Russert, Todd can’t do an hour with one candidate because the candidates and Todd’s bosses won’t agree to it and viewers would reject it. He believes viewers expect an education from “Meet the Press.”

But like Russert, Todd gets feedback after programs from a kitchen Cabinet that includes family members, high school friends and his wife. “The hardest part is anyone is afraid of saying anything but nice things,” said Todd. “I don’t have to worry about it with my wife.”

He added that Russert’s widow, Maureen Orth, also is a good sounding board.

“She’ll sometimes chime in,” said Todd. “She is a good custodian. She keeps me honest. … They are always good suggestions.”

If Russert taught Todd anything, it’s that there is always a Buffalo angle. Todd’s wife’s late father, Benny Russell, was the backup quarterback for Bills quarterback Jack Kemp in 1968.

That might not even be the biggest surprise about Todd. Todd never graduated from George Washington University because he ran out of scholarship money.

“It is something I am going to finish before my kids go to college,” said Todd. “It is a flaw that I hate carrying around.”

His biography also includes a short stint working for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, which Todd said is known only because he included it in his resume. “It is hard to call my career in politics a career,” said Todd. “I was a 19-year-old, hourly paid worker for about six months doing FCC reports.”

Todd said he is a fan of the political system, even with this year’s negativity. He notes that populist and revolutionary candidates have long been part of politics and feels the nation should not feel scared.

“I have faith in the American voters and have faith in the wisdom of the voters,” he said. “We get it right. And even if you figure they got it wrong, eventually we’re fine. We have survived worse.”

He attributes some of the current craziness to the confluence of celebrity and the nonstop media crush.

“There is no doubt it feels worse than it has before,” he said. “But we’ve had gadfly-type iconoclasts, movements before that have been divisive and unpopular and have found traction. What is different is media coverage, media saturation.”

He is concerned that the legitimacy of the past three presidents has been challenged.

“My concern is we are now going to have our fourth straight president whose legitimacy has been criticized. We can’t get through polarization until the losing side accepts when they have lost.

“It is not that I am scared, it is that I am exasperated that we cannot allow the system to work. The republic will survive if the losing side accepts the idea that the republic survives.”