Hip to be Square

Chris Cillizza loves CSPAN and Ric Flair. And that may be all you need to know about him.

Chris Cillizza loves CSPAN and Ric Flair. And that may be all you need to know about him.

By Chase Johnson

Photograph by Seth Freeman
Photograph by Seth Freeman

A tall, crisply dressed man with closely cropped dark hair stands in the middle of the crowded side room at the Capitol Lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue. He is attired in a suit and dress shirt, merely a tie away from the official uniform of Capitol Hill. Normally, he wouldn’t stand out in the crowd of young Washington insiders, except for the fact that he’s just yelled “Woodrow Wilson” into a microphone.

The groans that emanate from the crowd aren’t an indictment of our 28th president’s rude intrusion into their conversations. Instead, the bar-goers groan because they failed to recall that Wilson is the only U.S. president to be buried in Washington, D.C.

Of course, they should have known that. These people spend the vast majority of their lives in the district. Most have come to the Capitol Lounge specifically to take part in the bar’s monthly Politics and Pints trivia night, contests that attract large numbers of like-minded political nerds who compete for T-shirts, bar tabs and pride. And it is among these people that the man with the mic, Washington Post blogger and exalted quizmaster Chris Cillizza, feels most at home.

Cillizza lives and breathes politics. Aside from his monthly duties emceeing Politics and Pints, Cillizza is the writer of “The Fix,” a campaign politics blog published at WashingtonPost.com. The name of the blog stems from Cillizza’s obsession with politics; its tagline might as well be: “A blog for political junkies, by a political junkie.”

To extend the metaphor, Cillizza’s politics habit goes far beyond what one might call a healthy interest. He posts several times throughout the day—sometimes from his home in Falls Church—and it’s not uncommon for his first posts to bear timestamps between 5 and 6 in the morning. During his free time, of which he has little thanks to 1-year-old son Charlie, Cillizza enjoys pondering impossible scenarios, such as what might have happened if Republicans had controlled the House of Representatives during the health-care reform debate.

“I know I go overboard sometimes,” Cillizza says, “but my family keeps me in check.”

Politically, a Late Bloomer
Given his obsession with politics, it is surprising to learn that Cillizza was never into the subject growing up.

“My whole thing about politics is that I have a zeal for it that’s the zeal of the converted. At 15, I wasn’t volunteering for the county commission or anything like that. I liked sports, but my NBA dreams fell short,” Cillizza says with a chuckle.

Instead, Cillizza attended Georgetown University to study English. His interests rarely wandered into the political world that buzzed just a few short miles from Georgetown’s D.C. campus. Even journalism remained outside of Cillizza’s focus.

“I think I may have written one article for the Georgetown paper in my four years there,” he says.

Cillizza’s politics switch wasn’t flipped until he graduated in 1998. He was hired by renowned political prognosticator Charlie Cook, for whom he answered phones and compiled schedules. But the environment had an effect on him.

“I would say I kind of learned by osmosis,” Cillizza recalls. “I honestly don’t know what the spark was, other than being around people I really respected and seeing the passion they had for politics. You know, it’s infectious.”

Once Cillizza caught the bug, he rose quickly. By 2001, he had begun writing articles for the Cook Report and Congress Daily. From there, he jumped to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, where he covered campaigns and the White House until 2005.

Cillizza’s work caught the eye of John Harris, the Post’s political editor at the time. With input from then-WashingtonPost.com executive editor Jim Brady and then-WashingtonPost.com managing editor of Nation and World Russ Walker, the pair tapped Cillizza to write a new blog for the Post’s website.

“Of course, now it probably doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary to say, Hey, let’s do a political blog,” Cillizza muses. “But at the time, this was 2005; not that many major newspapers were doing it, so it was kind of an experiment.”

What it ended up being was a match made in heaven.

“It’s one of those things that I just took to,” Cillizza says. “I like the format, I like being able to be myself, letting my personality out a little bit more.”

‘New Journalism’
“The Fix” is full of what college professors love to call red meat—hearty, substantive content. Although Cillizza’s specialty is campaign politics, he will at times wade into policy, usually in the context of how it affects political campaigns and national parties.

Yet unlike his more traditional contemporaries, Cillizza’s writing often straddles the fence between serious journalism and political banter. The tone is typically quippy and conversational, rather than dry and didactic, a divergence Cillizza suggests was a natural progression that evolved as he became more comfortable with the blogging style.

“If you go back and read the first posts that I made to the blog, they read exactly like an article from the pages of the newspaper because that’s what they were; that was where my experience was,” Cillizza explains. “As the years have passed, I’ve become a lot more comfortable injecting some of my personality into the blog.”

One of Cillizza’s favorite blog features is The Line, which appears on Friday afternoons and ranks politicians or races on a number of different criteria. Some of the most frequent categories rank politicians’ influence within their parties or the level of intrigue in an electoral barnburner.

It’s that last category that causes Cillizza to geek out the most. He is fanatical about elections and their nuances, regardless of political ideology. He relished the tete-a-tete in Florida between centrist Republican Charlie Crist and conservative Tea Party darling Marco Rubio in their intense primary fight for the U.S. Senate that forced Crist to turn Independent in May. Likewise, Cillizza didn’t bother to mask his disappointment that the Republican gubernatorial primary in Texas between Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison fizzled before Election Day in March.

Though Cillizza, who is 34, maintains that he doesn’t target any specific age group—“That would be counterproductive to reaching as many people as I can”—his approach to covering politics includes youthful tinges that make him relatable to younger generations, an energetic and ever-growing reader demographic.

For example, while Cillizza often cites his colleagues at the Post and other high-profile news sources, he also posts clips from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” shows on Comedy Central that are popular among 20-somethings for their combination of political news and satire.

None of it is contrived, though; “I just post what I like,” he says.

Cillizza is also fond of assigning nicknames to important politicos. For example, he often calls Illinois Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias “Sexy Lexi” because, well, it’s fun to say, and Giannoulias is hard to spell.

Which isn’t to say that Cillizza isn’t a serious journalist. Despite the youthful approach, “The Fix” is still reliant upon the tenets of old-school, three-source journalism. In fact, his posts are often adapted for the pages of what he lightheartedly calls the “dead-tree edition” of the Post. He just doesn’t adhere to the “rule” that politics should be boring.

In that regard, Cillizza is a perfect example of “new journalism.” With the future of print media in doubt given the ubiquity and immediacy of the Internet, major media outlets like the Post are in search of ways to stay relevant as smaller, local papers fold nationwide.

Print journalists have taken to the television airwaves to direct viewers to their coverage. They’ve started blogging because the form is less rigid, which means news gets posted more quickly and efficiently. They host live chats to interact directly with their readers. What’s more, reporters are increasingly jumping on the Twitter bandwagon, because apparently blog posts aren’t short enough.

Cillizza makes a point of being active in all of these areas. In fact, he operates two Twitter accounts—“TheFix” for day-to-day news and observations and “TheHyperFix” for minute-by-minute coverage of special events, such as President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address and this past February’s health-care summit.

Through Twitter, Cillizza passes on key sound bites and important points, but in the spirit of the 140-character maximum, it’s not uncommon to see a quote attributed to “Prez O” or a post reading “Oh. No. He. Didn’t.” in response to a particularly well-placed rhetorical jab. It’s a style that one of Cillizza’s Twitter followers once dubbed “serious snark.”

It’s more than just a little corny, but Cillizza readily admits that he is a nerd—in fact, it’s a label he seems to revel in. Although his favorite television show is “Friday Night Lights” on NBC, his favorite television channel is “absolutely CSPAN.”

“I just feel like it’s cool to be a nerd now,” he says.

But even Cillizza’s nerdiness can’t hedge out his inner jock. He’s a big sports fan, specifically of Georgetown basketball, Catholic University field hockey (coached by his wife Gia, often referred to as Mrs. Fix) and, strangely enough, 1980s professional wrestling flamboyanteur Ric Flair.

In fact, the person Cillizza cites as having had the most influence on his writing style was Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy on ESPN.com.

“The thing that I love about politics is that it’s so similar to what I like about sports—personalities, history, statistics—all that intrigues me,” Cillizza says. “Every race is different in its way. Just like there are similarities in every baseball game—there’s nine innings, a lot of times it ends roughly the same—every game has its own unique rhythm to it, its own unique personality and maybe one or two plays that you can point back and say, This made a difference.”

New responsibilities
Cillizza has certainly benefitted from the growing popularity of the blog medium, but that which giveth can also taketh away. In June of 2009, Cillizza and his friend, Washington Post columnist/humorist Dana Milbank, launched “Mouthpiece Theater,” a political satire video series that was updated on the newspaper’s website and YouTube twice a week. The series was not well received by some in the blogging community who, under the guise of the relative anonymity of the Internet, made sure that their criticisms, constructive and otherwise, were registered.

The series gained some traction, but was abruptly halted in August after bloggers pounced on an uncouth joke about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s beer preferences and a certain five-character word beginning with the letter “B.”

Cillizza freely admits to the lapse in judgment, and even momentarily grows somber at the mention of the mini-scandal. But, he says, it has not hampered his desire to experiment journalistically.

“When you experiment, you are bound to fail a few times,” Cillizza says. “But you have to keep trying to find new ways to convey information.”

Cillizza is clearly embarrassed by the episode, as well as the overzealous claims of misogyny that followed; but his ability to accept the constructive criticisms and move on to new projects has only enhanced his journalistic pedigree. When the Post launched PostPolitics, the new hub for its online political coverage, this April, the paper’s brass saw fit to make Cillizza its managing editor.

It’s a significant undertaking for Cillizza, one that will siphon time away from “The Fix.” To pick up the slack, Cillizza has hired two “deputy Fixes,” Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez, 26 and 28, respectively.

“The culture of ‘The Fix’ will stay the same,” Cillizza assures. “There’ll just be more of us to go around.”

Unsurprisingly, both Blake and Sonmez bear distinct similarities to Cillizza: sharp, young and enthusiastic. And when they accompanied Cillizza to Politics and Pints for trivia night, both dressed the part.

They refused to acknowledge any latent loyalty to Ric Flair, but offered assurance that, yes, a love of CSPAN was, in fact, a job requirement.

(July 2010)