Politics: Show Business for Ugly People

The Gospel According to the Fix by Chris Cillizza

Political endorsements are only meaningful when they’re a surprise. Think of ­Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, ­endorsing Barack Obama a few weeks before the 2008 election. In “The Gospel According to the Fix,” an ­entertaining guide to the “less than holy world of ­politics,” Chris Cillizza breaks political endorsements down into a hilarious taxonomy of 10 categories, most of them lacking any semblance of unexpectedness. There is the Symbolic Endorsement (Al Gore giving his ­imprimatur to Howard Dean in 2003—oops) and the Me-for-Me Endorsement (Rick Santorum’s half-hearted ­endorsement of Mitt Romney once he read the writing on the wall).

Then there is the delicious “What-Comes-Around-Goes-Around Endorsement.”

In 2008, Rudy Giuliani’s team wooed Florida Gov. Charlie Crist for months. Eager for his endorsement in the contest for the GOP presidential nomination, his team thought that a deal had been reached. Just ­before the Florida primary, Crist instead endorsed John McCain, which helped crater Mr. Giuliani’s chances in Florida. Rudy Giuliani didn’t forget. A few years later, when Crist was struggling in his bid for a ­Florida Senate seat, guess which former presidential candidate—still popular among former New Yorkers voting in Florida primaries—was only too happy to endorse ­newcomer Marco Rubio?

As a former Giuliani staffer (and undying loyalist), I find it delightful to read the words “Senator Rubio,” and I was amused to see that Cillizza has remembered the incident too. One of the guilty pleasures of his writing is the way he adroitly ­captures the deep personal hatreds that politics ­provoke—and that many reporters pretend don’t exist.

Cillizza, a reporter for the Washington Post, writes The Fix blog, which has become a must-read for political junkies thanks to such insider dish—and thanks to the relentless pace at which he updates and emails ideas all day long. With The Gospel According to the Fix, Cillizza steps back slightly to produce a guide to the election season that offers the perspective of a historian, the sources of a journalist and the breezy dish of a gossip columnist. The book is structured as 23 unrelated chapters—they don’t build on one another but, as befits the attention span of blog readers, are meant to be enjoyed on their own.

Parts of “The Gospel According to the Fix” do feel like extended blog posts. They include a chapter titled “The 10 Best/Worst Negative Ads” (including “Montana Beauty Parlor,” a 2002 spot made for Democratic Sen. Max ­Baucus featuring his Republican opponent, Mike Taylor, “applying cream and rubbing another man’s ­temples”) and another called “The 10 Issues You Won’t Hear About This Fall” (including immigration, education and gun ­control). Cillizza selects “A Hall of Fame” of recent political leaders and an “All-Star Team” of those he ­expects to factor in the national scene in four years. These include Marco Rubio (again) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the Republican side and Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Yes, the people already thinking about 2016 are true political junkies—but that’s who this “Fix” is for.

Though full of quick takes, “The Gospel According to the Fix” hits its stride in several ambitious explorations of various aspects of the political scene. Cillizza ­revisits key historical episodes, like what he dubs the first October surprise: Henry Kissinger’s “peace is at hand” speech on Vietnam just a week before the 1972 election. He also offers a captivating account of the Ames Straw Poll, which for years was a reliable ­predictor of who would win the Iowa caucus.

The pay-to-play Ames Straw Poll, begun in 1979, drew only 23,000 voters at its peak. Yet by 1999, it had ­become such a carnival that George W. Bush’s campaign paid $40,000 for the best parking spot at Ames’s Hilton Coliseum, where the poll was conducted. Last August, the participants in the poll threw away their influence by choosing Michele Bachmann, a native Iowan. When the Iowa caucus was held five months later, Ms. ­Bachmann finished sixth. Cillizza is happy to see the poll’s influence fade: “Ames was always, at root, a fund-raiser masked as an actual contest.”

The Gospel According to the Fix includes a ­worshipful chapter on 1992’s What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s comprehensive 1,000-page masterpiece about the 1988 presidential race. Like Cramer, Cillizza is a thoughtful observer, a guy who adores the spectacle. But unlike his hero, Mr. Cillizza is also a participant. The speed, volume and reach of his take on matters not only chronicles the daily grind but influences it, too: ­Consultants read him, and their candidates react.

Cillizza clearly enjoys the daily whirl of a blog, but it would be interesting to see what kind of book he could produce using his idol’s meticulously researched, long-form style. In the meantime, there is a president to elect, and a Congress too, so Chris Cillizza will be busy providing those of us addicted to politics with a daily—sometimes hourly—fix.

The Gospel According to the Fix by Chris Cillizza (Broadway Books; ISBN 0307987094)

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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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