Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: The Gospel According To The Fix

Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza (a/k/a "The Fix") has just published one of the least illuminating books on politics this news junkie has ever read.  In The Gospel According To The Fix, Cillizza lightly fills 212 pages with insipid prose that reads like a frat boy's thesis scratched out after an all-night bender. The fun starts on the front cover, where the reader is presented with the image of what appears to be a politician (though it's Cillizza's "gospel" so perhaps it is him? Draw your own conclusion) with horns and a tail. Adorable! We are told the book will present "an insider's guide to a less than holy world of politics," but I was not aware there was any other politics in our country.  The more proper definite article would have been "the," but usage selections aside, Cillizza utterly fails to pull back the curtain on this purported den of thieves, instead opting for encomiums to the chicken tenders at some random hole in the wall in New Hampshire that a lot of politicos eat at before the Granite State primary, an "Endorsement Hierarchy" (a self-admitted rip-off of Bill Simmons' "Levels of Losing") and lowest common denominator chapters on things like "The Ten Issues You Won't Hear About This Fall" (the "Top Ten" device is used not once but twice). 

One assumes this type of information was included to boost Cillizza's "insider" status, but his obvious passion for politics does not translate into substance sufficient to fill a book.  Instead, he leans on filler, devoting almost 10% of his book to listing good political blogs (10 pages) and recommending good fictional and non-fictional works about politics (7 pages). Cillizza's habit of referring to himself as "The Fix" may be loose and informal in the context of a blog, but in a book, it comes off as sophomoric; his prose is sprinkled with unfunny parentheticals in an effort to sound hip and contemporary, but comes off as amateurish. To take two examples: Cillizza writes about waiting to see who the Des Moines Register was going to endorse in the 2008 Iowa Caucus: "immediately upon my arrival, [I] sequestered myself in the bedroom, hitting refresh over and over again on the [Des Moines] Register home page, waiting for their pick to pop up. (It's kind of like trying to get concert tickets except way less cool.)" (Parentheses in original). Or this bon mot about surviving a sex scandal: "How do you survive? Do what surfers do: wait. Don't panic. The wave and its aftermath will pass. The path to the surface will present itself. (Everything I needed to learn about politics, I learned from watching Point Break.)" <Crickets>

Other parts of the book read like a random assortment of slightly punched up Wikipedia pages. Late in his modest tome, "The Fix" unveils his "Political Hall of Fame," providing page length bios of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and others that would not be out of place in a 10th grade history book. His chapter on effective campaign ads is as flimsy as it is brief, offering some mild snark but little else and in another feat of recycling bits, an "all star" team of up and coming politicos to watch for in 2016 provides tissue-thin background on names like Rubio, O'Malley and Thune. 

And even in those chapters, few that they are, where Cillizza attempts to import some meaningful analysis, the effort is either weak or wanting.  For example, a section on Jennifer Crider, a top aide to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had the potential to provide some behind the scenes information about how politics is "done" at the highest levels of government. After all, Crider had been at Pelosi's side during the two busiest years in Congress since LBJ's Great Society. Instead, Cillizza offers the vaguest of biographical sketches sprinkled with the most milquetoast of quotes from Crider herself ("She [Pelosi] really taught me the value at the beginning of a debate of having an idea of where you want to end."). You don't say. 

Similarly, in writing about "October Surprises," Cillizza omits the leaking of Bill Clinton's passport file from when he was a student at Oxford, which occurred, wait for it … in OCTOBER 1992. In the very same chapter, Cillizza undermines his own claim that a President's party suffers losses in the sixth year of his Presidency when mentioning Democratic Congressional gains in 1998 (the 6th year of Clinton's presidency). Apparently, even The Gospel has exceptions or someone did not take the time to fact check Cillizza before the book went to print. As icing on the cake, Cillizza posits some potential "October Surprises" for 2012 and, regrettably, dredges up the foul stain of "birtherism" by putting the odds of the President's birth certificate being deemed a fake at 10 million to 1. Why even go there?  

And the one time Cillizza offers a policy prescription - allowing unlimited campaign donations with immediate disclosure of those over $10,000 - he manages to contradict that idea within the span of a few pages. Cillizza argues that requiring immediate disclosure of large campaign donations might act as a disincentive to wealthy donors who may not want their names publicized. Makes sense, until a few pages later, when Cillizza talks about how Sheldon Adelson single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich's campaign alive by pumping more than $10 million into Gingrich's Super PAC. So, if you're scoring at home, disclosure is disinfectant, except when it comes to super wealthy casino magnets, who obviously could not give a shit that his millions of dollars in donations were known to the American public.

Ultimately, serious students of politics will find little in the way of new information in The Gospel and casual followers can save their money and browse the Internet (or wait a month or two, I'm guessing used copies of the book will be selling on Amazon for less than a dollar). Instead, take the one bit of good information in The Gospel and fish out a copy of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes for a graduate-level exegesis on Presidential politics. 

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