Chris Cillizza is a political reporter and editor-at-large for CNN. A die-hard sports fan growing up in Marlborough, Cillizza would attend Whalers and Celtics games at the Hartford Civic Center with his father — back when the Celts played some home games at The Mall — and get dragged to a few Torvill and Dean ice-dancing shows by his mother. Cillizza spent a decade at The Washington Post before joining CNN in late 2016. He now lives in Virginia with his wife and two sons.
Have you been home since March or are you getting out and about?
I have been to the CNN bureau one time, but it was to do a TV hit outside. I have not been in it since I think March 13. I souped up the home office.
How much thought goes into the bookshelf behind you?
Initially, none. Those are just the books that we have in our house. Once I realized that I was going to have to film all the YouTube videos I do and any TV hits that I do from my house for an extended period of time, I decided that I would go through all the books and try to order them by category. So I did that, which I thought was going to be a project that would occupy most of the quarantine. I did that in one weekend. Plus my wife added some pictures and things that my mother-in-law gave me. A guy writing at a typewriter and a guy dunking, which I’ve never done but I like basketball.
I saw a homemade Father’s Day card.
Yes, and my kids’ Father’s Day cards. I try to add little things. Honestly, most of that stuff is like Easter eggs for my children. I have two boys who are 11 and 7 and they are big into YouTube, so they think me having YouTube stuff is cool. I’m like, see, you wrote the cards and there they are. It’s really just trying to make it as homey and normal as possible.
Speaking of homey, tell me about growing up in Marlborough.
We lived in two different houses; we moved when I was 8, just 5 minutes down the road. I went to public school until ninth grade; I went to Regional Hebron Andover Marlborough, RHAM. Then I went to Xavier in Middletown for two years and hated it and really struggled.
Because it’s all boys or other reasons?
It’s not like I was the world’s suavest guy. It wasn’t, "Oh man, I can’t exist in a world without women when I’m in ninth and 10th grade." It wasn’t that. I was sorta awkward and nerdy. I know it’s stunning to imagine. I played basketball; that was a big source of frustration. I had been good in Marlborough but being good in Marlborough doesn’t mean all that much. Xavier was excellent at basketball when I played there.
I also peaked around 12 or 13 for basketball.
Totally. I was like 6-foot-3 then and I’m still 6-3. I was bullied there, that’s one of the reasons I’ve tried to publicly talk about bullying, talk about anxiety, because those are things that I went through when I was younger. It was just not great. My dad, who recently passed away, was a saint because he would pick me up — he was a teacher in Hartford — every night after basketball practice for the entire winter and I would just be complaining and unhappy and he would listen to it. I transferred at the start of my junior year to Loomis Chaffee in Windsor. I loved that. It was the exact opposite experience.
You refer to it as the Loomis Chaffee School for the Rich, but that’s with affection, I guess?
Tony Kornheiser, whose show I do two or three times a week, they politely joke that it’s the Loomis Chaffee School for the Rich.
That’s their joke then.
Yeah, that is theirs not mine. Just because I think the name may sound slightly pretentious to some. [Laughs]
Were you a fan of Kornheiser before Pardon The Interruption started on ESPN?
Yes. This has been the joy of my life. I went into covering politics but my first passion was always sports. I went to Georgetown from ’94 to ’98 and when I was there he still had his radio show on WTEM-980. So I would listen to that. That was way pre-PTI. And then he went off and did Monday Night Football. It was eight years ago when they came to me and said, hey do you want to come on and just talk to Tony about politics. I was like, "Yes!" And then it eventually evolved into a two-day-a-week regular gig. Huge thrill. It’s like one of your boyhood heroes, getting to sit with them and talk about politics and sports twice a week.
There’s only a handful of people in the world who are fans of somebody and then become coworkers with them. How do you make that transition?
Slowly, I think is the answer to that. You have to feel your way a little bit. The first couple times I was on I was feeling my way and he was feeling me out too. I wanted to avoid [a situation like] that SNL skit where Chris Farley is interviewing Paul McCartney.
Were you a UConn fan before you went off to Georgetown?
100 percent. My dad was a devotee during the Dom Perno years. They were never good when I was a kid. People now are like, oh you’re from Connecticut, UConn, [four] national championships. I’m like, they sucked. I remember Nadav Henefeld, he was great, Tate George, Chris Smith. They had players. Brad Sellers. But they were not great. But yes, I grew up as a UConn fan and I grew up, because of my dad, hating Georgetown. My dad hated Georgetown. And he said when I went there, "Well, I’m not gonna come visit you." And he only came like twice. He came to my graduation. Allen Iverson, he’s the same age as I am, so he was there when I was a freshman and sophomore and then obviously left and went to the NBA. That’s the last great player we’ve had.
You never played Iverson one on one at the rec center?
If I wasn’t playing PlayStation I was playing basketball at Yates [Field House on campus]. We spent an inordinate amount of time there. There was a time when Iverson, Jahidi White and a couple other players played against us. All I remember is there was a huge crowd around the court watching us. We did not, in fact, win. But yes, I have played basketball with Allen Iverson on one occasion. It did not end well for me.
You weren’t guarding him, right?
No, my gosh. I’m not that dumb. I think I guarded the one guy who wasn’t on the team.
The Columbia Journalism Review said your style is popular with readers but unpopular with other journalists and media experts.
I’m 44 now. I’ve been at CNN since the end of 2016. I was at the [Washington] Post for a decade. I’m pretty OK with who I am and what I do. I understand that how I cover politics and what I write about, the personalities and the stats and some of the ups and downs, I understand that’s not for everyone. The good thing is that CNN and the Post and The New York Times, we do a lot of different stuff. You don’t only have to read me, in fact you don’t have to read me at all. That’s what I say to people when they say, “You’re the worst!” on Twitter. Wait a minute, has Twitter mandated following me? Because that’s great news. Man, my follower count is gonna go through the roof. CJR? More power to ’em. I’m glad that they think I’m popular with readers. That is my ultimate goal. My goal is to be read and to hopefully have what I write make people think or maybe rethink things about American politics and other stuff. I tell my kids when they go out and play sports, you only can control your attitude and your effort. I kind of think of myself in that way too.
It seems that people on both sides of the aisle have dug their heels in at this point …
That is an understatement. [Laughs]
So when you’re reporting on politics these days, do you ever feel like what is the point?
I don’t. First of all, I totally agree with you that I think it is — it’s always been not good-slash-bad, but it’s definitely worse now. The cliche of reasonable people can disagree, or let’s agree to disagree, those things you used to say to end an argument; those aren’t things anymore. At least not on the internet. I think where we are now is that differing viewpoints are seen by the opposite side as, at best, that you’re dumb, and at worst that you’re maliciously intended. I don’t get super discouraged, I think because I really like my job.
How much blame does cable news deserve for the way things are?
Much less than we get. CNN did like 30 town halls this year where it was just a candidate talking about issues the whole time. They did climate change town halls, they did a gun town hall. The idea that all we do is run Trump rallies or that all I do is write “there was a shooting. Who’s up and who’s down?” which by the way I don’t do, but that idea of journalism, it’s easy to make those charges. I think it’s a lot harder to back them up with facts. I just think it’s such an oversimplification to say, “Well, if you guys didn’t run Trump’s speeches he wouldn’t win.” When is the last time that what CNN did or what MSNBC did influenced Republican primary voters? I don’t think Donald Trump was created by cable television. I think Donald Trump was created by a distaste with the status quo, an increasing chasm between the haves and the have-nots, a perception that that chasm between the haves and have-nots was even larger than it actually is, a distaste with political correctness and the idea that our traditional values, quote unquote, were eroding. There’s a lot there. Our celebrity culture that he fit right into where it seemed credible that a guy who had played a boss on television could be a boss in real life. People’s feelings about Hillary Clinton — she was viewed as a figure of the past, not a figure of change. Wanting change. Eight years of Barack Obama. The idea that cable TV did this — cable TV couldn’t do that.