Nov 11, 2016

Podcast Portal Review: Presidential - Season 1

Barack Obama figurine
Among the events sure to be a highlight of 2016 was the presidential election. With Barack Obama finishing his two terms in office, there was great concern over who the future leader of the free world would be. Would they have the right qualities to lead this country to greatness? Unlike other podcasts, The Washington Post's Presidential Podcast set out to pose that question not in the future tense, but in the past. Why do we believe that America is a great country by which justice can be served? While it is an evolving thing, it feels important to explore the nation's rich history to find the real answer. Presidential not only did that by looking at the 45 presidents, but created fascinating study guides that make it one of the best apolitical guides not only to democracy in action, but the men who were in charge of it. While it doesn't always say the most about the 2016 election, it's possibly the best political podcast for a year like this. If nothing else, it'll make you more appreciative of their duties.
The first season of Presidential was hosted by Lillian Cunningham of The Washington Post. The idea was simple: chronicle the careers of every president leading up to the 2016 election on a weekly basis. The final episode would drop on November 9 with a summation not only of the future president, but of the show itself. How has the country changed in the few hundred years? The answers are often slight with several presidents coming across as ineffectual and even reductive by contemporary eyes. With that said, Cunningham's masterstroke was to respectfully give every president equal treatment. Even the famously short term of William Henry Harrison was given equal time by exploring the effectiveness of his political campaign (the first of its kind) and the catchy theme "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too."
But what separates Presidential from any historical podcast? For starters, there's few options when it comes to biographical accounts of each leader. Beyond reading and watching documentaries, the podcast medium isn't as interested in the presidents as a group. Along with the equally noteworthy Slate podcast Whistlestop, Presidential sought to humanize the 45 men who have earned a rare title of power. The show makes sense of their actions, even those that are steeped in infidelity, racism, and greed. Cunningham never says that America was perfect, but she still remains optimistic for every leader's episode by pointing out the good with the bad. By the end, it is journalism at its best. It is well researched and gives a clear picture.
With that said, there are controversial figures for sure. Richard M. Nixon's ties to Watergate sabotaged his legacy. George W. Bush's War on Terrorism still is a sore subject for some. Cunningham doesn't ignore them, but more puts them into context of these men's lives. For those unfamiliar with them, the news of Nixon's loneliness or Bush's impulsive nature will help to explain so much about their drives. Likewise, the show does a phenomenal job of attempting to legitimize the presidencies of often maligned figures like Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush by focusing on their personal lives (such as exploring Ford being abandoned by his father). Even if the listener likely will maintain their beliefs by the closing music of "Hail to the Chief," Cunningham has done her part. She paints these presidents as men who weren't always perfect, but did what they could to keep America standing.
It does help that her connections to The Washington Post brought along reporters that included Bob Woodward, David McCullugh, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. The interviews added depth and understanding to each subject with more divisive figures often producing the most interesting results. Even for the more obscure presidents like Millard Fillmore, there's plenty to learn about their time in office. For instance, Benjamin Harrison was the first to enact environmental laws. William McKinley's assassination lead to the formation of the Secret Service. Gerald Ford couldn't move into the White House right away due to Nixon still needing to move his belongings out.
This is just a survey of the many facts that are held in the valuable hours of information compiled here. For those wanting to have a brief crash course in presidential history (always under an hour), then Presidential is a great place to start. It will not only give you the hard facts, but it will make you understand the men who changed history both in their personal lives and the political climate by which they served in. The only disappointment is that the show is temporarily over until Cunningham figures out her "season two" subject matter. If it's half as interesting as this, then it's best to look forward to the future just for that. Until then, Cunningham has managed to show the invaluable nature of podcasts as a tool of information. It may not change your mind on certain presidents, but it will make you appreciate their jobs a whole lot more.


OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5

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