The Bigger and Not Always Better Picture

For the past few months I’ve been driving to a class a few times a week. Rather than listening to the radio, I’ve immersed myself in a podcast, Presidential. Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post began hosting this weekly broadcast 44 weeks before the recent election.  She intended November’s historical event to coincide with her final episode which, I believe, turned out to be quite a surprise to her.

I am only up to Dwight Eisenhower, though I admit that I cheated and jumped ahead to hear the episode on Donald Trump. What have I learned? I’ve certainly learned about presidents like Chester Arthur who existed only on the periphery of my historical knowledge. I’ve learned interesting factoids on better known presidents like Abraham Lincoln. I’ve gotten a view of the sweep of American history through the eyes of the executive branch. Mostly what I’ve learned though, is how many hills and valleys, tragedies and triumphs, twists and turns have dotted our past.  Personal tragedy, illness and assassination along with national and international events and well or poorly chosen appointees helped frequently to make presidents’ achievements differ greatly from the expectations that existed prior to their elections.

Ms. Cunningham does an amazing job presenting the presidents and on each episode interviews biographers and other guests. She has the unenviable task of sifting through very little material in some cases (President William Henry Harrison who died after a month in office) or an overwhelming amount of material in other, better known cases. She doesn’t  claim to be providing a complete picture, which would be impossible in the time allotted, and in almost all cases, the podcast whetted my appetite for learning more.

While I wonder if there will be increased bias as I listen to more recent history, up until President Eisenhower there were only two episodes that rubbed me wrong. Somehow, James Madison about whom there was certainly plenty to say, got eclipsed by the weird insertion of a tribute to Barack Obama. I could have also done without a heavy-handed and unsubstantiated insistence that James Buchanan was our first homosexual president. Those episodes notwithstanding, however, the podcast is broadening my knowledge and providing me with plenty of ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ moments. It’s so easy to squander travel time and I am grateful to have found an entertaining and enlightening way to spend it.

10 thoughts on “The Bigger and Not Always Better Picture”

  1. Very interesting comment about her “insistence” that Buchanan was our first gay president. I had no idea that it was even being discussed. But, when I started typing it into a search engine, it never even autocompleted “James Buchanan homosexual”. Even when I did see the results, all of the sources were of a relatively recent vintage and none were scholarly in nature, giving the distinct impression that it was probably just one more instance of popular press revisionist history trying to turn itself into fact by being oft-repeated. At least the articles I saw used words akin to “likely” and “might have”. It would seem that the esteemed reporter has not learned that opinion and fact are often not interchangeable.

    1. Considering that his presidency led into the Civil War, I would have thought there was much to discuss. Instead, the episode was hyper-focused on his sexuality. I don’t think anyone said it as a fact, but I didn’t find that looking at letters or statements from the 1800’s with modern eyes made a very convincing case. Nor did I think that would be the most interesting or important thing about him even if real proof could be brought.

    2. Unfortunately, in our sex-laden society, if someone isn’t overtly heterosexual it’s presumed that the person is homosexual. The absence of the one is “proof” of the other.

  2. I am from Ohio – the only other State to surpass “providing” US Presidents is Virginia.

    I went to James Garfield High School.

    He didn’t last long…..

    Great (prophetic) quote from Pres. Garfield –

    Now more than ever the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless, and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness, and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave, and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature. . . . [I]f the next centennial does not find us a great nation . . . it will be because those who represent the enterprise, the culture, and the morality of the nation do not aid in controlling the political forces ”

    I wonder what would happen if we “demanded” different to represent us>

    1. The episode about Garfield was one of the fascinating ones about a president I didn’t know – as you say, he wasn’t president for long. I just checked out Candice Millard’s book about him out of the library. She was interviewed on the podcast and spurred my interest. That’s a great quote.

  3. Nice read! I will check out the podcast per your nice thoughts about it. Mary and I enjoyed our night with you and Daniel in Pittsburgh… Please give the Good Rabbi our Burthday wishes!

    1. We enjoyed our ‘night out on the town’ as well as the day of taping in the studio. Who knew Pittsburgh had so much to offer? I will pass on your regards. Thanks for hosting us.

    2. Thanks so much for all your guidance on our day of taping at the studio and for the ‘night about town.’ Who knew Pittsburgh had so much to offer?

  4. Sad about Madison because in my opinion he was OUR best president. If you haven’t read the Federalist Papers, it’s a great read so far.

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