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.