Listening to Smart People Talk
Five of my favourite political and history podcasts--and why I think you'll love them too
Today’s post is a little off-brand, I know. But some days, my normal power to choose a topic and think about it deeply seems to evaporate. So occasionally, I will rotate in a post like the one below where I share something I enjoy in hopes that you will like it too.
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Regardless of the Delta variant putting us back in masks and the seriously afflicted in the hospital, people are starting to return to work and school. This means, for many of us, going back to commuting. Whether it’s a brisk twenty-minute walk across town, a ride on public transportation, or a schlep in the car, listening to podcasts is a great way to occupy your mind while traveling.
Below are a few podcasts I have really enjoyed and why I like them—and if you are not yet sick of me, you can also subscribe to the one existing season of my own podcast, Exiles on 12th Street, which will return as soon as our team raises enough money to get started again.
So without further ado, here are five of my favorites—in no particular order of preference. But, as with children, I love them all the same.
Rachel Maddow, “Bagman.” I avoided this one for a long time, even though I think of Maddow as the best friend I have who doesn't actually know me: because of the title, I didn’t know it was about Spiro Agnew. Agnew, you may recall, was Richard Nixon’s vice president. He resigned months before Nixon, about to be impeached, also resigned (that’s a plot twist, actually.) “But why did you want to listen to a podcast about Spiro Agnew?” you might be thinking. Because he was an even worse crook than Nixon, that’s why! It turns out he was on the take from his earliest days in politics, and people would bring him money in envelopes!
Bonus round: this podcast is an elegantly structured narrative. Suppose you are trying to teach someone how to write a history senior thesis or a dissertation: have them listen to it and then explain back to you why Maddow tells such a good story.
Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil J. Young, “Past Present.” OK, these three historians are my real friends, not imaginary ones: you have even seen them on this Substack. The crew picks a topic in the weekly news cycle, discusses it in a historical context, and name-checks all the reading, viewing, and listening that has informed their conversations. Sometimes they choose big political or cultural issues—the recent uprising in Cuba, the moral panic over critical race theory—and sometimes, they pick something apparently insignificant that, as it turns out, is a big deal—like Hallmark Christmas movies.
You know the other thing I love? Past Present is a throwback to a time when everybody was recording podcasts in their closet, doing their own editing, and you didn’t need a media company behind you to get an audience. This team earned a following the hard way. Their slightly gritty sound and outstanding chemistry will take you back to the days when anything seemed possible on the internet.
David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson, “The Political Gabfest.” Founded in December 2005, this may be one of the oldest continuing political podcasts out there. All three of the hosts are journalists, and Bazelon is a legal scholar, which adds a lot—but it was serious value-added during the Trump presidency, as you can imagine. While the hosts’ politics range from very moderate to progressive, part of what’s enjoyable about them is that they aren’t predictable. They disagree, they are funny, and they really know what they are talking about.
The other thing you will enjoy is the ads: listening to Plotz describe how he wallows in his luxurious sheets, towels, men’s bath supplies, and CBD products is—priceless.
Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, “Now and Then.” This is a new-ish history podcast launched at the beginning of the summer by two folks I am also friendly with. Like Past Present, the hosts grab a contemporary issue and tell you the history. But, unlike Past Present, they tend to choose themes rather than events, and those themes are capacious: treason, democracy, and culture wars are a few they have covered so far. Neither Freeman nor Richardson specialize in the 20th century, so they dig way deep.
Again, the chemistry is great, and both hosts are experienced in explaining complex ideas to a general audience. Freeman used to be on Backstory, and Richardson writes the popular Substack Letters from an American. The vibe is similar to being in a team-taught seminar where (occasionally) someone (OK, it’s Joanne) starts to sing.
Rebecca Jarvis, “The Drop Out: Elizabeth Holmes on Trial.” This podcast is about Theranos, a startup intended to create a machine that could do a panel of complex blood tests in your local Walgreens at an affordable cost. Nice idea, right? Except it was a huge fraud. Before she was caught, founder Elizabeth Holmes became a billionaire on venture capital raised to support a project with no technology or research.
Holmes was about to go to trial in May and then revealed to the court that she was five months pregnant and couldn't possibly handle the stress. After listening to the podcast, I thought: she probably got pregnant to try to stay out of the slammer! They may sound mean, but it is completely consistent with the sociopathic personality that makes this podcast so riveting.
There are a lot more podcasts on my iPhone, but I am saving them for another day. Did your favorite not make the list? Well, then:
A group of 15 Salt Lake County parents is suing the state of Utah in an attempt to overturn the ban on mask mandates passed by the legislatures. As Courtney Tanner of the Salt Lake Tribune reports, the children in question are not old enough to be vaccinated, and nearly all are learning disabled or have compromised health. The lawsuit argues that by making masks optional, the state deprives these children of their constitutionally guaranteed right to public education. I can’t help but hope this one goes to the Supreme Court. (August 23, 2021)
Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post has been solidly anti-mask from the get-go, which is not surprising, given that their readership mostly draws on the demographic most likely to view mandatory masking and vaccination as an attack on “their freedom.” But in the newsroom? As Oliver Darcy reports at CNN Business, as of August 12, all New York Post employees have been required to wear masks unless sitting at their desks. (August 23, 2021)
As it turns out, Trump supporters in Alabama are so out to lunch they won’t even listen to Trump. Allan Smith of NBC News reports. Recently, in his bumbling way, the Former Guy suggested that his fans balance their sense of personal freedom with getting a Covid-19 vaccine. Despite the medical crisis breaking the state’s hospital system, the largely maskless crowd booed him. (August 22, 2021)