A Blind Date with History: Character, Legacy, and the Presidential Podcast

As the 2016 Election season nears its end (thank goodness), I want to recommend a podcast project that’s winding up with it—Presidential, hosted by Lillian Cunnigham of The Washington Post. Each of its forty-four episodes explores the character and legacy of one of our presidents, and they are uniformly fascinating.

Cunningham is the Post’s Leadership editor, and Presidential has a primary focus on the traits that spurred and/or sabotaged each president as a leader—before, during, and after their administrations. So this is already a slightly more apolitical or even ahistorical lens than most of us are probably used to using on this topic. Cunningham is interested in the kind of people that have held the presidency, whether they were hugely successful or underwhelming. (In one of the podcast’s most charming unofficial segments, she asks the experts she interviews what it would be like to be set up on a blind date with each president, to get a sense of their character divorced from their achievements or lack thereof.)

And I think it’s this element that makes Presidential so potentially interesting to authors and enthusiasts of historical fiction. This week I also read March by Geraldine Brooks, which is maybe an above-averagely overt example of what most historical fiction sets out to do—reimagine or reclaim an era or text, enriching our understanding of a period we thought was both known and removed from our experience by making us feel it more personally, with greater empathy. I have this feeling at least once an episode in listening to Presidential—and not just with obscure presidents like Millard Fillmore, people it’s somewhat trippy just to realize were real and affected the world. Who out of high school would have thought there was anything left to learn about Abraham Lincoln, without diving deep beneath the surface of accessibility? I won’t spoil anything, but that episode is humanizing and deeply moving, even if you think you’re going into it knowing the complete CliffsNotes of Lincoln’s administration and character.

Presidential has been timed to lead up to Election Day, but it’ll be interesting long after—I really recommend checking it out, especially if you have an interest in history, narrative, or their intersection. I've found it very inspiring in striving to fully imagine historical characters, whether fictional, real, or somewhere in between. The project’s main lessons for me are that there has been no era or leader of monolithic greatness in America’s history. It has always been a nation run by people—real people, flawed and ambitious and for the most part trying their best, but at least partially hamstrung by issues personal and political. And we’re not very far removed from any of it—for instance, in the episode on John Tyler (POTUS #10), Cunningham interviews his living grandson. We as a country haven’t been at this very long, and though plenty has changed, there isn’t as much as we might assume—or wish—separating us from our history. Which is as inspiring creatively as it is intellectually.