Perspective is a wonderful thing. Two podcasts — one historical, the other focused on the numbers of the 2016 campaign — can help you put this year’s crazy presidential election in its place.
First, the history. “Presidential” is a Washington Post podcast about, as its name implies, the presidency and the men who have been president. Host Lillian Cunningham assumes a winning naïveté as she interviews historians and journalists, reads from speeches and diaries and old newspaper accounts, and generally pokes into some dusty, forgotten corners to try to discover how each president became president and what each president — “effective or ineffective, esteemed or forgotten” — has to say about the nation’s highest office.
The podcast began Jan. 10. Its 44 weekly episodes, posted each Sunday, are scheduled to conclude Nov. 6, two days before Election Day, with a look at Barack Obama. Because “Presidential” plans 44 episodes, and not 43, I guess I can look forward to its covering Grover Cleveland twice, since he is our 22nd and 24th president. I can’t wait to hear Cunningham take us down the Mugwump path to the Pullman strike.
So far, episodes are averaging an undemanding 39 minutes. The most recent episode, the podcast’s 10th, was about John Tyler, the first vice president to assume the presidency upon the death of a president — in Tyler’s case, William Henry Harrison — thus establishing what became known as the “Tyler Precedent.” Tyler was a lousy president, but he’s the other half of the greatest campaign song — turned campaign slogan — in presidential history, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”
In 2004, They Might Be Giants released a fantastic version of the song used to defeat that “used up man,” Martin Van Buren, in 1840. Enjoy.
So what perspective does “Presidential” offer? That we’re no crazier than generations of Americans that have gone before us. That we have survived numerous bad presidents in the past. That we’ll probably survive President Trump, too.
The other podcast I want to recommend is “FiveThirtyEight Elections,” produced by the website started by statistical guru Nate Silver, whose number-crunching work has been a necessary political read since 2008.
“Elections” features Silver, host Jody Avirgan, political reporter Clare Malone and Harry Enten, who’s always introduced as FiveThirtyEight’s resident “whiz kid” but who comes across more often as its resident curmudgeon. New episodes post each Monday, and as election results merit. The focus is on polls and votes and what conclusions, if any, can be drawn from the data. But the media — primarily the cable news networks; yeah, looking at you CNN, Fox and MSNBC — are frequently criticized for the occasionally stupid things their analysts and correspondents say and for their frequently misleading and incorrect use of polls and numbers.
What you learn from listening to “Elections” is what any longtime reader of FiveThirtyEight should know by now: Political campaigns are long affairs that reveal themselves slowly. Nothing can tell you anything with certainty — and certainly not a single poll.
In other words: Always take the longer view.