A very easy and entertaining way of expanding your knowledge of US history
1 September 2020
Over the last couple of years, I have changed from spending most of my listening time with BBC Radio 4. Instead I devote much more time to podcasts.
The key difference is that I am no longer governed by the radio schedule. Also the range is much broader.
Many of my podcasts come from the USA. There are far more Americans producing English language content than there are Britons.
"Presidential" is a podcast series from the Washington Post newspaper. It was originally made in 2016, a presidential election year, with Barack Obama as the sitting president.
American presidents are often referred to by number, and Obama was the 44th president. Accordingly, there were originally 43 episodes, although one has since been added for Donald Trump. There are also some supplementary episodes.
Aficionados of American history will know why there were only 43 episodes when Obama was the 44th president! (If you don't know the answer, read about Grover Cleveland.)
Each episode is about one hour long. The presenter, Washington Post reporter Lillian Cunningham, interviews leading historians who are experts about the presidents they talk about.
Throughout my life, and even today, the USA has been indisputably the most important country in the world. Furthermore, because Americans speak English, the USA dominates English language cultural life.
It was the 1960 presidential election campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon that started my lifelong interest in politics. Reading American comics and science fiction books by American authors started my interest in American history. For example, I recall that it was in a science fiction novel that I first came across the name of Millard Fillmore.
To understand a country, you have to know its history. While I already knew a great deal of American history, this podcast series, by giving the same coverage to the obscure presidents as to the famous ones helped to fill in some of the gaps.
For example, I had never previously known about the parlous state of the American civil service in the 19th century and the important reforms brought in by Chester Arthur. Before this podcast, he was just a name to me.
I found the series fascinating. It does not come over as heavy, boring history.
A big part of the credit belongs to the presenter. Lillian Cunningham has a voice that is very easy to listen to, and she avoids being too serious while always fully engaging with the historical significance of each president.
For example, she has a signature question that she asks of almost every historian that she interviews about the president concerned: “What would it be like to go on a blind date with this president?”
Even with the modern presidents who were part of my awareness throughout their term, starting with Kennedy, I learned much that was new.
Listening to this series while having breakfast, shaving, doing your morning exercises, is an excellent way of expanding your knowledge and being entertained at the same time. I recommend it to everybody.
Occasionally, minor incidents stay with you for your whole life.
Since 1964, I have stayed up all night to watch the British general election results and the American presidential election results, for every election.
Early on during the 1964 American presidential election coverage on BBC TV, the presenter Robert McKenzie (from memory) interviewed a fellow a BBC journalist about his activity earlier in the day asking random individuals on the streets of London how many American presidents they could name.
Most respondents could name just a handful. Then the journalist met someone who reeled off the full list of all American presidents in order. This person was a professor of American history!
I never forgot that story, and regarded the feat as otherwise virtually impossible.
However, in the mid-1990's I bought my youngest daughter a one volume encyclopaedia. This had a short article, about half a page, for each American president with a mention of the president who preceded him and the president came after him.
When I read these, the presidents became more than just random names. Remembering random names is very difficult but remembering characters who have some colour is quite easy. It also helps to get some fixed points in your head such as knowing that Abraham Lincoln was president number 16, Garfield was 20 etc.
Once I did that, it became relatively easy to memorise all of the presidents in sequence. It is a while since I last recited them so I would probably fail today but it was remarkable how easy the memorisation task was compared with my expectation from the 1964 BBC TV news story.
In the 1990's I also tried to see if I could learn the US vice presidents. I failed miserably. The problem is that, unlike the presidents, many of the vice presidents had nothing to distinguish them, and were therefore impossible to hold in my memory!