Plan to come out for this Thursday's Foundry Series, When Presidents Ignore the Law, with Dr. Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University and moderated by Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post. Lillian was kind enough to answer a couple questions to get you thinking before the event on Thursday night. Follow Lillian on Twitter and check out her two wonderful podcasts, Presidential and Constitutional.
1. How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
My idea to create the “Presidential” podcast for The Washington Post actually emerged from the gaps in my knowledge. I was a journalist at The Post as the 2016 election year approached, and I knew the press and the public were about to spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting the leadership styles—and paths to political leadership—of each of the presidential candidates. But I, for one, didn’t feel like I adequately understood the full range of styles and backgrounds that had helped (or hurt) former presidents’ success in office. And I had a hunch many other Americans felt the same way.
So I came up with the idea of doing a 44-episode “Presidential” podcast leading up to election day, where I went in chronological order and dedicated each episode to studying a different president’s life, leadership style and legacy.
As expected, I learned a lot of fascinating history about presidents whom I previously didn’t know well. But less expected, and probably more illuminating, was how much I learned about the evolution of the office itself and some of the ways our concept of what constitutes effective presidential leadership has morphed over time.
That journey was so exciting and enriching that, when “Presidential” was over, I decided to embark on a similar project to better understand the figures over time who shaped the Constitution—those who wrote it originally, but also those who fought later for new amendments to it and new interpretations of its values.
There are endless ways to study the story of America and the forces that have produced the society we have today. So I can’t really imagine a time when I’m no longer fascinated by the question, “How did our country get to this point?”
2. How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
The “Presidential” and “Constitutional” podcasts were certainly historical projects, documenting events and figures in the nation’s past. But I created both podcasts with the express intention of helping people better understand America’s current contours through this exercise of tracing its history. So many of the political debates that are playing out around the country today have been playing out for decades and centuries. It’s important to understand their roots and see them in that context.
It’s also helpful, I think, to realize that there are patterns to the way change has come about in America. If you’re a citizen who cares about improving gender equality, or about electing a president who can work well with Congress, or about protecting states’ rights—whatever it is you care most about, there are clues in history that help you understand how to best effect that change.
3. What was the most surprising finding during your research/production?
For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the origins, motivations and psychologies of influential people. Before creating these two podcasts for The Post, I was the paper’s “On Leadership” editor, which meant I did a lot of interviews and profiles of people in power across various sectors and disciplines. So in studying the presidency, one of the most surprising and interesting trends that jumped out to me was just how many presidents had difficult—extremely difficult—childhoods. It’s a surprisingly short list of presidents who didn’t have marks of tragedy on their younger lives. And often those difficulties related to their fathers, who in many cases had died when they were young or who were abusive in some form.
Those are the kind of details I hadn’t expected would become common themes throughout the project. But I kept stumbling upon that trend, and I always found myself wanting to know more about the dark episodes these men had overcome. I quickly realized that many of those early obstacles were key to understanding their later presidential personalities as well, and why they handled future problems the way they did.
Was that the most significant lesson? No, definitely not. But it was a surprising one that struck me as intriguing and illuminating in its own way.