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The year in Political Theater: Our favorite 2019 podcasts


One has not quite lived until Werner Herzog tells you on your own podcast: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no … You are wrong.” Lesson learned: Don’t argue with headstrong German filmmakers about 19th Century Russian poets. 

That was just one of the many highlights of 2019’s Political Theater podcast. Of course we also examined the world of politics, what it means to be a member of Congress, the effect of President Donald Trump on the journalism, and the advice a respected and garrulous former member of Congress for the newly elected.

We asked why you have to spend so much time in Iowa, especially at the State Fair, to become president, what it’s like to bike, hike, boat and ride horses along the length of the Texas-Mexico border and how a congressional staffer gig reading CIA reports for years in a windowless room could turn into the stuff of Hollywood gold. 

So here are my favorite Political Theater podcasts of the year. Enjoy:

Congress for newbies: practical advice from a pro

“Decide what kind of member of Congress you want to be,” says Tom Davis, the former congressman from Virginia. “Voters see through phoniness pretty quickly.”

Davis, who chaired the Republican campaign committee and House Oversight panel and currently plies his trade at Holland & Knight, has a reputation as one of most principled and savvy politicians around. He has a few pointers for new members of Congress. After all, there are rookie mistakes, and there are rookie mistakes on the national stage, with consequences for constituents — and maybe your next election.

What Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Dick Cheney have in common

What do Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Vice President Dick Cheney have in common?

In addition to being political power brokers, films about them were nominated for Academy Awards, for the documentary “RBG” and feature film “Vice,” respectively. So politics, which has gotten a bit of a bad rap lately, (see shutdown, 2019, for more), can be both interesting, entertaining and profitable for Hollywood? Well, yes and no, says Renee Tsao, vice president of PR Collaborative.

How the National Archives helped ‘Apollo 11’ get a fresh look

The Apollo 11 Moon landing is one of mankind’s iconic stories. So how, with the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing coming up, does the documentary “Apollo 11” tell the story in a new way? For director Todd Douglas Miller and his team, it started with archival footage, some of it never seen, at the National Archives and other audio and visual files around the country. Miller discusses his new film, how it came together, both in the middle of the politically tumultuous 1960s, and now, in politically tumultuous 2019.

Why Trump, in the era of fake news, is fueling journalism majors

When the president of the United States labels you the enemy of the people, what’s a young, aspiring journalist supposed to think?

While recognizing that journalism is in a crisis, Christina Bellantoni, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and a former editor of Roll Call and at the Los Angeles Times, says the era of fake news is actually bringing out the real value of journalism and helping to motivate the next generation to seek the truth.

“It’s more important now than ever that we earn back the trust that people used to place in their media,” she says. “They actually take the fake news thing on as a challenge.”

‘The River and the Wall,’ a journey down the wall’s path

When Ben Masters began the 1,200-mile journey along the Rio Grande to film his new documentary “The River and the Wall,” he had no idea the border wall would dominate politics the way it does today.

Nor did he think, as he spoke with such locals as Reps. Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd, that their voices would resonate so far beyond the border. The movie profiles the debate deftly and shows off the unparalleled beauty of the region as Masters and four friends traverse the border on bike, foot, horseback and canoe.

It’s funny, resonant, breathtaking and also a good old fashioned road movie. Masters discussed it after the film was the opening night attraction at this year’s Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

Why we should care that the Senate will debate less

The Senate has changed its rules again, and it will result in less debate on many judicial and executive nominations. Who cares? The public should, if it wants a responsive government at least. James Wallner of the R Street Institute and Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski discuss the ramifications.

When ‘Queer Eye’ stormed Capitol Hill

Washington might be Hollywood for ugly people, but every once in a while Hollywood pretties the place up. That was certainly the case when the cast of “Queer Eye” came to the Capitol to advocate for the Equality Act, to the delight of many staffers, members and tourists. CQ Roll Call’s Jennifer Shutt discusses how the celebrity advocates used their powers for policy purposes.

The crowded 2020 ‘knife fight’ that is good for Democrats

Democrats continue to throw their hats into the 2020 presidential race, and veteran strategist Rodell Mollineau thinks that’s a healthy way to work out the party’s message during a “once in a generation time” for them.

“I’m all for this,” he says. Mollineau, a founder of American Bridge and Rokk Solutions, and previously a staffer for Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle and Harry Reid, discusses with Jason Dick and Nathan Gonzales the burgeoning field, what an ideal ticket would look like — and learning from 2016’s mistakes.

Movie Night: “Knock Down the House”

Rachel Lears, director of the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” profiled four congressional challengers in 2018 and how they fared (spoiler alert: one of them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Lears and one of the candidates, Amy Vilela, discuss the movie, how campaigns work and the relationships that developed along the way.

Why the Grim Reaper thing works for Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell is an extraordinarily successful politician, despite lacking what might be described as traditional attributes of a public official.

The Senate majority leader pursues his policy goals with metronomic unflashiness. He is almost proudly uncharismatic, brandishing his fuddy-duddyism as a boy scout might display a merit badge.

He is, relatively speaking, unpopular in his home state of Kentucky. And he boasts of being “the Grim Reaper” when it comes to snuffing out legislation he does not like, which is virtually everything that comes his way from the Democratic House.

So what accounts for his success?

How does he keep winning elections in Kentucky, and why do his Republican colleagues keep making him their leader in the Senate?

The answer is simpler than you may think. “The place I feel most at ease is the Senate, an institution that rewards patience and confounds those who lack it,” McConnell writes in his 2016 memoir, “The Long Game.”

Here to discuss it is CQ Roll Call’s senior Senate reporter Niels Lesniewski.

‘Mike Wallace Is Here’ shows how we got here

The new film “Mike Wallace Is Here” shows how legendary journalist Mike Wallace pioneered holding the powerful accountable, be they politicians, celebrities or real estate developers. But today’s world is one where journalists are in danger and the credibility of its practitioners is constantly called into question. What happened?

The documentary’s director, Avi Belkin, discusses the arc of Wallace’s career and where things started to shift. In the course of compiling the movie — from thousands of hours of archival footage from CBS’ “60 Minutes” program that made Wallace a star — Belkin says he noticed just how much richer and articulate conversation was among journalists and the subjects they covered. And he argues that the audience bears a responsibility in all this too.

“The audience is a big part of what makes journalism what it is. If people don’t demand a higher level of discourse, if they don’t demand from the president higher levels of answers, then he’s not going to give them. And that’s it. If he’s winning the next election with those answers, why should he make more complex answers?” Belkin says.

That sentiment comes through loud and clear in a segment of the movie in which Wallace interviews a 37-year-old New York tycoon, Donald Trump. In addition to Wallace’s hunch that his guest might eventually turn to politics, the interview shows how different Trump came across back then, from speech patterns to bearing, compared to his current lot in life as president of the United States.

The film also makes the case that Wallace inspired many of the journalists and television stars who have arguably contributed to a coarsened political atmosphere. For instance, it kicks off with an eye-opening exchange between Wallace and former Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. Their conversation takes Wallace, and the audience, aback.

The Iowa State Fair: Why do you have to come here to be president?

Iowa plays a big role in presidential politics because of its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses. Even by that standard, though, the Hawkeye State this time feels busier, more significant.

With several Democrats running for president no one is writing the state off. There are also several competitive congressional races here. That means a very busy Iowa State Fair, because all these politicians want to meet voters, make their case at The Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, flip pork chops at the pork tent and eat.

We talk to David Redlawsk, who chairs the University of Delaware’s political science and international relations department. A former Iowa resident himself and a political psychologist and expert on voter behavior, he moved here to spend his ENTIRE sabbatical in the state.

When we talked to him at the fair, he explained just what it is about Iowa that makes it the center of the political universe.

A conversation with the Senate historian: Duels, bathtubs and other mysteries

Politicians and pundits are fond of saying that Washington has never been more polarized and that the Senate, in particular, may never recover from contemporary hyper-partisanship and rule-bending.

But it is assistant Senate historian Daniel S. Holt’s job to remind us all that disputes in the chamber used to result in pistols at dawn instead of dueling tweets.

“What is different today than in previous eras is we are now in a period of two parties that are more ideologically cohesive, and there’s a party discipline that maybe did not exist in the past, when the two major parties, the Democrats and Republicans, were both split regionally, and sometimes had very internal disagreements over important pieces of policy,” Holt says.

Perhaps one of the biggest disagreements between the parties was first over slavery, then segregation and civil rights.

Holt is also a font of knowledge about some of the weirder aspects of the Senate, including why there are bathtubs in the basement of the chamber (and how people had forgotten about them for a while).

“The page boys used to get tickets to the bathtubs, and so they could use them. And sometimes they would sell them to tourists,” Holt tells us.

Different times.

The most vulnerable 2020 House and Senate incumbents, explained

For Election Day 2020, Senate Republicans and House Democrats find themselves in parallel universes. The GOP is on defense in Senate races, where more Republicans are on the ballot, and it’s the opposite in the House, where many Democrats who won in hostile territory last year find themselves in tough races. CQ Roll Call’s campaign team, Simone Pathé, Bridget Bowman and Stephanie Akin, run through the 10 most vulnerable members of both the House and Senate.

How a Capitol Hill staffer and a James Bond screenwriter dramatized ‘The Report’

The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report in 2014 was a compelling episode in American history, detailing as it did the CIA’s use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists and their lack of effectiveness. That doesn’t mean the seven-year investigation that led to the report automatically lends itself to high drama, particularly when one considers that many of those seven years were spent reading sensitive CIA documents in a windowless room. That makes the new movie “The Report” that much more of an accomplishment.

Director and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns had his work cut out for him, constructing a political thriller out of the efforts led by Intelligence Committee staffer Daniel J. Jones. Burns and Jones explained some of thinking that went into the film’s narrative, as well as the issues it explores, with CQ Roll Call senior staff writer Niels Lesniewski and me.

Burns is no stranger to tackling complicated topics: He has been a producer on “An Inconvenient Truth” and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” for instance. And he knows a thing or two about writing a compelling tale, having been a screenwriter on “The Bourne Ultimatum” and the upcoming James Bond movie “No Time to Die.” And Jones? Asked if he could have imagined that one day Adam Driver, who plays Darth Vader’s grandson Kylo Ren in the Star Wars saga, would one day portray him and his efforts to glean the truth about the intelligence community’s darkest practices, he said, tongue firmly in cheek, that was always part of the plan.

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