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We started a podcast about ‘political theater.’ Then the term went through the wringer

What we learned in 200 episodes

Host Jason Dick, left, and CQ Roll Call senior reporter Kate Ackley discuss the state of lobbying in a 2019 episode.
Host Jason Dick, left, and CQ Roll Call senior reporter Kate Ackley discuss the state of lobbying in a 2019 episode.

When the first episode of “Political Theater” aired in 2018, it was supposed to be a podcast about, well, political theater.

The drama. The posturing. The highs. The lows. The whole messy spectacle of how things work on Capitol Hill.   

That was enough to keep host Jason Dick pretty busy for the past three years. He hit the highlights of the Trump era, took an obligatory trip to the Iowa State Fair, and even got a tongue-lashing from Werner Herzog. (“No, no, no, no. … You are wrong,” the legendary filmmaker yelled.)

Along the way, we heard story after story that made one thing clear: The world of politics may be large, but access is limited. 

We set out to look at the spectacle. We ended up looking at the casting process too — not just the antics on stage, but who can get there in the first place.

As “Political Theater” marks its 200th episode this week, here’s a sampling of some of our favorite interviews. Catch new episodes on Thursdays.

Donald Trump didn’t really want to be president in the ’80s. Donald Trump wanted to own an NFL team. And then when that didn’t happen, he owned a USFL team and then tried to take the NFL down by changing the schedule. George W. Bush wanted to be Major League Baseball commissioner. That was his dream job, but Bud Selig didn’t let that happen. If the guy that ran the Brewers was cool with it, would we have had Bush II? I don’t know. Ronald Reagan’s dream wasn’t to become President Ronald Reagan. His dream was to become an A-list actor. And when that didn’t work, he became a pawn of McCarthyism and was a B-list actor, and then governor, and then president. It’s not like we’ve had people that have always wanted to be president in the office.

Brandon Wetherbee, host of “You, Me, Them, Everybody” (Episode 1, January 2018)

Gary Hart is driven out in 1987, not because the public decides, we will not have a president who’s had an affair. In fact, the polling showed very clearly that they thought the media had overstepped. He’s driven out of politics because there are things he will not do. He will not divulge his private life, he will not drag his family in front of the camera for interviews, he will not ask for forgiveness. He holds the line, which for a lot of the life of the country, we would have called principle. Now we’ve created a process that rewards shamelessness — that attracts candidates who will do anything to get and hold office, who will subject their family to any level of invasive scrutiny, who will dissemble where necessary. Who will stop at nothing.

Matt Bai, co-writer of “The Front Runner” (Episode 40, October 2018)

First of all, you’ve got to decide what kind of member of Congress you want to be. Some members get there, and they’re going to just be whatever the leadership wants. I want to suck up, I want to get on the key committee, I want to rise. You have other members who say, my district is not a safe seat, I want to make sure I’ve got a plan to come back here for a second term, and therefore I’m going to put my district first. I found a lot of times our members come up and they’re not sure who they want to be. They try to be all things to all people. We had one member of the House who got so convoluted in his voting record, and finally somebody in the press asked him what he stood for. And his answer was, I stand for good constituent service. And then he was gone. That was the end of it. 

Former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. (Episode 51, January 2019)

John Lewis was the staff organizer for Bobby Kennedy’s rally in Indianapolis the night that Martin Luther King was murdered. It was John Lewis who encouraged Bobby Kennedy to go out and speak to the crowd that night. And Indianapolis, as we know, was one of the cities that did not have burning and fires. Think about that — a city did not burn when we had a leader saying, ‘I hear you, I understand you, I will work with you.’

Dawn Porter, director of “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “Bobby Kennedy for President” (Episode 133, July 2020)

[We were outside] a mosque, and we had an exchange with law enforcement, which wasn’t unusual, just driving around looking at us. And then the exchange escalated, and the officer was like, get over here you n—–. This was the same year as Rodney King. I was only 17. I was handcuffed. I was facing the charge of battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and fleeing, and those charges were dropped. Even in the police report, the arresting officer made note of my manners, how I was courteous. And even considering my pleasantries, I was still arrested and called out of my name. He noted that I was very respectful, and that came from having been given ‘The Talk’ at home, about being respectful to law enforcement, but also knowing, as a young Black male, that I couldn’t allow myself to be dehumanized.

Rep. André Carson, D-Ind., interviewed by Clyde McGrady (Episode 134, July 2020)

I’m not trying to be partisan here. I’m talking about democracy with a little ‘d.’ But I feel like democracy got a second chance when I saw the inauguration. And I was glad that Pence was on that stage, because it was a reminder that as comforting as it was to see George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton and everyone being friendly, the Trump presidency did happen. One-hundred-plus Republican members of Congress voted to overturn the certification of the electoral college. That’s the next big fight. 

Jennifer Palmieri, co-host of Showtime’s “The Circus” (Episode 187, February 2021)

Many people may not know that the Interior Department was actually established in 1849. It’s one of the newer federal agencies, and it’s a newer cabinet position. But prior to that, the United States did have a department that dealt with Native Americans … which back then was called the War Department. And then the Interior Department was established because the United States, with westward expansion and with forced removal and colonization, all of a sudden had a tremendous amount of land resources. When you think about the transition for Native people from the War Department to the ‘real estate’ department, some questions might arise. So to have a cabinet-level appointment of Deb Haaland, a woman who is an enrolled tribal member — it’s a pretty significant moment.

Carla Fredericks, executive director of the Christensen Fund (Episode 192, March 2021)

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