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‘Slow Burn’: Trump, Nixon and the art of the podcast
Slate Plus’s podcast on Watergate urges patience on its audience

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It is a truth universally acknowledged – well, acknowledged by everyone but the man himself – that Donald Trump is obsessed with the news media and its coverage of him.

Among US presidents, only Richard Nixon has hated the media more, or been more preoccupied with it. This is perhaps telling, given the mounting likelihood that Trump will follow in the disgraced former president’s footsteps, and is certainly not inconvenient, given the subject of this review.

But it’s also true that the media is obsessed with Trump. It’s obsessed for cynical reasons, such as ratings and subscription numbers, which Trump has predicted will lead to a sudden self-serving shift in tone as the next presidential election approaches. But it’s also obsessed for the simple, unavoidable fact that the man is a news-making machine. A study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre, which looked at media coverage of Trump’s first hundred days in office, found that he was “the topic of 41 per cent of all news stories – three times the amount of coverage received by previous presidents.” In December, the ABC interactive digital storytelling team tracked mentions of Trump in US cable news screen tickers over a 19-day period, and found that he was the topic of discussion more than 50 per cent of the time. He was tweeted about 901.8 million times last year, inspiring nearly ten times as many tweets as Barack Obama in his final year in office.

As with the media in general, so, too, with podcasts in particular. Where shows like Slate’s Trumpcast, the Washington Post’s Can He Do That? and WNYC Studios’ Trump Inc. are dedicated exclusively to Trump and various aspects of his presidency and businesses, others, like Vox’s The Weeds and Slate’s Political Gabfest, by this point may as well be. Crooked Media’s entire line-up (Pod Save AmericaPod Save the World and so on) is animated by an explicitly activist urge to thwart the president’s agenda and vote him and his enablers out of office. Even shows that used only to deal occasionally or tangentially with politics, such as WNYC’s On the Media or the Longform Podcast, have increasingly found themselves discussing the White House and its current inhabitant to the exclusion of much else.

It is into this already crowded marketplace that Slate Plus’s Slow Burn arrives to recount the tortuous tale of Watergate, and thus to be one of the few political podcasts out there to discuss the Trump era only indirectly. It’s all the more effective – and all the more depressing – for doing so.

The podcast’s release could not have been better timed. The series ended its first eight-episode run at the end of January, a little over a year after Trump was inaugurated, in the 50th anniversary year of Nixon’s election to the same office (after committing treason with Henry Kissinger by covertly derailing the peace talks that might have ended the Vietnam War). At the time, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was busy putting together his latest, if not yet most explosive, round of indictments. But the parallels don’t end – hell, they don’t even start – with the convenient alignment of current events with certain anniversaries.

Comparison is largely why Slow Burn exists, and host Leon Neyfakh regularly points out the most obvious parallels, veering unnecessarily into discussion of current events, on the vague chance that listeners aren’t clued in to them. The parallels largely prove Marx’s dictum correct: history occurs first as tragedy and then as farce. The relative competency of the Watergate conspirators has been replaced in our own time by the utter ineptitude of Trump’s goons. (As Pod Save America’s hosts like to observe, American liberals can’t afford to feel smug when they were so soundly duped by a group of clowns.) Nixon at least had governing experience. And how genuinely shocked and appalled the newscasters of the day sound compared to today’s more cynical bunch. (This is the tragedy inherent in the farce: that for all the talk about today’s events being unprecedented, no one but no one seems particularly surprised that they’ve occurred.)

But Neyfakh is also interested in comparing other, more subtle elements of the two scandals. Indeed, in the first episode, he says he was driven to make the show in order to learn whether people following the Watergate story as it unfolded felt the same way as Russia-gate junkies do today. His answer is that they largely didn’t, at least not until James McCord’s letter alleging political pressure on him and the other Watergate burglars was read aloud by Judge John Sirica in court, at which point the scandal became a prime-time sensation and national obsession. To this end, Slow Burn’s unstated reason for existing seems to be so that Neyfakh might urge patience on his liberal audience: we tend to forget how long these things can take. Mueller may be going at a clip when compared to the slow drip that was Watergate, but one shouldn’t expect this to mean that impeachment, or even resignation, is anywhere close to happening.

Neyfakh is also interested in examining the infuriatingly short lifespan of historical memory, its tendency to coalesce or coagulate around certain key images or moments at the expense of the peripheral details and minutiae that actually and ultimately comprise events. Slow Burn’s first episode tells the story of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney-general John Mitchell, who was held against her will in a California hotel room and forcefully sedated when she learned about the extent of the scandal and its cover-up. The second details Congressman Wright Patman’s attempts to investigate the hundred-dollar bills found on the Watergate burglars and the underhanded way in which the White House shut him down. These and other stories are what gets forgotten when, in the final moments of All the President’s Men, history flashes by as a series of headlines, reduced in the collective memory to a story about Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and a televised resignation.

Slow Burn belongs to an emerging genre or sub-genre of podcasts that might best be described as historical storytelling. It’s a genre that includes Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace, Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, the Charles Manson series of which, reissued upon his death last year as You Must Remember Manson, is among the best things ever produced about the cult leader. (Longworth’s “Join us, won’t you?” might be the medium’s first breakout catchphrase.) Like these and other storytelling-based shows, Slow Burn follows a tried-and-true formula, consisting primarily of a spoken monologue interspersed with grabs from historical recordings and interviews with key players. I would have liked more of the latter here. As it is, unless you’re a member of Slate Plus and able to listen to the extra episodes, you’ll have to be content to listen to Neyfakh do most of the talking. One suspects the profit motive – which in almost any other case would have simply resulted in advertisements being interspersed throughout each episode – has prevented a longer, more complete and more engaging show from being released. To limit one’s product this way strikes me as strangely self-defeating.

The series’ stylistic sameness is a limitation, too, though Slow Burn is by no means unique in this respect. Podcasts in general run the very real risk of ossifying stylistically at precisely the moment they’re becoming a mainstream form of news and entertainment – perhaps because they’re becoming a mainstream form of news and entertainment – and this is despite the inherent dynamism of audio as a medium. This is especially true of storytelling shows that take their lead from This American Life and investigative ones that take their lead from Serial. The Onion’s recent foray into podcasting, A Very Fatal Murder, pilloried both modes to great effect: the somewhat detached, close-to-the-mic delivery, the utter linearity of the narratives (rendered absurd in A Very Fatal Murder with a 10-year time jump between two episodes), the blind self-centredness of so much memoir-based work, the grating willingness of podcasters to shoehorn themselves into other people’s stories. Slow Burn doesn’t make all these mistakes, but nor does it distinguish itself in any real way from those that do.

It may sound unfair to criticise a straightforward audio documentary about Watergate on such grounds. But given the series’ stated interest in comparison as a mode of inquiry, and given the ready availability of both historical and contemporary audio, it’s not difficult to see (or should that be hear?) how comparison might also have been used as an organising principle, with past and present literally speaking to one another across the past 40 years. As it is, each episode of Slow Burn begins with a brief audio collage – mostly consisting of the grabs that are to break up Neyfakh’s monologue later – that suggests what a more formally audacious exploration of history, a real marriage of form and content, might have sounded like.

Nevertheless, the bifurcated show remains a brisk and often fascinating exploration of an event whose ramifications continue to be felt in American politics and whose relevance today is all too obvious. As Neyfakh observes in the series’ last episode, Nixon’s downfall proved that the system works, which is to say that it works eventually. He sees in that some small reason for hope. (He has said that the series’ second season will be dedicated to Bill Clinton’s seemingly less relevant impeachment hearings. Perhaps his hopes extend to the notion that Trump, too, might be on trial by then?) Your humble critic is not so sure. Watergate may prove that the system works, but Russia-gate proves that it never learns.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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