Lillian Cunningham Explores What It Means to Be Presidential

By Corinne Grinapol Comment


Presidential podcast host Lillian Cunningham did not emerge from the crop of politically-obsessed usuals you’d expect to be at the helm of a podcast that covers the worlds of politics and U.S. history. But the Washington Post leadership editor’s experience examining what it means to be a leader and how leadership plays out is a complement to this look at what it means to be presidential, as demonstrated by the life and times of the U.S. presidents.

This 44-episode exploration of the leaders who have affected the course of U.S. history debuted Jan. 10 with George Washington and continues chronologically every week through each presidency. It will end not with President Obama, but with a post-Election Day Nov. 9 podcast that will cover America’s newest elected leader.

“In all the back and forth of the campaigns, all the money, all the rhetoric, all the politicking,” says Cunningham in her introduction to the series, “it’s worth stepping back and thinking deeply about why an election matters, why a presidential election, in particular, matters, and how the people who’ve held this highest office have shaped, for better and worse, what our country has been, what it is today, and what it can be in the future.”

While polls ask voters to decide which candidates best exemplify the quality of leadership, Cunningham looks at what that actually means, and how that meaning has changed from the time of President Washington to the time of President Obama.

FishbowlDC asked Cunningham about her experience developing the podcast, and what she thinks we can learn about the current state of the presidency through this look at the past.


FishbowlDC: In the first episode you describe how you developed the idea for this podcast. What did it take to get it produced?

Lillian Cunningham: The early steps involved doing a lot of my own research and then reaching out to notable experts on the presidency. I’m working in chronological order, so my focus in the beginning was really on interviewing biographers and historians who have deep knowledge of our earliest presidents.

I’ve also spent a lot of time talking with other Washington Post reporters and editors about the themes that would be most interesting to explore and figuring out whose journalistic expertise here could enrich the episodes in surprising ways. For example, The Post’s art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott turned out to be a wonderful voice to help guide our second episode, where we look at the backstory of why Adams doesn’t have a monument in DC.

In terms of production, there’s of course a great deal of audio recording and editing that goes into every podcast episode. There were also a lot of other details, though, that we wanted to think through ahead of time and put care and effort behind—like designing unique episode cover art for each of the different presidents.

FBDC: What has the experience of creating the podcast been like? What did you learn and what has surprised you?

Cunningham: It’s been really exciting so far. And I’ve already learned both the power and the challenge of committing yourself to a schedule with no wiggle room—we worked backwards from election day and started the podcast exactly 44 weeks in advance, so we have to make sure to cover a new president each week in order to finish in time. It’s kind of daunting, but the upside is that it creates a lot of energy and focus.

As far as surprises: It’s really exciting to see just how many people want to better understand the American presidency, especially in an election year. I’ve been blown away by the number of listeners who have already reached out to me to say they can’t wait for the episodes about presidents they know nothing about. How awesome that people are so eager to be more informed!

FBDC: What did you look to as a guide or model when creating the sound and feel of the podcast?

Cunningham: I’ve been listening to a long list of podcasts lately—there are so many great ones out right now—but I really didn’t look to any project in particular as a model for Presidential. I suppose it’s a mix of a number of different genres. It uses structural techniques that many of the narrative storytelling podcasts do; it also has something of the science podcast approach of making a dense subject fascinating, relevant, fun and understandable.

FBDC: What are you hoping your audience will get out of this podcast?

Cunningham: The biographer David McCullough had this great line in our second episode about the importance of history: “If you can see backward, you can also see forward.” That’s what I’m hoping this podcast will give all its listeners—greater insight into why our country is the way it is today, for better and worse, and what it might take to move it forward toward something better.

The more we ask ourselves questions about the people, decisions and executive styles that have previously been effective and ineffective in the White House, the better positioned we are to decide what personally matters to each of us in a leader come election day.

FBDC: You say you’re “not a history buff.”  One of the implications, as you mention, is that it leads you to ask unexpected questions. In what other ways does this impact the scope of the podcast and how you approach the research?

Cunningham: Is it fair to say it helps me ensure the podcast isn’t boring?! I really am approaching every episode and every president with a curiosity about why they truly matter. I’m drawn to the things that make me laugh, or gasp, or want to immediately tell a friend, “Did you ever know this?!” I’m not someone who could read treatises about treaties all day! I’m always asking the question, why should we care about this? That probably helps the podcast stay interesting to both the history buffs and people who only vaguely remember the highlights from their high-school history class.