This Day In Esoteric Political History

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Anyone who has listened to this show knows that I love the stories from history and one of the things I love the most is that a history story in and of itself has a certain value, but what’s amazing is how much the current situation that you’re hearing the story in affects how it’s understood. It’s like adding a musical score to a scene in a movie. The mood of the current moment changes our interpretation of everything.

Roman Mars:
This is all leading me to introducing you to a brand new history show that we have premiering today from Radiotopia. It’s produced and hosted by the immensely talented and recently mustachioed Jody Avirgan, who you may know from ESPN’s “30 for 30” podcast and he was the host of the “FiveThirtyEight” politics podcast for many years. I am a huge fan of Jody. I’m so excited he’s joining the team. In this episode, I’ll talk with him and premiere two episodes of his new podcast, “This Day in Esoteric Political History.”

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Roman Mars:
Hey, Jody.

Jody Avirgan:
Hello there, Roman.

Roman Mars:
For context, we’re talking on Friday, March 27th, each in our respective homes, me in California, you in New York City. We’re going to talk about your new show on Radiotopia.

Jody Avirgan:
That’s right. I’m really excited to join Radiotopia. I just want to confirm, though, I’m recording in my bedroom, which has two windows. You’re recording in your bedroom, which I believe listeners learned in a previous episode has five windows? I just want to make sure.

Roman Mars:
Yes, five windows. I live on the corner. My bedroom is on the corner of the house, so it has five windows, which makes it very good for sun, very bad for recording, to tell you the truth.

Jody Avirgan:
I thought both of those things. I got immediately jealous and then I got immediately, started to do the calculus of how is he making this room quiet?

Roman Mars:
It’s not been fun.

Jody Avirgan:
It was brave of you to admit as much on a national radio show. Anyway, the task at hand, yes, I’m joining Radiotopia, which I’m incredibly excited about. We’re doing a new show that’s called “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” Basically, a couple of times a week, I’m going to get together with a historian, Nicole Hemmer, and we’re going to have special guests along the way as well and look at one item, one moment that happened on that day in political history. The show is going to be short, it’s going to be under 10 minutes each time, and we’re just going to try and kind of pick a bunch of moments, big and small, that are either interesting stories, but I suspect will also have some things to teach us about this moment that we’re going through right now.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, one of the things I’ve noticed in the conversation about coronavirus and even Trump, as we’ve been talking about Trump for the past couple of years, is we’ve been falling back on this idea that all this is unprecedented and I think that helps describe the enormity of everything, but I don’t think that description is very helpful beyond that. I think it’s much more useful approach to find little threads of connections that are precedented so that we continue to learn and evolve and respond. That’s why I’m really excited about “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” How do you see the role of the things that you will tell stories about and how they connect with the modern world?

Jody Avirgan:
I mean, I think it’s born of the very same instinct that I think a lot of people have had and I’ve had, both as a journalist and just as a human being, to find myself thinking, long before coronavirus, over the last four or five years or so, saying, “Man, this feels new. This feels unprecedented. It feels like we’re in completely new territory.”

Jody Avirgan:
I think like a lot of people, I have found myself turning to history more and more to get some guidance and get some guardrails. I’ve come to think that there’s basically three main ways in which history can help us understand this moment. One is to say, “No, this isn’t new. This has happened before. Look at this time, this time, and this time when basically this exact thing happened before.” There’s comfort in that. There really is. That’s not to diminish the seriousness of what’s happening now or a given incident.

Jody Avirgan:
Then there’s the second category, which is, “Oh, no, this really is new.” There are moments like that and I don’t want to dismiss that, but I think understanding where you need to raise the alarm and say, “Oh, my gosh, we are in uncharted territory.”

Jody Avirgan:
The third category is the one that I’m really fascinated by and I think I’ve really come around to and I think I want to try and explore in this show, which is things may be new, we may be in uncharted territory, but this moment is a product of history. The conditions that have built up in this country over the last 20, 30, 50, a hundred years have led us to this moment. That, I think, is the thing we don’t talk about enough, how what we are feeling is completely new and unprecedented and out of nowhere is actually a product of what has happened in this country and it’s almost inevitable, given the forces that have shaped politics in this country over the last few generations.

Roman Mars:
Right. We’re going to play a couple episodes of “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” One of the things I love about the name is when I was feeling this same need to examine the world and put out a podcast by diving into history, I called it “What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law,” which is-

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, I thought of that, too.

Roman Mars:
… which is equally cumbersome.

Jody Avirgan:
It just rolls off the tongue. Well, I also appreciate that you, in Slack, recently tried to like acronymize it or whatever. T-D… I saw that, I was like, “Nah, we’re not going to be doing that.”

Roman Mars:
T-DIE-PH.

Jody Avirgan:
This Day, maybe, yeah.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, so “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” We’re going to play a couple of episodes of “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The first one, could you tell us about what happened on this day and tee up the story that we’re going to hear first?

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, on March 31st, we’re going to be talking about March 31st, 1968 which is when Lyndon B. Johnson, a sitting president, incumbent president, in an incredibly tumultuous year, 1968, he announces that he’s not seeking re-election. We’re going to be visiting 1968 I suspect a lot over the course of this series, but this was obviously a big event when a president, only the second time ever that a president says he’s not going to seek reelection. It just gives us a sense for what it feels like to be in the midst of a really tumultuous year. I think we’re certainly feeling that right now.

Roman Mars:
Okay, let’s hear it.

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Jody Avirgan:
Hello and welcome to “This Day in Esoteric Political History” from Radiotopia. My name is Jody Avirgan. This day, March 31st, 1968, LBJ’s surprise announcement that he is not seeking re-election. We are joined as always, well, this is the first time, actually, but we’re joined by Nicole Hemmer of Columbia. Niki, I’m very excited to be doing this series with you and this is our first episode. Hi.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, I’m really excited about it.

Jody Avirgan:
I know we call this show esoteric political history. We will hit all sorts of different types of stories, but this is obviously a big moment, a president announcing that he will not seek re-election. I guess one thing is I can hear our more lefty listeners here in 2020 maybe a little, hopefully, saying to themselves, “Wait a minute. An embattled president in a moment of crisis, you can just announce that you’re out, that you no longer want to run? How often does this happen?”

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, it doesn’t happen very often. Don’t get your hopes too high.

Jody Avirgan:
Okay, fair enough.

Nicole Hemmer:
I think it happened one other time with Truman and like LBJ, he had a little bit of extra time at the beginning of his term because he was a vice president who inherited the presidency.

Jody Avirgan:
Let me lay out some of the basics of the story and then we’ll come around to what we think it means and some more, but LBJ made this announcement at the end of a 40-minute address from the Oval Office. It was ostensibly an update about the Vietnam War, but then at the end of his address, he famously says, “I shall not seek and will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as president.”

Jody Avirgan:
He’d, as you mentioned, taken over for Kennedy after the assassination in 1963. He trounced Goldwater in the ’64 election. What else? The Civil Rights Act, his domestic agenda, but by this point, Vietnam is really the thing that is swamping his presidency, right?

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah. It’s something that I think is hard to wrap our minds around when we’ve been at war for 20 years now and the wars that we’re in just don’t intrude in most people’s daily lives, but Vietnam was a lot different. It was part of people’s daily lives. They would listen to a 40-minute address from the president and it affected everything that was happening in America at the time.

Jody Avirgan:
Well, I’m having conversations with my parents these days and with this pandemic, they’re talking about how this is the first time in a long time since Vietnam where they have felt like there’s an issue that is touching every American. I mean, this story of war – I’m sure we’ll track this over the course of the show – but the story of war is that it has become more and more separated from the lives of daily Americans.

Nicole Hemmer:
I think that’s such a good point because even something like the September 11 attacks, which I think most Americans had a really visceral reaction to, were localized, right? It was Pennsylvania, New York, and DC and the actual events were only taking place in small parts of the United States, whereas this is going to come to every city and town in America.

Jody Avirgan:
A little more about this announcement by Johnson. He had health issues. He had had gallbladder and kidney stone surgeries, heart issues. He actually died four years later. He had apparently come close to making this announcement in October, December, and January and finally did it here. There’s reporting that it wasn’t in the advanced text, so I mean, the circle of people who knew this was incredibly small and it really did come as a shock. I heard some people even thought it may have been an April Fools’ joke because it happened on March 31st.

Nicole Hemmer:
Right. I think that it was far too serious a speech for it to be an April Fools’ joke, but-

Jody Avirgan:
That’d be a pretty messed up thing.

Nicole Hemmer:
It would be, it would be. Things were pretty dire when it came to Vietnam at that point. I mean, just a few months earlier, the Tet Offensive had been launched, which really showed Americans that the war was not going their way and also that military and political leaders weren’t telling them the truth about the war and that had a real effect on Johnson’s approval ratings. Here he is starting up his bid for reelection and his approval ratings at the time of the speech where something like 30% of people approved of him. It was really low.

Jody Avirgan:
But then what happens when he announces that he’s not going to seek re-election?

Nicole Hemmer:
All of a sudden, people love him. Once they know they don’t have to put up with them anymore, Americans flip, they go from 57% disapproving of him to 57% of them approving of him.

Jody Avirgan:
Yes. That would not happen today. I mean, you look at approval ratings and they’re so steady and they’re so dictated by polarization and partisanship that I don’t think we will see swings like that, that inherently means people are crossing party lines in their approval.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah. I mean, that’s been the remarkable thing about the Trump presidency is how stable his approval ratings have been throughout. If you go back earlier in the mid-20th century, you saw wide ranges of approval and you saw presidents like Dwight Eisenhower, who was a Republican, pretty regularly getting 70% public approval. It was a very, very different time then.

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. In his remarks, he hints at this thing that got me thinking about the fact that he has to focus on all of the challenges before him. Then he has also been asked to run for re-election and he basically says, “I can’t do both of these things, so I am going to try and do my job until the end of this year and someone else can decide to campaign.” What does it mean that we ask these presidents to campaign in their last year in this way? The crises of the world don’t care that it’s an election year. They just show up and they can show up in the last year of a presidency as easily as they could show up in the first year.

Nicole Hemmer:
It’s an extreme challenge to both juggle the presidency, which in the right hands, is a full-time job, and then layer over campaigning on top of it. It’s hard to do both really well and to not confuse the two. I mean, I think that’s where people often get in trouble is when you have to deal with a major crisis, but now you also have to go speak to deep-pocketed donors at a $5,000-a-plate fundraiser somewhere.

Jody Avirgan:
Certainly, I think we have a president now who thinks he’s at his best when he’s in campaigning mode and I think thinks of everything basically as a campaign. Has anyone ever tried to split these two?

Nicole Hemmer:
A little bit. If we think about the Obama re-election campaign in 2012, he took his entire re-election campaign and he sent all of his people to Chicago and they were going to run the re-election from there and he was going to be governing in DC and I think that that kind of splitting… There’s only so much that you can do, right? It’s ultimately a fiction, but that’s one attempt to do it.

Jody Avirgan:
I want to wrap up with a big question about 1968 and these other moments in history that feel incredibly tumultuous. You look at 1968 and you say, “Goodness. Wars, riots, assassinations, presidents not running for reelection.” Some of these are obviously linked to each other, but I guess I’m trying to figure out whether there are just these areas of overall instability where it’s just one of those years in which big, messy Epic things are going to happen, maybe even if they aren’t directly tied to each other. Do these things tend to group?

Nicole Hemmer:
That’s a good question. The answer is sort of yes and no. I’m not sure that the assassination of Martin Luther King led to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, but if we take a bigger picture look at things instead of looking just at ’68, like look at the ’60s as a whole, there had been a lot of fractures forming for the whole decade, right? You had the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had the whole world on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, you had the assassination of John Kennedy, you had the Civil Rights Movement and racist murders and violence that were happening pretty regularly, urban uprisings, so by the time 1968 rolls around, a lot of the things that happen are kind of over-determined because of all of these fractures that had been caused earlier.

Jody Avirgan:
I remember in 2016 we had a few conversations on the “FiveThirtyEight” politics podcast, which I did during that election that were basically, “Is this 1968?” I think what I’m realizing in retrospect was that 2016 was not our 1968, it was the beginning of the process that you just described and maybe now, four years later, we’re having our 1968.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah. If you think about all of the things people have pointed to as weaknesses in the American system revealed by 2016, we’re now in a moment with a pandemic where all of those weaknesses are starting to cause even bigger and more catastrophic problems.

Jody Avirgan:
Well, on that cheery note, we will end our first episode. That is it for today. Nicole, thank you very much.

Nicole Hemmer:
Thanks so much, Jody.

Jody Avirgan:
This was fun. Now, how can you get in with us and be part of this show? You just need to remember one thing, “thisdaypod.” I’m quite proud of myself. Over the last couple of weeks, I have secured “thisdaypod” on every possible medium, so that is our website: thisdaypod.com. You can email us this day, [email protected] and our social handles on Twitter and Instagram, you can find those, @thisdaypod. If you have any suggestions for future topics or dates or comments at all, do get in touch with us.

Jody Avirgan:
This Day in Esoteric Political History is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. This was our first episode, so we want to thank everyone at PRX, including executive producer, Julie Shapiro for bringing us on board. This is a moment when I think we’re all realizing the power and the need for community, so we just feel really honored to be on board and part of that community. Our researcher and producer is Jacob Feldman. Our music is from Blue Dot Sessions remixed by Jamison Isaak, aka Teen Daze. Our artwork is by Kate LaRue. Next episode, we’ll discuss something that’s probably on your mind, pandemics, and the time 100 years ago when a president got hit with the flu while negotiating the end of a world war. My name is Jody Avirgan. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you soon.

Lyndon B. Johnson:
“With America’s sons in the field far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office.”

Roman Mars:
We have the world premiere of another full episode of “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and more conversation with Jody Avirgan after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So could you describe the second episode, which is really relevant to the time we’re in right now?

Jody Avirgan:
Yes. Our second episode, which is coming out on Thursday, April 2nd, we’ll play it for people here now, is it about when Woodrow Wilson got the flu in 1918 as part of the influenza pandemic of 1918. Actually, he got it in 1919 on April 2nd. This is where I should confess that we were originally planning this show to be about just elections. We thought this was going to be a tumultuous election year and we thought we’d do stories from previous elections. And then we did sort of change a little bit when the coronavirus pandemic began to feel like, “You know what? We want to make space for other stories in politics, other moments of crisis, other moments when this country has faced things like this.”

Jody Avirgan:
And so we’ve broadened the scope a little bit. And this is an example of the kind of thing that wasn’t necessarily an election year, but obviously a moment when our politics had to react to a pandemic. And, I think, one simple reminder is that Wilson got the flu. The president of the United States got the flu, basically a full year after the pandemic had started. And it’s a simple reminder that these things come in waves and these things go for a while.

Roman Mars:
Right, let’s hear it.

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Jody Avirgan:
Hello and welcome to “This Day in Esoteric Political History” from Radiotopia. My name is Jody Avirgan.

Jody Avirgan:
This day, April 2nd, 1919 Woodrow Wilson has the flu. The influenza pandemic is sometimes called the 1918 flu pandemic. It started in Spring 1918. But it was the second wave, as we are all learning, in the fall of 1918 that was the most devastating with the disease spreading into 1919. That is when President Wilson reportedly caught the flu either right before or right after he arrived in Paris for another round of talks to try and bring an end to the First World War.

Jody Avirgan:
We’re joined as always by Nicole Hemmer of Columbia University. I’ll lay out what we know and don’t know about this moment in a second. But we should say right off the bat, Niki, that there’s a little bit of controversy about whether he actually had the flu or there were some other things going on?

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, so one of the things that people know about Wilson and his health is that he suffers a pretty serious stroke near the end of his presidency. So, for a long time, historians talked about this illness as a mini-stroke that he had had. But if you actually look at the set of symptoms that he had, including a really high fever, none of them really fit a stroke, and they all sound a whole lot like this pandemic that was ravaging the world at the time.

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, I mean, by all counts, and we’ll talk a little bit about what the ramifications of this were, but he was very out of it. He was fever struck. He was sort of deteriorating rapidly over the course of these negotiations in Paris. One thing that’s interesting is that it was underplayed at the time, I guess. There were these questions about whether it was actually flu. But did they try and cover this up or was it just that sort of reports were murky? What did people know at the time?

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah. So when this was first reported, it was just reported that he had a cold. And this probably isn’t surprising. I mean, was it a coverup? They didn’t often tell in detail the kinds of illnesses that presidents had at the time. There’s a much bigger cover-up that will happen later in his presidency about his health conditions. But in this case not wanting to scare people in the midst of both a war and a pandemic, they decided to just say, “Hey, it’s a cold. He’ll be fine.”

Jody Avirgan:
So I want to get to some of the sort of bigger questions around this, because, for one, it’s really kind of stunning how precarious of a situation this is. We have a leader at a meeting with all of the, what is known as The Big Four who are negotiating the end of World War I. Wilson’s doctor says, “The whole of civilization seemed to hang in the balance.” Is that a doctor being a little dramatic when he’s writing his memoirs? Or is this really one of those moments?

Nicole Hemmer:
This is really one of those moments. Here it is after the most devastating war that the world really had ever seen, and now they’re trying to figure out how to bring it to a close. And somebody like Wilson would have been the perfect person to have at that table. This is something he had been thinking about, how to win the peace, for a really long time and now he shows up at the peace table and he’s kind of a mess.

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, and it comes down to the fact that he just can’t concentrate as well as he normally would. He just doesn’t bring it. And it’s a reminder that we elected these people and we’re electing real people who have to go into real meetings with other real people. What they say and how they behave in those actual meetings is just as important as all the policies and all of the track record and all that stuff. It comes down to the sort of behavior in that moment. And there are theories about the fact that World War I may have ended very differently had Wilson been on his A-game, in particular with regards to what happened to Germans.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, one of the things that Wilson really wanted was a gentle peace with Germany. He was really worried about a vindictive peace that would be about score-settling, because he knew that they needed to rebuild a peaceful, functioning, cooperative Europe after this if they were going to maintain peace beyond the end of this. It was something that normally he would have pushed for. The flu is part of it. He also gets delivered a pretty devastating blow in the midterm elections of 1918, where Republicans sweep. And so there’s a sense of the country doesn’t necessarily want everything that Wilson wants. But, I mean, Jody, you’ve had the flu before. Can you imagine going to this table with the three other leaders of these countries and barely being able to sit up much less argue forcefully for the thing that you believe in?

Jody Avirgan:
So, one big question, this is sort of stating the obvious, but I kind of want to end on this note. But you don’t get to choose when pandemics hit, right? And I think it gets to this larger theme that so much of a presidency is defined by things you can’t plan for. And it’s really about how do you react in that moment. This seems like a perfect example of that.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, the tendency at the time was, the right thing to do is to downplay what’s happening because people have just come through this horrifying war. The last thing that they need is to be told that there’s this other invisible enemy that’s going to kill millions of them. But, of course, what we learn from it is, when you don’t have a handle on it, when you don’t tell people what’s happening, it actually just leads to even worse outcomes. And that’s what happened. I mean the press at the time was censoring news of this pandemic. That’s not the only reason that millions and millions of people died, but it was a contributing factor.

Jody Avirgan:
So, I guess one more question on the flu itself. If the public had somehow known… I guess this happens relatively late that he gets it. But I’m trying to imagine, do these moments where like, “Oh my gosh, a president got this!” Do those break through? Do those make a difference?

Nicole Hemmer:
I think they do make a difference in the sense that you see that no one has the power or the money to avoid it, right? It’s one of those things that you can’t negotiate your way out of. We’re all vulnerable to it. I do think it’s fair at the same time though that seeing a president stricken with something like this can scare people, particularly at a time when they’re already pretty scared. It can be destabilizing.

Jody Avirgan:
There’s this little meme, or whatever you want to call it, floating around… People use this term of like, “We must protect so and so.” And I think it was pre-pandemic, but now people are saying, “Oh, we must protect Beyonce”, or whoever. But also politicians. We have to keep these people healthy so that they can do their jobs because their jobs have massive ramifications.

Nicole Hemmer:
Yeah, let’s just put it out there. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is somebody people have been trying to wrap in bubble wrap since three years ago. And, again, it’s been a powerful meme to say, “Do you want to be the person who gave this to a person who gave it to Ruth Bader Ginsburg?”

Jody Avirgan:
Oh wow. I hadn’t really heard that framing, but yeah, I guess that’s something to think about. Okay. We’re going to wrap it up there. But, first, a few other things that happened on this day, April 2nd in other years. In 1870 the first female candidate for president, Victoria Woodhall, announced her candidacy by writing a letter to the editor of the New York Herald. 1917, Janet Rankin was sworn in as the first female Congressman. And in 1964 on April 2nd, Malcolm X gave his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech. So every once in a while, we’ll give you a taste of other things that happened on this day.

Jody Avirgan:
By the way, this is what we’re doing on our social feeds as well, posting a few times a day about other things that happened. So make sure you check those out.

Jody Avirgan:
All right, Nicole Hemmer. Thank you. As always, this was great.

Nicole Hemmer:
Thanks, Jody.

Jody Avirgan:
“This Day in Esoteric Political History” is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. Our researcher and producer is Jacob Feldman. If you have any ideas for an upcoming topic or a date, get in touch. You can let us know a specific date or just a rough topic that you want us to talk about and we can find a peg for it. You can email us [email protected] There’s also a contact forum at thisdaypod.com. Next episode, we’re jumping to the more recent past, 2008. Barack Obama and a comment he made about rural voters that may have said a lot about where politics was going over the next decade.

Roman Mars:
We’ve been talking about this for a couple of months and this was just going to be about the election and just use historical precedent to help describe the moment that we’re in, in terms of the election. And then the coronavirus pandemic started and we decided to move up the launch date a week. So, how were you thinking about the stories you will be selecting over this season while this is going on?

Jody Avirgan:
I do want to make space for stories, not just, “Oh we’re going to find stories of health crises or pandemics.” But, stories of just moments of national crisis. I think we are in a moment, clearly, of national crisis. I think we are going to enter a moment of what I’ve been thinking of as sort of civic creativity or civic rearrangement, where we’re really going to have to think through how our society is ordered and what our norms are. And politics is a space in which we do that, and we’ve had to do that, for better or worse. And so I think making space to talk about moments where we’ve done that, not just necessarily linked to an election year.

Jody Avirgan:
That said, I will say that my co-host Niki Hemmer, who’s a political historian… When we were talking about making this change and expanding the scope a little bit, she pointed out and she was like, “Elections have never really been normal.” Most elections are huge and most elections kind of feel like they have a crisis and so forth. And so even if we had stuck to just the election lens, we would have had plenty of big, huge moments where it felt like, “Oh my gosh, our country is tearing itself apart or being torn apart.”

Jody Avirgan:
I also do want to say, though, it’s very important to me to also just find small moments and moments that just are interesting. And I think we can find lessons in those, even if we don’t go out of our way to find big moments or big lessons and so forth. Just telling a good small story from our political past, I think, will still resonate. And I want to make space for the esoteric. It’s not just going to be meltdowns and influenza and so forth. We’re going to find some “fun” and interesting stories as we go as well.

Roman Mars:
And you’re going to do some of that on your social media accounts and stuff like that rather than just the podcast?

Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, so on social media, we’re going to be posting a few times a day actually about all the stuff that we don’t get to. We only get to do one topic per day, but we researched a ton. So just throughout the day and throughout the week on social media, on Twitter and Instagram, we’re just posting about so-and-so happened this day, so and so happened that day. And I will say, we’ve already got that going and I have found it really interesting. Some of the stuff that’s posted, I didn’t post, our producer posted it and sort of caught me off guard. And I said, “Oh my gosh. You know, on this day we announced that we had a polio vaccine. Or on this day Navy Seals were formed.” And just little tidbits that make you stop and think and draw your own little lessons or whatever. So, I’m actually pretty excited about the social media stuff we’ve got going on as well.

Roman Mars:
You were in “The Brian Lehrer Show” and you were on “FiveThirtyEight.” You often react to things in realtime and are the producer and host of these discussions. Have you missed that role during this period of time when things are happening? Or have you been happy to not be part of it, in the direct conversation?

Jody Avirgan:
I think both. I think anyone who is a journalist when there’s a big story and someone who believes that journalism has a role. It’s been tough for me to feel a little bit like I’m sitting on the sidelines. But I also think that stories like these, looking to history, stories that kind of talk to a moment but not necessarily about a moment are really important. And so I do feel like this is my chance to engage and my chance to contribute something. Going into this year, I sort of thought, “Well, do I want to cover this election again in the sort of day-to-day way I did in 2016 and the three elections before that?” And I basically decided, no. I mean, I like to sleep. I have a kid now. It was like 2016 took a few years off my life. And so this feels like a good balance.

Roman Mars:
“This Day in Esoteric Political History” is produced by Jody Avirgan and Jacob Feldman. It’s new from Radiotopia. A new episode comes out every Tuesday and Thursday. We’ll have links to subscribe in the show notes and on our website.

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Roman Mars:
So I have one kind of self-serving public service announcement. Because people are not commuting as much, podcast listenership is down, not by much, it’s like 5% or so. But the thing is, this is part of the economy that you can support without spending a dime. If you go through the 99pi catalog and download or stream just one extra episode this week, that 5% decrease will be eliminated and we’ll maybe even see an overall increase. Or you can go download and listen to the whole omnibus and pick one episode to send to friends. People seem to really like that “At Home” episode I did a couple of weeks ago, so maybe send that one around. The point is, this is a thing where a free and joyful task could do a lot of good and keep the show healthy and strong. So, thanks. If you do heed the call and listen extra and spread the word, you can tag me on Twitter, and I’ll thank you personally.

  1. Rob

    This podcast should be called “This Day in Esoteric US Political History”.

    Seriously, I was amazed to hear the host describe the current moment as a “national crisis” for the US. A pandemic is *by definition* an international crisis.

  2. Johnny

    I’ve heard several episodes of this podcast. So far, I haven’t heard a single thing that’s esoteric. Most of the items featured are pretty well-known and pretty obvious. Dig deeper, Jody.

  3. derek

    I was going to say, the Patrick Henry quote from March 23 is not very esoteric: it’s famous all over the world. The minimum requirement for esoteric US history is that it should at least be unknown to non-Americans!

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