Slow Burn Is the Watergate Podcast You Didn’t Know You Needed

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Photo: Slate

“It was all so fun,” said Jacob Weisberg, the host of Slate’s Trumpcast, during a recent episode. “It was a comedy that played out on a national stage.” Weisberg was talking about the Nixon-era Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, the notorious blemish on American history involving a crime, a presidential cover-up, a constitutional crisis, an unraveling society, and fiery, furious tension between president and press. He may well be right, though I wouldn’t know. I barely existed as a concept when Watergate played itself out, and much of what I know about Watergate comes from a few movies, recollections passed down from older people, and the myriad references deployed in mainstream reporting. (Which includes, notably, the energetic utilization of -gate as a suffix for many a modern political brouhaha.) On the occasion that I have sifted through media and literature about the scandal, fun isn’t a thing that automatically jumps out at me. With the distance of time and vicarious experience, the whole thing just seemed like a giant shitstorm, one the country was barely lucky enough to survive.

Anyway, Weisberg was remarking upon Slow Burn, a new limited series podcast from Slate, which endeavors to convey a sense of just what it was like to live through Watergate. Led by Slate staff writer Leon Neyfakh and producer Andrew Parsons, the podcast is a sturdy product of deep research, archival tape, and contemporary interview recordings. Which is to say, Slow Burn is a dense listen, though it never really feels that way. Slow Burn goes down easy despite its hefty portent. It’s constantly surprising. It’s addictive for the right kind of casual history nerd. It’s smart in its composition.

The podcast unfolds somewhat chronologically, with each episode dropping listeners in various spots across the timeline. Every edition functions well as a stand-alone story, though, of course, the point is to situate them within the broader Watergate developments at play. Neyfakh and Parsons do a good job unearthing a sprawling cast of compelling characters that carry the historical narrative forward — from the socialite wife of a complicit attorney general to a segregationist senator to an unconventional couple involved in turning a Senate hearing into prime-time television.

Slow Burn has a pleasantly simple and deliberate construction. The show is mostly built on the scaffolding of Neyfakh’s workmanlike narration, which does most of the heavy lifting, with the occasional inclusion of relevant archival recordings whose scratchy textures are instantly transporting. Even more pleasant is the writing’s constant utilization of a one-two punch oscillating between vivid portraits of (often tragic) people and dispensing sumptuous details that effectively convey a sense of living in the era. Nowhere is this pleasure more present than in the first episode, “Martha,” which tells the story of Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, a tragic figure who was kidnapped, drugged, and locked up in a hotel room in an attempt to stop her from leaking the conspiracy to the public. “Martha” remains the show’s standout entry — it made my Best Podcast Episodes list last year — not only because it’s the best example of that one-two punch, but also because it’s a startling reminder that living, breathing people who once directly experienced now-historical moments often fade in the long tail of cultural memory.

It should be noted that Slow Burn isn’t just a solid exercise in the history podcast genre. The project was developed with a more timely concern in mind, which is to ask: How can the past help us understand the present? Examining parallels between the Nixon and Trump eras has been a well-trod journalistic enterprise since the dawn of the current presidential administration, but aside from one pretty forced evocation of Anthony Scaramucci early on, the podcast has been hands-off in making those connections, opting instead to focus on the storytelling and let the parallels do the work themselves. And there are so many parallels to be made: the attacks on the press, the madness of the White House, the centrality of media platforms in litigating the conflict, the performative debates over whether the public actually gives a shit about any of this. It occurs to me that the density of these parallels only poses a further challenge for the audience: to discern what is truly a historical echo and what is merely politically evergreen.

With Trump on its mind, Slow Burn additionally serves as yet another entry into the ever-growing genre of Trump-themed podcasts. And what a packed genre it is: Since the last presidential election cycle, the category has steadily expanded into farthest reaches of the space between the news, political, and polling podcasts for which Trump is the necessary precondition of stories and the seemingly endless variation of more niche constructions. Running a basic search query on the Apple Podcast app pulls back an insane snapshot of offerings: Versus Trump, The Trump Survival Guide Podcast, The Trump Report, Trump on Earth, Can He Do That?, What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law, The Trump Scorecard, etc. etc. etc. (And those don’t even touch the weirder ones. In a recent piece for Politico magazine, Jaime Fuller spent time sifting through some of the more unconventional Trump-themed podcast designs, including a now-defunct project that feeds Trump tweets through a Kylo Ren voice filter. If you can dream it, the internet provides.)

Set against all those options, Slow Burn makes for a refreshingly satisfying peer. Many, if not most, of these Trump-themed podcasts tend to be anchored by a literal relationship to the current moment, and the mass gravitation toward that same direction has somewhat doomed the genre to a certain redundancy. After all, there is a diminishing marginal utility to the consumption of each successive take on the latest Trumpian hubbub. Past a certain point, the whole listening enterprise begs a question of existential futility: What are we even doing here? In comparison, bolstered by its historical view, indirect approach, and depth of reach, Slow Burn comes off feeling like a meal in a sea of snacks.

That is not to say I feel completely good about the podcast. My unease is largely tied up in the broader enterprise of attempting to build a bridge between Watergate and the current presidential drama. I can’t but feel such projects are variations on the same, to borrow phrase used to describe the recent Michael Wolff book, “liberal catnip.” Sure, the parallels are fascinating to observe, but do they really extend beyond descriptive observation? Do they actually provide any value in interpreting how this moment will end? Furthermore, what are we saying when some of us fixate on that scandal within the context of the present? If it’s something along the lines of “We prevailed over something like this once, we’ll prevail again,” that isn’t sufficient. To think that is to at least partially subscribe to a belief that just because history rhymes, it will likely repeat. That seems more wrong than true. After all, so many things had to go right for Nixon to eventually leave office, a fact pointed out in the fourth episode, “A Very Successful Cover-Up,” and there are no guarantees those same things will go right this time around.

Weisberg’s comment at the top of this review makes me wonder: Will we ever look back at all of this and find it funny? The answer, of course, is contingent on whether we survive it all. Here in the present, we wake every morning to a giant shitstorm of our own. For a broad cross-section of people, tomorrow is an uncertainty that variates based on the hour. Will there be a nuclear war with North Korea? Will we still have a free press? Will the system of checks and balances be corrupted irreversibly? Will the electoral maps be gerrymandered into oblivion? Here in the present, it will take a conclusion, and a lot more time, before this waking tragedy turns into a memory of comedy. I only hope we make it through to the point when we can find the fun.

Then again, Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes was pretty fucking hilarious. You can find Slow Burn here.

Slow Burn Is an Essential Podcast About Watergate