What is Making Me Happy: Bagman

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a regular Friday/Saturday feature, except that the end of the semester crunch for most of my classes broke this schedule before it even began.

This week: Bagman

My podcast listening tends toward conversation, sports, and current events and while I am periodically on the hunt for a new show I am rather hit and miss with “true crime” investigative podcasts. I didn’t give in to the Serial fad, for instance, but was quite taken by Crimetown. The latter hit a sweet spot for me in that it looked not just at a single crime, but at institutional corruption, which is also the subject of Rachel Maddow and Mike Yarvitz’ limited run podcast turned book Bagman. However, rather than painting a portrait of a city at a given time, Maddow and Yarvitz take aim at Spiro Agnew.

I have taught US history, but I would never describe myself as a specialist. When I cover the end of Nixon’s administration, I focus on the Watergate break-in, the cover-up, and give the students something to analyze for themselves in the form of Herb Block’s cartoons. I mention Agnew in passing, mostly in order to set up how Gerald Ford became president—probably trotting out the standard line that Agnew was forced to resign because he was under indictment for tax evasion. What I’ve told students in the past is not wrong, but only by the most technical definition.

The false memory about Agnew’s time in office is the starting point of Bagman. In point of fact, Agnew had had a meteoric rise from winning an election as Baltimore County executive in 1962 to becoming governor of Maryland in 1966 to vice president in 1968 and, along the way, built a corruption ring based on his control of government contracts that he doled out in return for cash.

Maddow and Yartvitz take the audience back to 1972 just when the Watergate scandal was beginning to heat up: George Beall, the US district attorney in Maryland, had opened an investigation into the sitting Baltimore County executive on suspicion of a bribery ring. What he found was not only that the ring had been developed by Agnew, but that Agnew’s activities had continued throughout his term as governor and into his time as Vice President. When Agnew heard of the investigation—in February 1973—he immediately set about trying to discredit the attorneys and quash the investigation, but eventually, was forced to resign. Thus, as Maddow and Yarvitz told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, their purpose was two-fold: first, document the Agnew story; second, explore how the prosecutors’ primary aim of removing Agnew from office and the series of events worked together to allow people to remember Agnew’s crimes as tax evasion rather than political corruption and obstruction of justice.

I am currently halfway through this limited-run series and am consistently fascinated by their account of Agnew’s fall from grace. I’m not sure how well they’ll be able to pull off the second half of their objective, but I am looking forward to finding out.

What is Making me Happy – Podcasts

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I have a wildly erratic relationship with music—I like it on in the background and like obscure groups, but only recently started listening to complete albums and don’t ever keep up with recent releases. I also don’t listen to audiobooks, partly because they require too much commitment, partly because I like physical books, partly because I aspire to making enough money to keep the physical book publishing industry alive just with my own purchases. In the place of books–since this is the void it would fill–I listen to a wide range of podcasts, even after I recently unsubscribed from several that have too many piled up episodes. These range from sports teams or sports I like, to more general intellectual or artistic interviews and discussion roundtables. Some of my favorites on my long list are favorites specifically because they are tailor made for people of my given interests, deep-dives into relatively narrow topics that I just happen to love. Others are wider and more likely to bounce from topic to topic. There was a confluence of releases on Friday that dropped something ten individual episodes in a single day–including old standbys and several podcasts that are new or restored ventures by producers I like. While overwhelming, this deluge gave me a moment to reflect on these shows and, by extension, give a few recommendations.

The Lowe Post : A more sports-centric podcast, Zach Lowe is my favorite NBA writer and one of the main reasons why my interest in the NBA is waxing again. Lowe’s podcasts are another interview show, but specifically focused on individuals associated with the NBA, including players, coaches, former coaches, and writers, and will sometimes go into the nitty-gritty of tactics on the court, trade speculation, player personalities, the art of creating an interesting story, and major news stories. It is a catch-all discussion of the NBA, and the only podcast of its sort I will make a blanket-recommendation for.

The Watch and Pop Culture Happy Hour : The Watch is Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald’s podcast on the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, in large part rebooting Grantland’s Hollywood Prospectus. In this show they talk about the happenings in television, but have started talking more about movies and music now that Greenwald is not first and foremost a television critic. They frequently discuss shows and music I haven’t seen, but I listen regularly anyway. Pop culture Happy Hour likewise covers music, tv, movies, and (to a lesser extent) books, generally in the form of specific topic, general topic, and then a segment of recommendations. (In contrast, The Watch tends to be just talking about shows that are relatively current and that they want to talk about; there is planning involved, but it is not nearly as formulaic.) These two are in the same category because they are my two standbys for discussion of pop culture. I like both, even when they talk about culture I don’t consume because they remind me of conversations with friends that I rarely have these days, ones that are thoughtful and playful. More than even the topic, I think it helps that the people on the shows remind me of friends near and far and I just like the conversation.

There are many others I like, including the podcast version of Fresh Air and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, but I am a little pickier about which ones I listen to simply because the topics covered don’t always hold my attention. In contrast, the ones above I listen to regardless of topic.

This barely scratches the surface of my podcast list, but I am also open to suggestions. If there are particularly good shows I ought to be listening to, please share.***

***I have not listened to Serial, I have been told I should listen to Serial, I don’t know that I ever will listen to Serial. However, it is on my radar.