How different would history look if the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton presidencies had happened during the Twitter age? Watergate and Zippergate are now reduced to famous quotes and vaguely remembered details, but in real time they involved just as many characters, plot twists, and headlines as the dramas of the current administration. Now, on his Slate-sponsored podcast Slow Burn, journalist Leon Neyfakh is resurrecting these old scandals and putting listeners back in the moment before we knew how things would turn out.
Slow Burn's first season covered the nitty-gritty details of Watergate; its second, now in progress, is retreading the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. "We were thinking it would be fun to do a deep dive into Watergate and try to tell the story of what really happened then," Neyfakh says, "but more importantly try to get a feel for whether living through it was in any way similar to the current moment when we have so much news every day."
Neyfakh is hosting a live show at the Athenaeum Theatre on Friday, October 26, with WBEZ host Jenn White and journalist Rick Perlstein to discuss Clinton, the underlying logic of a political scandal, and the distinct factors of Clinton's personality that may have made him prone to scandal. The show opens with a live performance, inspired by an episode of Slow Burn, that Neyfakh says will involve choreography.
The podcast approaches each scandal by first identifying the characters and the main plot, then by interviewing people who were present during and, in some cases, closely involved with what was happening. Neyfakh, who started his journalism career covering culture and academia, says he knew very little about each scandal going into the project (he was in eighth grade during Clinton's impeachment), which makes it easier to reach listeners who also have limited memories of what actually happened. The most important lesson he learned was how to handle the onslaught of news from the current administration.
"I think this show has alerted me to the possibility that even though it feels right now that the pileup of news and having to deal with this much plot at one time is a lot, in fact, it felt that way back in the Watergate days and certainly in the Clinton days," Neyfakh says. "It feels a little bit like we're spending emotional and mental energy on stuff that won't turn out to matter. It's disheartening because it does matter. In 20 years people won't remember these details and won't really understand what it was like to live through [this] and why all these things really happened."
The team behind Slow Burn is currently choosing a topic for season three, but first they're working on defining whether the show will continue to be about scandals or will expand to look at other seismic moments in history. Neyfakh, an Oak Park native, isn't ruling out the possibility of a Chicago story, but it won't involve a president.
"The Obama administration was so scandal free that it would be hard to do a Slow Burn about them," Neyfakh laughs. "Maybe we could do an April Fool's episode about the tan suit." v