I wrote something a few months ago about enjoying The Ezra Klein Show, back when it was a podcast on the Vox media network, but I mentioned that I had some issues with it–mainly the fact that, while Klein himself was always very clear and entertaining, a great communicator and educator, he often brought experts onto the show who were brilliant in their fields…but weren’t great at breaking those brilliant ideas down into an explanation I could understand. It fostered this strange rapport with the show wherein I was quick to cite it as one of my favorite podcasts–but I’d often go two full months without actually finishing an episode.
Klein’s podcast has moved, since then, to The New York Times, and it seems that the additional clout has attracted some higher-profile guests. The writer George Saunders isn’t exactly a celebrity, but Klein’s recent conversation with him was a huge delight. Brilliant and life-affirming. I listened to it twice on the day it premiered. Easily the highlight of my podcast consumption this past month.
So I was surprised and not surprised when I noticed this morning–with a double take–that today’s guest is Senator Bernie Sanders.
Politics has gotten interesting for me in the past couple years probably mainly because of the turbulence in America’s executive branch but I think part of it has to do with getting older. Turning 30 next month. I finally got around to Robert Caro’s Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I zipped through Barack Obama’s 700 page memoir back in November, I followed the Biden campaign closer than any other in my lifetime and now, since the outset of his presidency, I’ve given lotsa time over to the study of his performance (such as it’s rendered in a handful of podcasts, a handful of print outlets).
My general fondness for Biden as a person has helped me to examine his presidency as a narrative featuring a protagonist of interest.
The lure, in that case, isn’t plot (politics), it’s character (Joe).
I heard and loved, for instance, a two-part series from The Daily podcast (another Times production) that focused on two of the major issues on Biden’s plate at the outset of his presidency; and then, after detailing their surface-level significance and controversy, dove into their complexity.
The issue with Saudi Arabia proved particularly complicated and, in the course of The Daily‘s discussion, somebody mentioned a concept that I thought so beautiful in its complexity (if depressing in substance): “the conflict between American interests and American values.”
To wit: We want to punish the torture-execution of an American citizen by a foreign government. It’s a betrayal of American values not to hold that foreign power accountable.
But American interests, economically and militarily and so forth, lean strongly against a real pursuit of justice.
What that particular podcast explores, specifically, is how America’s rendering of a well-deserved comeuppance on Saudi Arabia for its murder of an American journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, could destabilize the very tenuous progress that’s been made in a middle-eastern arms agreement.
Now, is that assessment of Biden’s inaction on-the-level?
I don’t know.
I’m not well-enough informed about politics to brandish opinions about anything political, unless it’s something so flagrantly dangerous to the American ecosystem as the BP oil spill, or Amazon’s suppression of workers’ rights, or Ted Cruz’s existence. To be honest, I feel a bit ridiculous and infantilized by the paucity of political resolve in my heart. I want a $15 minimum wage and I want universal healthcare and other basic things–there are like six hot-button political issues on which my positions are unwavering. Grounded deeply in moral soil.
But all of my opinions are subject to constant doubt and open to questioning.
And this is where Ezra Klein swings in as an invaluable voice.
Though Klein himself is dazzlingly eloquent and well-read and unafraid to voice his position, the execution of his show doesn’t feel particularly partisan. I like the guy so much that I’ve listened to other people interviewing him on their podcasts (I really dig David Axelrod’s Axe Files too by the way!) and, since Klein wrote a book about America being so polarized, he tends to get asked about the volatility of our political discourse, and he always points out that, while he and a republican will sometimes trade incredibly venomous barbs through social media–once he gets them onto his show, once they’re in the studio with him, they’re civil. Friendly.
Well, because they’re sitting across from you and they can see that you’re a human being. That you’re flawed. That you disagree with them, politically, but you’re also decent and well-dressed and good-humored and you both commiserate about your kids, etc.
(Dude, something that breaks me: in David Axelrod’s interview, on The Axe Files, with one of my major life heroes, David Remnick, the two of them cover a wonderful spectrum of issues, they cover them with smart heart and tart, but then, at the end, Axelrod shifts the conversation toward the fact that they’re both fathers of adult daughters with severe autism. Hearing the sudden earnestness in their voices, hearing them talk about the brutally plain and practical sacrifices they’ve had to make for their kids is…heavy.)
Maybe it’s an illusion, this impression of Klein’s polymathic aptitude for tackling political issues. It’s of course in Klein’s best interest to pull the strings of his show in such a way as to seem like a razorbrained liberal in his daily life, but perfectly bipartisan as a host.
Nonetheless, when I’m walking around Little Havana I feel, in the domain of my headphones and Klein’s show, like I’m in a kind of intellectual gym. The way he takes an issue and flays it, breaks things down, gets an answer from his guest, re-phrases it, counters or expands upon that answer, and then feeds it back to his guest….
It’s the shit.
What I think I noticed in today’s episode, though, was some self-consciousness on Klein’s end, while speaking with Sanders.
Maybe I’m imagining it. For all I know, they’ve spoken a dozen times prior to this.
But I do think that I sensed, in his questioning of Sanders and his pursuit of Sanders’s opinions, a retraction of self, of personality, and a pointed amplification of intellect.
I think I was hearing reverence.
But! That reverence did not translate to softening. He was sharp and intense and Sanders was rising to the occasion: acerbic in places, sarcastic in others; compassionate, on many points, but at no point did he seem particularly affable. And I’m wondering if Klein was maybe a bit cowed by it.
It was an interesting meta-experience.
On the one hand, I think I learned a lot about politics.
On the other, I think I learned a lot about Klein.