Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Thomas Jefferson Hour"

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Your Podthinker was once involved in an elementary school project requiring each and every student to spend a few weeks learning about a famous person of their choice. The sum of these efforts was a morning during which refreshments were served and the kids milled around, in costume and ostensibly in character, attempting to answer questions posed them by the parents who showed up. The kids' grasp on the facts of their subjects' lives proved shaky; representatively, the boy dressed as Einstein had a lot to say about the "theory of reality". (Your Podthinker dressed as Neil Armstrong but found the former astronaut's retirement hang gliding hobby more interesting than his time in space and thus had to bluff when asked who, exactly, it was who hit that golf ball around the moon.)

The Thomas Jefferson Hour [iTunes link] is more or less the same deal, sans the refreshments and certainly sans the incompetence. It helps that Clay Jenkinson, "award-winning humanities scholar" and portrayer of Jefferson, is not a fourth-grader. Indeed, his competence in the role far surpasses even that of the sharpest fifth- or sixth-graders. But why beat around the bush? It's no exaggeration to say that Jenkinson delivers quite possibly the finest podcast-based portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in recent memory.

The format typically runs as follows: for the first half of the program, interviewer David Swenson is joined by Thomas Jefferson, late-18th and early-19th century intellectual, enthusiastic Enlightenment polymath, University of Virginia founder, third president of the United States of America and face on the two-dollar bill, in the temporal guise of Clay Jenkinson. For the second half, Swenson is once again joined by the body and voice of Jenkinson, though not channeling Jefferson, to reflect upon the themes of the week's discussion and Jefferson's previously expressed thoughts on those themes. Though Jenkinson is apparently not briefed on any discussion's subject matter beforehand, he never fails to respond in Jeffersonian depth; no surprise, perhaps, since he's recorded over seven hundred of these shows.

Yes. Over seven hundred, 147 of which are available right there for the downloading on iTunes. The subjects range far and wide, from the events of Jefferson's life to Jefferson's broad outlook on human matters to Jefferson's views on current events as interpreted through his own life, experience and historical perspective. All subjects are fair game for conversation: American issues such as taxes [MP3], Jefferson's personal passions for gardening [MP3], books and music [MP3] and Barack Obama's inauguration speech [MP3]. That's a tiny, near-random selection of topics; if Jefferson was likely to have thought about it or would be likely to think about it today, Jenkinson, as Jefferson, has probably expounded on it.

It takes a certain (large) amount of admiration to dedicate so much of one's life to impersonate a man on the airwaves and the internet so comprehensively and for so long. The danger such a project faces is turning into hagiography: the interlocutor assert's Jefferson's greatness, Jefferson's admirer as Jefferson modestly consents, and around and around it goes. Fortunately, The Thomas Jefferson Hour avoids this; Jenkinson openly acknowledges the man's many imperfections — spending recklessly, owning slaves — while at the same time refusing to downplay his irrefutably impressive displays of intellect and diligence. How terribly difficult it would be to listen to a few hours of conversation with the fellow and not want to get to know him better. It's perhaps dorky to come away from an experience claiming to have been galvanized to learn more about the founding fathers, but there it is.

Vital stats:
Format: conversations with Thomas Jefferson and a Thomas Jefferson scholar
Running since: quite some time ago, it seems
Duration: ~50m-1hm
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 147

[Podthinker Colin Marshall still has what Thomas Jefferson never could: an e-mail address, colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts on the forum here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]