These shows explore the origin of Vladimir Putin’s two-decade reign in Russia, the authorities’ bungling response to Hurricane Katrina and more.
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Summer is traditionally a quiet time for politics, with most governments taking some form of recess during the hot months. But this year is proving to be a notable exception.
Since early June, public hearings held by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot have brought one revelation after another about Donald Trump’s conduct. July brought upheaval across the pond, as the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, was dramatically ousted by his own party. That same week saw the assassination of Shinzo Abe, a former Japanese prime minister, a tragic crime made all the more shocking by Japan’s low levels of gun violence.
It’s an unsettling time for governments around the world. And if you feel like leaning into the chaos, these six podcasts dig deep into political tales and scandals, including the origin of Vladimir Putin’s two-decade reign in Russia and the authorities’ bungling response to Hurricane Katrina.
It’s hard to encapsulate the impact of a catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed lives, homes and livelihoods on an unimaginable scale in Louisiana during the summer of 2005. This searing series from The Atlantic approaches the disaster by focusing first on individual stories — like that of Le-Ann, a 14-year-old tomboy whose life was transformed overnight by the hurricane — before unpacking the dysfunctional government response that made Katrina “an unnatural disaster” (as the podcast’s tagline has it). The series, reported and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, an Atlantic senior editor, combines interviews with survivors and officials, including Michael Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to create a detailed picture of everything that went wrong. Beginning way back in 1856 with the evocative story of the Last Island hurricane (the first of many harbingers of things to come in Louisiana), “Floodlines” is a tightly structured and comprehensive chronicle of a catastrophe that’s surprisingly easy to binge in a single sitting.
Starter episode: “Antediluvian”
President Vladimir V. Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has plunged Europe into societal and economic turmoil, and represents the apex of a grudge the Russian leader has held ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Presented by Gavin Esler, a BBC journalist, “The Big Steal” traces the roots of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, and how his ascent to power began when he was a KGB officer based in East Germany. Beginning with the story of the clash between Putin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian businessman who is now in self-exile after being imprisoned for 10 years on tax evasion and fraud charges, “The Big Steal” offers plenty of troubling insight into Putin’s psyche, and is essential listening for anyone trying to make sense of his actions.
Starter episode: “The Rivals”
The story of the night Ted Kennedy was at the wheel in a deadly car crash has re-entered the spotlight in recent years — it was adapted as a movie starring Jason Clarke in 2017, and inspired the climax of an Emmy-winning episode of HBO’s “Succession.” This podcast from People magazine and Cadence13 re-examines the events of July 18, 1969, when Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick Island, Mass., killing his secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne. In addition to the accident, the series looks at the mysteries of Kennedy’s behavior afterward — for instance, why he waited until the following morning to report what had happened. Though it doesn’t claim to have all the answers, “Cover-Up” offers a fascinating insight into the dynamics of the Kennedy family, the elaborate power structure that surrounds it, and how the decades-long unanswered questions of Chappaquiddick have haunted those who were there.
Starter episode: “10 Hours Later”
To use an appropriately English phrase, this deft series from Wondery does exactly what it says on the tin, delivering wry and detailed retellings of political controversies. “British Scandal” kicked off last spring with a five-part series delving into the slaying of Alexander Litvinenko, the K.G.B. agent-turned-defector who died after drinking a radioactive cup of tea given to him by a former comrade. Like many of the scandals covered, this story is harrowing and absurd in equal measure — Litvinenko’s killers inadvertently left a huge trail of radiation behind them across hotels, bars and public transit in central London. Each episode intersperses a gripping central narrative with quick-witted asides from the hosts, Alice Levine and Matt Forde, who find the humor in each saga without making light of the often nightmarish reality.
Starter episode: “The Litvinenko Affair — Poisoned”
You don’t need any familiarity with Australian political history to get hooked on this docuseries, which chronicles one of the most dramatic moments in the country’s history. On Nov. 11, 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was removed from office by representatives of Queen Elizabeth II. This unprecedented act was viewed by many as a constitutional coup, and sparked fierce debate about Australia’s supposed independence from Britain. Though some mysteries about Whitlam’s dismissal may never be solved, “The Eleventh” lays out the complex back story and repercussions in enthralling fashion.
Starter episode: “Sweet Spot”
In recent years, the presidential legacy of George W. Bush (by his own admission, according to some reports) has benefited significantly by comparison to Donald Trump. Thanks to Trump’s disregard for political norms, and the broader dissolution of civility in Washington, it has become easier for some liberals to look back on the Bush era more generously — but this meticulous series, from Somethin’ Else and Sony Music Entertainment, aims to put a stop to that. Hosted by the veteran journalist David Dimbleby, “The Fault Line” explores the 18-month period between 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War, and how Bush and Tony Blair, the British prime minister, added a divisive chapter to the two countries’ “special relationship.” Even if you think you already know every detail of this story, think again.
Starter episode: “The Truth Shall Set You Free”