Kevin Katke was quite a man. He had no military training, no political background and no espionage experience. Nonetheless, his hatred of communists and can-do attitude made him the pre-eminent idiot savant of private American intelligence throughout the Reagan administration. It was a peripatetic career that culminated with him spearheading a bungled plot to oust a leftist regime in Grenada while holding down a full-time job at Macy’s. Call it the American dream.
I learnt this — along with dozens of other things to make you say, ‘I’m sorry, did I hear that correctly?’ — listening to Fiasco (Luminary), a political-history podcast whose second season retells the bizarre and shambolic story of the Iran-Contra scandal. For the show’s writers, Katke is a symbol, an emblem of the cocksure amateurism that characterised so many of Ronald Reagan’s foreign dealings.
Iran-Contra was originally two scandals. In October 1986, a plane was shot down over war-torn Nicaragua: the crash’s only survivor told the media that he had been dropping covert shipments of American weapons into the country to aid the Contras, a group of bloody-minded right-wing rebels. A month later it emerged that the Reagan administration was secretly selling arms to Iran, its sworn enemy, as part of an attempt to free the American hostages taken by Iranian proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The dénouement arrived, as our narrator explains, when the world learnt how the two were connected: money from the covert sale of arms was being funnelled into Nicaragua to fund the Contras. One secret had been stitched into another.
Everyone gravitates towards the visionary gleam of American politics. I can’t imagine a podcast like this being made about a British scandal — the near-identical Arms-to-Iraq affair, for instance. But there are downsides to our enchantment. Why, the show asks, didn’t Iran-Contra become another Watergate and bring down the presidency?
To which you might reply: with Nicaragua burning and Iran armed to the teeth, was Reagan’s fate really what mattered? Fiasco gives us little sense of the consequences of these policies abroad, preferring to chase the presidential will-o’-the-wisp. In doing so, it obliquely answers its own question: the difference between Iran-Contra and Watergate is that Watergate happened in Washington.
Fiasco is both broad and fine-grained, and often hard to follow. The names of officials fly thick and fast. It is a podcast for the politics mavens, the buffs and the diehards. My Mother’s Murder (Tortoise), by contrast, is a paragon of streamlined storytelling, whose four short episodes explain with devastating clarity the events surrounding the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Galizia is described as a Maltese investigative journalist. It would be truer to say that she was Maltese journalism: in the run-up to one election her blog was viewed 600,000 times day, more clicks than there are people in Malta. It took an entire team of journalists several years to complete the investigations she left unfinished. She was a phenomenon, and in 2017 she died in a car bombing outside her family home.
Now, Yorgen Fenech, one of Malta’s most powerful men and an intimate friend of the country’s former president, has been charged with arranging her murder. They arrested him on his yacht.
The podcast is written and narrated, as its title suggests, by Galizia’s son, Paul. His delivery is emotionless and flat-footed, an initially jarring feature that, in time, comes to underscore the spotless objectivity with which Galizia’s colleagues and family have carried on her legacy. Piece by piece, we begin to understand the complex story of why his mother died, and who was responsible.
Pathos emerges slowly from his relentless understatement. The most touching moment comes when he interviews his brother Matthew about the day their mother died, something they have never discussed before. After the official exchange ends, Paul apologises under his breath for asking such painful questions. ‘Don’t worry,’ Matthew replies. ‘It’s important.’ For a moment, they let themselves sound like what they are: two siblings mourning their mother.
The other thing I listened to this month — apart, of course, from the sound of my own voice singing an increasingly anxious ‘Happy Birthday’ over and over — was Good One (Vox Media), in which the journalist Jesse David Fox interviews stand-up comedians about a specific section of their act. It’s half shop talk, half therapy, with questions ranging from ‘how did you write this material’ to ‘do you think your relationship with your father has any bearing on this?’.
Occasionally insightful, it’s mostly just very funny: a podcast about jokes, featuring people who really know how to tell them. It appears that, contrary to the popular saying, laughter is only the second-best medicine. But goodness knows we could all do with a laugh.