Democracy Dies in Darkness

On Leadership

James K. Polk: Getting it done

March 20, 2016 at 2:10 PM

(Backgrounds by Craig & Karl for The Washington Post; Photo by Amy King/The Washington Post)

In a feat basically never before or again accomplished in the White House, President James K. Polk managed to execute nearly every single goal he established for himself at the outset of his term in office. So why is he rarely considered among the great American presidents?

In the newest podcast episode of "Presidential," we explore that question with historian Amy Greenberg, a professor at Penn State University. Greenberg explains Polk's key traits—in particular, his intense work ethic and his willingness to lie—that made his one term, from 1845 to 1849, so effective. Yet she also reflects on why "effectiveness" may not be the right gauge for greatness.

Musician John Linnell, of the band They Might Be Giants, also makes a guest appearance to discuss the song he composed about James K. Polk and what inspired him to write it.

Listen to the episode here:

In previous episodes of the Presidential podcast, we've explored topics like the catchy campaign song of William Henry Harrison and the violent life of Andrew Jackson. The podcast is hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section.

As listeners tune in each week, the podcast reveals the ways in which our collective sense of what's 'presidential' has evolved over the years and how each president—esteemed, loathed or nearly forgotten—has something to tell us about what it takes to hold the nation's highest office.

A new episode comes out every Sunday. Here's how to follow along:


Lillian Cunningham is the creator and host of the "Presidential" and "Constitutional" podcasts. She was previously a feature writer for and editor of The Washington Post's On Leadership section, for which she received two Emmy Awards for her interviews with leaders in politics, business and the arts.

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