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American Culture’s Unlikely Debt to A British Scientist

By | November 16, 2016

In 1835, through an unlikely turn of events, the young United States became the beneficiary of the estate of one James Smithson, a British scientist of considerable means who had never set foot on American soil. The gift of $500,000 (about $12 million today) carried the stipulation that it be used to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
How amazing—and baffling—this …

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Why Campaign Buttons Will Survive the Digital Age

By | November 7, 2016

On April 30, 1789, enthusiastic onlookers filled the streets, dangled out of windows, and perched on rooftops to catch a glimpse of George Washington as he made his way through the streets of New York to Federal Hall to assume the new office of President of the United States.
As at many political events that would follow, there were vendors along the procession route busily …

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The Institution of Multiple Presidential Nom Meetings Might Seem Tired—But It’s Actually New

By | November 4, 2016

Today, presidential debates between candidates are considered fixtures of our political scene. Though they generate the occasional dust-up—like Donald Trump complaining that some of this year’s debates conflict with high-profile sporting events, or third-party candidates demanding places on the stage—it’s hard to imagine election season without them.
But I can attest from personal experience that not long ago our presidential debates were fragile. During the 1988 …

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The Monster That Stoked Americans’ Devotion to Faith Over Science

By | November 1, 2016

One Sunday afternoon in October of 1869, Stubb Newell, a farmer in upstate New York, invited his neighbors over to view the remarkable discovery he made while digging a well on his Cardiff farm. When they arrived, he showed them the body of a ten-foot-tall “petrified” man, lying at the bottom of a shallow pit where Newell had instructed workmen to dig.
The giant was a …

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Growing Up in Los Angeles, But Speaking New Orleans as a Second Language

By | October 15, 2016

For a time, most likely between the ages of 5 and 8, I floated around with a secret: a dogged yet utterly erroneous notion that my family spoke a second language—on my mother’s side at least.
The assumption arrived out of nowhere, planted itself, and for a while, took root. I let it bloom. Quietly, I kept a list in my head. My mother would refer …

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Garage Parties in Hawaii Aren’t Just Any Party

By | October 14, 2016

Growing up in Hawaii in the 1970s, my family and our neighbors spent New Year’s Eve roasting a pig in our driveway. We set up the spit and used corrugated tin metal sheets to block the wind and contain the fire. The ancient Hawaiians prepared much of their cooked foods in an imu, or underground oven, but we lived on one of the ridgelines overlooking …

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The Fight Over the New Deal and Roosevelt’s Second Term Launched a New Style of American Political Attack

By | October 13, 2016

True or False? Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed to be a conservative defender of the nation’s founding ideals.
If you answered “both,” you’d be correct. We don’t tend to think of FDR as a conservative today, and at certain points he would have rejected the label, but in 1936 that was how he wanted to be understood. He was three years into his first term and …

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How One of the Best American Friends Russia Ever Had Colored Our Cold War Strategy

By | October 12, 2016

The enduring irony of George F. Kennan’s life was just how much the architect of America’s Cold War “containment” strategy—aimed at stopping Soviet expansionism—loved Russia.
Kennan arguably played a larger role in shaping the U.S.’s view of a major foreign power, and thus our relations with that power, than any other American in modern history. That the power in question was the Soviet Union, …

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This Election Isn’t the Only Crazy One, Hoover Skirted Scandal to Win the White House

By | October 12, 2016

It was not the craziest election of the 20th Century, but it might have been the strangest.
One candidate was a natural politician, affable and gregarious, a true man-of-the-people who favored flashy suits and a trademark derby hat. Reporters loved him and admirers thronged his events.
The other contender could easily be classified a misanthrope. He was a miserable public speaker who hated crowds and disdained the …

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Remembering 1876, the Year of the Inconclusive Vote

By | October 12, 2016

We are told that this year’s presidential election is unprecedented in many ways. The American voters are faced with the choice between an unlikely candidate who has been repudiated by many within his own party, and a seasoned politician whom the head of the FBI characterized as “extremely careless.” The tumultuousness of the race makes many long for the good old days when elections were …

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