What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

How Medicare Both Salved and Scarred American Healthcare

The 52-Year-Old Federal Program's Successes Reflect a Complex Legacy

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare Bill into law while former President Harry S. Truman, right, observes during a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. on July 30, 1965. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

By Julian E. Zelizer
February 17, 2017

Before Congress passed Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 millions of elderly Americans lacked health insurance. They could not afford to go to the hospital, nor could they cover the cost of a physician. Medical breakthroughs ranging from antibiotics to new surgical procedures kept increasing the cost of health care, but the elderly were left out in the cold, and were unable to buy the insurance that was being given to workers in manufacturing jobs.

For them, just going to the hospital …

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How the Passport Became an Improbable Symbol of American Identity

What Began as an Informal Means of Introduction Became the Ultimate Government-Sanctioned Authenticator

Anna Karen Ramirez, 19, poses with her passport at her home in Alamo, Texas in 2009. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

By Craig Robertson
February 6, 2017

It was originally a European tradition, not ours. But in 1780, needing a more formal way to send former Continental Congressman Francis Dana from France to Holland, Benjamin Franklin used his own printing press to create a new document. The single-sheet letter, written entirely in French, politely requested that Dana and his servant be allowed to pass freely as they traveled for the next month. Franklin signed and sealed the page himself and handed it off to Dana, creating one …

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How Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse Elevated the Everyman

The Disneyfication of American History Began Long Before the Theme Parks

Souvenir Disneyland scrapbook with Frontierland’s iconic symbols from 1955. Courtesy of Bethanee Bemis.

By Bethanee Bemis
January 3, 2017

There are few symbols of pure Americana more potent than the Disney theme parks. To walk down any of the destinations’ manicured Main Streets, U.S.A.—as hundreds of thousands of visitors do each day—is to walk though a particular vision of America’s collective memory. It’s small-town values. It’s optimism. It’s energy. It’s innovation. It’s a certain kind of innocence. It is by design, the story of the “American Way”—and one that has played a dominant role in shaping the collective …

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1936, When “The Dictator” FDR Was Bent On Constitutional Destruction

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

Roosevelt Wallace

By David Sehat
October 10, 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 it was far from clear there would be a second. The mandate from his 1932 …

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American Segregation Started Long Before the Civil War

How the Founders' Revolutionary Ideology Laid the Groundwork

Guyatt on race LEAD

By Nicholas Guyatt
September 12, 2016

Segregation remains an intractable force in American life, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed racial separation in America’s schools. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that more than 20 million students of color attend public schools that are racially or socioeconomically isolated. This figure has increased in recent decades, despite a raft of federal and state initiatives.

Major cities like New York and Chicago struggle with high levels of residential segregation, …

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The 1900 World’s Fair Produced Dazzling Dynamos, Great Art, and Our Current Conversation About Technology

Henry Adams’ Influential but Largely Forgotten Warning About Science Superseding Soul is Especially Relevant Today

Molella on world fair LEAD

By Art Molella
August 30, 2016

Debates rage today about the risks and benefits of modern technology. Driverless cars, the use of drones in warfare and commerce, the deployment of robots in place of human soldiers, surgery by robotic rather than human hands. The Internet of Things that puts digital devices in just about everything. Artificial intelligence not only assisting but superseding the human brain. Genetic manipulation of food, organisms, and human parts. Human cloning—even the manufacture of human beings.

The National Institutes of Health recently …

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NASA’s Other Moonshot Helped Revolutionize Marketing

The Apollo Moon Landing Wasn't Supposed to Be Broadcast, Until a Team of Ex-Reporters Pushed for Live TV

Jurek on nasa LEAD

By Richard Jurek
August 16, 2016

On July 20, 1969, an estimated 600 million people watched and listened in real time as astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the surface of the moon.

With the drama unfolding on their television screens, the attention of millions was focused on a single event—a single step, really—for the first time. It was one of the first grand, extended global social media events of our modern era, much bigger than a Super Bowl Sunday.

But landing on …

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Before Donald Trump, Wendell L. Willkie Upended the GOP Primary in 1940

The Populist Businessman Known as “The Barefoot Wall Street Lawyer” Took Over His Party’s Convention in Philadelphia

Wendell Willkie, Republican presidential candidate, parades through his hometown, Elwood, Ind., Aug. 17, 1940.  He was en route to a local park where he delivered his acceptance speech as the party's nominee.  (AP Photo/John D. Collins)

By R. Craig Sautter
July 26, 2016

Later this week, the historic nomination of the first female candidate for president by a major political party at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is sure to generate considerable hoopla. But, as with all U.S. presidential conventions in recent decades, the outcome is already certain.

Such predictability was not always the case. In fact, three-quarters of a century ago, the City of Brotherly Love played host to a very different convention—one whose outcome was so unexpected it became known as …

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Why Do Americans Put Pets, Not Their Owners, on Trial?

The Bizarre History Behind Our Current Canine Legal System Is Full of Rats, Pigs, and Moles

Grimm LEAD

By David Grimm
July 12, 2016

When a Japanese Akita named Taro bit the lip of a 10-year-old New Jersey girl in 1991, police seized the dog and a judge ordered him destroyed. Taro’s owners appealed to a higher court, while the canine, incarcerated at a county sheriff’s office, awaited execution. Newspapers dubbed him the “death row dog.”

A few years later, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire judge, in a modern version of excommunication, ordered a Labrador mix named Prince to vacate the city after killing a rooster. …

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With Free State of Jones, Hollywood’s Civil War Comes Closer to History’s

Pop Culture May Finally Be Ready to Surrender the Myth of a Noble, Confederate Lost Cause

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.

By Victoria Bynum
June 23, 2016

The setting is the piney woods of Civil War Jones County, Mississippi. The white farmer Newt Knight leads a band of deserters against Confederate forces. An enslaved woman, Rachel, lends invaluable aid to this Knight Band. After gaining her freedom, she spends the rest of her life as Newt’s partner.

These events are a great story—and even better history. This summer, Free State of Jones will bring to movie theaters across the country a thrilling and relatively unknown tale of …

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