What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Ideas

How Ronald Reagan Peddled Laundry Detergent

Borax Promised Americans a Ticket to the Middle Class and a Mythic Piece of the Western Frontier

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By Kim Stringfellow
May 16, 2016

One fall evening in 1881, a prospector named Henry Spiller knocked on the door of Aaron and Rosie Winters’ modest stone cabin about 40 miles due east of Death Valley and asked to stay the night.

After dinner Spiller exuberantly showed off a sample of “cotton ball,” a weird, semi-translucent rock formation containing borax. Spiller suggested to his hosts that fortunes awaited those lucky enough to find a generous deposit of the stuff. He showed them how to test for …

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What Does ‘Natural-Born’ American Even Mean?

The Seemingly Rigid Requirement for the Presidency Didn't Disqualify the Nation's British-Born Founders

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By Don H. Doyle
May 10, 2016

When choosing among presidential candidates, Americans find plenty to debate about their fitness for office, experience, and economic and foreign policies. But the framers of the Constitution made no mention of such qualifications; they were primarily concerned that the president be truly American. And one of the ways that a president counted as truly American was to be, in the Constitution’s phrase, a “natural-born citizen.”

In the modern era, this phrase has been particularly contentious. There was the clamor over whether …

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The Chicago Physician Who Understood the Paradox of Radiation

Emil Herman Grubbe Discovered That X-Rays Could Cure, but He Was Right for the Wrong Reasons

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By Timothy J. Jorgensen
May 4, 2016

Radiation is a paradox. On the one hand, it’s a lifesaving tool. As powerful energy that can pass through solid matter, it’s often used in medicine for everything from diagnostic X-rays to cancer therapy. But radiation also can be deadly. If handled carelessly, it causes cancer.

No one was better witness to the split personality of radiation than Chicago physician Emil Herman Grubbe, who lived from 1875 to 1960. He was the first to recognize that radiation might cure cancer. …

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How ‘Bambi’ Hoodwinked American Environmentalists

The Sentimental Disney Cartoon Cemented the Myth That Man and Nature Can’t Coexist

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By Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann
April 19, 2016

Perking up her ears, the dog was the first to notice them, just a few blocks from our homes in east-central Illinois. One-by-one the does strolled from the woods into the meadow. They eyed us without lifting their tails, seemingly habituated to this neighborhood. Their appearance awed us but also prompted different responses. Joseph recalled long past hunting trips four miles south in a tree stand overlooking a soybean field and tried to pick out the fattest doe in the …

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The Mad Men Who Invented the Modern Political Attack Ad

Since 1964, Advertising Agencies Have Sold Presidential Candidates As If They Were Cars or Soap

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By Robert Mann
April 12, 2016

On September 7, 1964, a 60-second TV ad changed American politics forever. A 3-year-old girl in a simple dress counted as she plucked daisy petals in a sun-dappled field. Her words were supplanted by a mission-control countdown followed by a massive nuclear blast in a classic mushroom shape. The message was clear if only implicit: Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was a genocidal maniac who threatened the world’s future. Two months later, President Lyndon Johnson won easily, and the emotional political …

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Donald and Bernie, Meet Andrew Jackson

The Seventh President Stoked the Anti-Elitist Rancor That Is Now Engulfing the 2016 Election

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By Harry Watson
March 28, 2016

We hear a lot about populism these days. Throughout this primary season, headlines across the country have proclaimed the successes of the “populist” contenders, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Without embracing the populist label, moreover, candidates in both parties had already adopted populist tactics by branding their opponents as tools of the “establishment.”

But what is populism, anyway? There is no easy answer, for “populism” describes a political style more than a specific set of ideas or policies, and most …

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Let’s Not Pretend That ‘Hamilton’ Is History

America's Founders Have Never Enjoyed More Sex Appeal, but the Hit Musical Cheats Audiences by Making Democracy Look Easy

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By Nancy Isenberg
March 17, 2016

Hamilton is the hottest show on Broadway, filled with hip-hop songs, R&B rhythms, and tri-cornered hats. Its multi-racial cast portrays the pantheon of Revolutionary greats, and for many a starry-eyed critic this sing-along with the founders offers “a factually rigorous historical drama.” Those are the words of Jody Rosen in The New York Times, and he is not alone. As an academic who spent years studying Aaron Burr before producing a scholarly biography, I can say emphatically that rules of …

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How Fashion Overcame the Transatlantic Divide

Celebrities Erased National Differences in Women's Style, but American Men Still Refuse to Dress With British Sophistication

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By Lauren Goldstein Crowe
March 11, 2016

An American woman I know in London recently posted on Facebook about being grateful to be out of the country during the current presidential election. That prompted a feisty response about American exceptionalism from a friend of a friend in Texas: “Sorry, I refuse to buy into your anti American socialist/communist rhetoric. We ARE better than everybody else, by far… If you believe otherwise, you are delusional. The entire world DOES revolve around us, from our economy… to our culture, …

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Would Brits Really Rather Watch Fussy Old Lord Grantham Than a Dashing Winston Churchill?

The Producers of 'Downton Abbey’ Want to Tell the Wartime Prime Minister's Riveting Backstory, but a Half Century of Disparagement May Have Taken Its Toll

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By Michael Shelden
March 11, 2016

If you were disappointed to see Downton Abbey come to an end on PBS this past weekend, the good news is that the producers of this sensation on both sides of the Atlantic have optioned the rights to another series featuring an even more dazzling cast of Edwardian English aristocrats.

In this one, the characters are all drawn from real life. There is a fabulously wealthy heiress, a beautiful actress, a boyish cad married to a woman almost twice his …

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Does the British Empire Still Have a Grip on America?

From the Coins We Count to the Democracy We Practice, the Mother Country’s Influence Is Holding Strong in Our Demographic Whirlpool

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March 8, 2016

In 1776, on the brink of his first battle with British troops after America declared independence, George Washington gave a spirited defense of breaking from British rule. “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army,” he told his troops. “Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of a brave resistance, or the most abject submission.”

Needless to say, two and a half centuries later, America views British …

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