What It Means to Be American
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Explore : AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Encounters

When the President’s Best and Brightest Were Also the Richest

The Practice of Tapping the Moneyed Elite Began with WWI—and Was Surprisingly Scandal-Free

Bernard Baruch, a financier and speculator known in his day as “the lone wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first so-called “dollar-a-year men” appointed by President Woodrow Wilson. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

By Charles Rappleye
February 10, 2017

From our earliest days we Americans have embraced leaders from among the ranks of the nation’s moneyed elite. Voters set the tone when they chose George Washington, the wealthiest man on the continent at the time, as the first president.

But that choice was accompanied by a healthy skepticism of the role of money in the halls of government. As the years went by, recurrent scandals prompted rounds of reform, fostering an intricate system of rules to promote ethical conduct.

The result …

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Encounters

Inaugurations Are More Than a Hail to the (New) Chief

How This Enduring Ritual Highlights the Strengths—and Tensions—that Define the American Presidency

Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and former President George W. Bush, right, sing the national anthem at the end of the swearing-in ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2009. Photo by Ron Edmonds/Associated Press.

By Richard M. Skinner
January 10, 2017

On Jan. 20, tens of millions of people will watch the pomp and spectacle of a uniquely American tradition. The hushed politicos in the pews of prayer service, the gleaming marching band brass on parade, the holy men and women delivering solemn invocations, the tuxes and gowns dancing their way through evening balls. And, of course, the next president of the United States of America, right hand up, left hand on the Bible, being sworn in for the highest office …

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Artifacts

The Swag—and Swagger—Behind American Presidential Campaigns

From a Coloring Book to a Painted Axe, Election Ephemera Remind Us of Hard-Fought Elections of Yore

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By Megan Smith
October 10, 2016

America’s founding is rooted in the power of the people to select their own leader. Efforts to sway the vote—via gritty campaigns driven by emotion, piles of cash, and brutal, drag-out battles—are equally American.

Years, decades and even centuries later, the essence of these fights can often be glimpsed through their ephemera—the signs, slogans, and campaign buttons that both bolster true believers and aim to coax the reluctant into the fold. These objects can suggest campaign strategy as well as the …

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Identities

Lady Bird Johnson Wielded Power With a Delicate Touch

LBJ’s First Lady Was a Trailblazer Who Flew Under the Radar

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By Kate Andersen Brower
June 28, 2016

“Somebody else can have Madison Avenue,” Lyndon Johnson once said. “I’ll take Bird”—that is, his wife, Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson. (She got her elegant nickname as a toddler, when a nanny said she was as “purty as a lady bird.”) The president recognized her political acumen. Not everyone did—or does. When Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way, about the fight for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, appeared on Broadway, some friends and advisers said that Lady …

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Ideas

Herbert Hoover’s Hidden Economic Acumen

What an Awful President's Secret Strength Could Teach Today's Financial Leaders About Capitalism

Rappleye LEAD 2 WIMTBA

By Charles Rappleye
May 31, 2016

From our nation’s inception, Americans have been a forward-looking people— youthful, optimistic, even revolutionary. Progress has been our byword, and the past has often been dismissed as stodgy, if not rudimentary. Few phrases are so thoroughly dismissive as to pronounce, of a person, a trend, or an idea, as, that, or they, are “history.”

This inclination is rooted in a sense of optimism, and the confidence that we learn as we go. But it can also reflect a degree of hubris, …

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