What makes Gettysburg America’s most hallowed ground? A delegation of Russian historians at the height of the Cold War seemed to know, when American historians had forgotten.

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Frederick Bailey was born into slavery in 1818. With determination, courage, some help from others, and good luck, he managed to escape to freedom when he was 20 years old. He made his way to Massachusetts, gave himself a new name, Frederick Douglass, started working as a free man and very soon gave a triumphant first speech to an abolitionist group, which launched him on a career as an anti-slavery speaker and writer.

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America takes pride in being a land of opportunity—for everyone, including those who suffer the impairments of nature, accident, or tragedy. For those with disabilities, local communities can be supportive. Smart technology can assist. Government can do some things to give them a hand up. Above all, there is the spirit and determination of the individual. And for the blind, there are — guide dogs.

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An old friend of mine has written a book, a very good and deeply learned book, about America. The book is about those truths and the blessings that flow from them, that extend across and bind together generations of Americans in noble civic friendship.

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In 1861, the young Mark Twain set out on a great American adventure, a stagecoach ride from St. Joe, Missouri to Carson City in Nevada Territory. Today, he would ride in an SUV guided by a factory-installed GPS system. The adventure would be even greater!

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Thomas Jefferson and John Adams celebrate their last Fourth of July.

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Most of us understand the language of poker, even if we’ve never played. We know what a “poker face” is, what it means to be “all in” or to “have an ace up your sleeve.” Since Kenny Rogers’s 1978 hit song “The Gambler,” millions of Americans have been singing about poker. It is very much a game of the American West. It has the frontier spirit in it, and it is somehow about life and death and everything in between.

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A poem comes to a poet, and he sends it orphaned out into the world, to take its chances. It never knows who or what it might inspire or how it might become part of the world it has stepped into. Stephen Vincent Benet sent his poem, “American Names,” out into the world in 1927. Years later the first line inspired a hit song for a new movie. The last line became the title of a best-selling book, then of a song and a movie. All this and more, unexpectedly, from a couple of lines from an orphaned poem.

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The Literary Club of Cincinnati was founded on October 29, 1849 and is—as far as I know—the oldest continuously operating Literary Club in America. Members come from all professions and persuasions; what brings them together is their abiding regard for the written word. Attending one of their Monday evening gatherings reminds one how essential private clubs and “associations” have always been to American democracy.

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Back in that spring and summer of 1775, when he was just seven years old and the War for Independence swirled around him and his family, John Quincy Adams remembered, “[my mother] taught me to repeat daily after the Lord’s prayer [the Ode of Collins] before rising from bed.”

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It’s true that memory rests lightly on Los Angeles. But turn east from Sepulveda Boulevard just north of Wilshire onto Constitution Avenue, and you immediately recede from the goings and comings of the eternal present and enter a sanctuary of remembrance.

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It is hard to know where facts give way to legend in the case of Wild Bill; but some of the things he did in truth, as a frontiersman and lawman, may have exceeded the legends or at least deserved to become legends. The case of Wild Bill seems custom made for the immortal and mystifying words of the editor of the Shinbone Star, in the classic John Ford film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

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During peak hours, in the 300 block of Brand Boulevard in the city of Glendale, in what is called “Metropolitan Los Angeles,” you might see a line of eager people making their way into Porto’s Bakery & Café. You might see a similar scene in Buena Park, Burbank, Downey, or West Covina. Porto’s is a many-splendored gift to the Southland. And it’s not just the empanadas; it’s the spirit of freedom and enterprise. Rosa and Raul Porto and their children brought this gift to America from Cuba a lifetime ago.

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Helen Keller was 14 years old when she first met the world-famous Mark Twain in 1894. They became fast friends for life. Keller, who was deaf and blind, loved to listen to Twain tell his stories by putting her fingers to his lips. As she said of Twain, “He knew that we do not think with eyes and ears, and that our capacity for thought is not measured by five senses. He kept me always in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him.”

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Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…The Man of Steel fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.

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When you read Abraham Lincoln, you somehow become more than yourself, you become better. And his words want to be read aloud, too. Start with the Second Inaugural—so beautiful—and the Gettysburg Address—his short ones. They are American poems.

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Each year on April 15, all players in Major League Baseball turn in their regular uniforms and wear one adorned with the number 42. On no other day does any player wear that number; it has been permanently retired. This custom, unique in North American professional sports, has been adopted to honor a man who not only changed a sport, but helped change a country.

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The detective hero, and the detective novel, are not an American invention. But a few authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler made them as American as apple pie. The attitude of Chandler’s hard-edged, soft-hearted, wise-cracking hero and the atmosphere of Chandler’s Los Angeles were as unmistakably American as Humphrey Bogart, who played Marlowe in the 1946 film version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep.

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If you need a little poetry in your life—and who doesn’t?—Billy Collins can be a good place to start. Collins writes unblushingly to attract new readers to poetry and to encourage those who have given up to come back. And he is famously funny. So much so that, because he reads his poems so amusingly and his readings have been so successful and well-attended, he has been called—not always as a compliment—a “stand-up poet.”

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This episode is about an American warship that carries on the name and the work of an American warrior. The ship and her crew operate in more than 48 million square miles of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The area is more than 14 times the size of the continental United States; it includes 36 maritime countries, 50% of the world’s population, and the world’s 5 largest foreign armed forces.

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