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Reviews and Essays

Variations on a Theme

February 15, 2020  | 

When a musician sits down and tries to play something for the first time, an extraordinary thing can happen, writes the critic Philip Kennicott. If he or she has heard the music before but never attempted it, a feeling not unlike the flush of romantic love can occur. For a few carefree minutes, there is …

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The Supreme Court’s Enduring Bias

February 11, 2020  | 

A template for popular books about the Supreme Court has emerged since Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren was published in 1979. It goes like this: Interweave case histories with biographical material on the justices and add anecdotes about their unseemly horse-trading. Then pack in as much gossip as you can. Journalists including Jeffrey …

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Stars and Bars

December 12, 2019  | 

Not even classical music, politest of art forms, is safe from politics. In the mid-20th century, when performers affiliated with the Third Reich visited American concert halls, patriotic audiences howled. The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad—whose husband was a lumber magnate and Nazi collaborator—had to sing in Philadelphia in 1947 amid stink bombs and protest signs. …

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An Enduring Vision of Tyranny

October 18, 2019  | 

The year 1984 came and went a generation ago, and the clocks did not strike 13. Big Brother’s face doesn’t stare down at us from giant posters. Masked police do not apprehend citizens guilty of thoughtcrime. England hasn’t been renamed Airstrip One, and Party slogans like “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery” and “Ignorance Is Strength” …

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Deconstructing Clarence Thomas

August 5, 2019  | 

The first thing to know about Clarence Thomas is that everybody at the Supreme Court loves him. Surprisingly, given his uncompromising public persona and his near-total silence during oral arguments, Thomas cultivates a jovial presence in the building’s austere marble hallways. Unlike most of his colleagues, he learns everyone’s name, from the janitors to each justice’s …

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No One Said It Would Be Easy

May 17, 2019  | 

As talk of impeachment fills the air, an exceptionally topical new book explores the failed effort to remove President Andrew Johnson from office in 1868. Johnson ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination and embarked on a perverse campaign to roll back the Union’s achievements during the Civil War. Racist mobs marauded unchecked through the …

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Slow Down, Holbrooke!

May 6, 2019  | 

The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke (1941–2010) had a knack, that is to say a weakness, for self-promotion. He lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize. He hinted broadly that he could serve as secretary of state. When one of his old friends died, Holbrooke petitioned the man’s widow to be included among the eulogists. During …

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The Ballad of Jean McConville

February 26, 2019  | 

Are the Troubles in Northern Ireland finally over? Almost 21 years have passed since the Good Friday Agreement formally ended the conflict. Self-rule has replaced supervision from afar, and a return to the terrifying days of car bombs and masked gunmen is unthinkable. Yet the border separating the Republic of Ireland from the North has …

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The Chief Justice’s Secret

February 1, 2019  | 

Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts gave the commencement address at the Cardigan Mountain School, in New Hampshire. The ninth-grade graduates of the all-boys school included his son, Jack. Parting with custom, Roberts declined to wish the boys luck. Instead he said that, from time to time, “I hope you will be treated unfairly, …

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The New Colossus

November 10, 2018  | 

Look into her face and you might be surprised: Lady Liberty is cold and hard. She has a strong jaw and a long, geometric nose, broad at the top and straight all the way down. Her lips above a square chin are full but unsmiling—frowning, almost scowling, and bearing perhaps a hint of menace. A certain …

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Long Fight for Equality

November 1, 2018  | 

After earning admission to Harvard Law School but before starting classes, Ruth Bader got married and became Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In light of her new status, the law school asked to see the financial statements of her husband’s father, as if in some pantomime of a dowry negotiation. He was wealthy. Harvard decided not to …

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Midwestern Battleground

September 15, 2018  | 

Fourteen years ago the pundit Thomas Frank asked what was the matter with Kansas. Today the question is, who sank Wisconsin? In “The Fall of Wisconsin,” the journalist Dan Kaufman laments the state’s recent trajectory and chronicles “the conservative war” on its political legacy. That legacy in a word is progressivism: seeded by socialist immigrants …

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