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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, November 29, 2020

How Times Have Changed

 I can't remember the first time that I read a review in  the Sunday New York Times book review, but it must have been more than 60 years ago.  That section and the whole Sunday paper have been a fixture in every house or room I have ever lived in, except in the two years that I lived in Africa where we never saw it.  (We lived on Time and Newsweek, which arrived several days late.)  I have been reading that section,  like the somewhat younger New  York Review of Books, for so long, it has become a kind of barometer of cultural and political change.  Never have I seen that more than this morning, when I read the enormous review of the first volume of Barack Obama's memoir, A Promised Land, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Please read carefully as I try to explain why.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wikipedia informs me, is 43 years old. She was born in Nigeria, the daughter of a professor and an administrator in a university, and came to the United States for college.  The review shows her to be an extremely capable writer, and she is poised and articulate [sic]  in an interview that I am listening to as I write.  (I know some readers will think that I just committed a micro-aggression by referring to a black woman as articulate, but I have known too many inarticulate and articulate men and women, both white and black, to worry about that.)  Those, however, are not the characteristics that have me scratching my head about her selection to review Obama's book.  What struck me is that she is principally a fiction writer, the author of four novels--although she has also written two long essays on feminism.   Certainly I can imagine female historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, or an immigrant like Henry Kissinger, or a black historian like David Levering Lewis, publishing a review of a presidential memoir in a leading forum, but I think it would hard to find such a review by a novelist in earlier decades.  Why, then, was she selected?   The reason is clear: it reflects a long intellectual shift that has recently accelerated, as illustrated both by the Times's own 1619 Project and the events this year that followed the death of George Floyd.   Consciously or unconsciously, the Times editors evidently accept the idea that the most important thing about Barack Obama is his race, and that only another black person could do justice to it.  That was far more important than finding someone who could put the successes and failures of his eight years in the White House in a broader historical context.  My own academic profession is partly to blame: with rare exceptions like Jeremy Suri at UT Austin, we don't turn out serious political historians any more.  In this case, however, the Times didn't seek one out.

Not surprisingly, the review focuses on the personal revelations within Obama's book, and what it reveals more generally about his character.  Joe Biden has described Obama as the most self-aware man that he has ever known, and Adichie's selections certainly  tend to confirm this.  He is one of those remarkable people who continually do and observe at the same time.  That sets him apart from many of our greatest Presidents.  Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy were too busy acting, it seems to me, to have been so self-reflective, although Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson,  Lyndon Johnson and Lincoln resembled Obama more in this respect.  Oddly enough, however, I cannot remember Obama ever comparing himself to another President.  (I do plan to read the memoir myself, which I have not, and I will be looking for that when I do.  I have read the New Yorker excerpt about the early stages of the debate over the ACA.)  She also gives  him a lot of credit for ambivalence about his own ambition, and suggests that his pursuit of the presidency was less than whole-hearted. There I am skeptical: no one goes through what is necessary to reach the White House who is not determined to get there.

Adichie's account of Obama in power, however--which only covers the President's first term, like the book itself--is extraordinarily incomplete, much more so than the book itself could possibly be.  She hardly says a single word about the financial crisis of 2008 that brought him into power or about his response to it in office.  For me as an historian his single most important decision was to regard the crisis as a temporary foul-up  that could be managed within the existing framework, rather than as overwhelming evidence that American and world capitalism had been heading in a disastrous direction for decades--but she has nothing to say about any of this.  More generally she  recognizes, and does not disapprove of, his centrism, and accepts his explanation that the public option had to be dropped from the ACA in order to pass it.  She is nearly as taciturn about foreign policy, simply noting (needlessly, one might think), that Obama disapproved of the second Iraq war, and believed Afghanistan to be a war of necessity--without asking whether that necessity required the increase in our troop presence that he almost immediately put through.  "And in case anyone was wondering," she writes in a strange sentence, " he admires the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush for managing the end of the Gulf War."  I find it hard to believe that Obama didn't say something about the disastrous decision of intervene in Libya or his broader response to the Arab Spring, but nothing about those episodes found it way into Adichie's review. Both of those crises took place during his first term, which this volume of the memoirs covers.   Space did not determine these omissions.  At almost 5000 words, this may be the longest single review that I have ever read in the Sunday New York Times.

In other ways, though, the review provides what the Times editors evidently were looking for. Adichie praises Obama's attitudes towards women, which she traces to his relationships to his mother and grandmother.  And then, late in the review, she writes, "But it is on the subject of race that I wish that he had more to say now."  We see in what follows another example of the mainstreaming of political race theory.  On the one hand, she recognizes and very grudgingly accepts that Obama, to be nominated and elected, could not  present himself primarily as a black candidate focused on black concerns.  "There is something so  unfair about this," she writes, "and yet one realizes that this approach was probably the most pragmatic, the only way to win, much as pragmatism brings with it a foul smell."  Many, though far from all, black intellectuals now regard it as their role, if not their duty, to focus exclusively on the issues they believe to be most important to black people--but could a presidential candidate in 2008, when 74% of the electorate was white and 13% black, conceivably be elected by using (or endorsing) that kind of rhetoric?  All groups, Adichie claims, have practiced special interest politics--but John F. Kennedy in 1960 had to proclaim that his Catholic religion would not affect any decisions he might make as President, which he did both honestly and categorically.  

Here we encounter one of the key principles of critical race and gender theory:  that the oppressed have a sacred right to express all their emotions loudly and clearly at all times, simply because they are oppressed.  Referring to Obama's account of Congressman Joe Wilson shouting, "You lie!" during his State of the Union address, she writes, "His downplaying of the matter at the time is understandable--he is a Black man who cannot afford anger"--but regrets that now, in  his book, he does not explore  the theoretical implications of this incident more thoroughly, that it was yet another instance of "a white man disrespecting a Black man."  Since Adams and Jefferson, and through  Jackson, Lincoln, FDR and Truman, presidents in controversial times have been subject to the most virulent and insulting attacks, including on the floor of Congress.  All those men understood that the performance of their office on behalf of the whole American people required them not to respond in kind, but to  speak in an entirely different kind of language, and to try to rely on rationality, not emotion.  It  has occurred to too few of us, I believe, that the white politician who has taken the creed of black and female activists to heart and treated the expression of his own rage as a sacred duty is none other than Donald Trump.  No claim of oppression can relieve any of us from the duty to try to lower the temperature of our public life.   Until 1966 or so, civil rights leaders understood that better than anyone.

The Times editors have endorsed the idea that race and gender are primary to any issue, and that everything else is secondary, to everything: politics, art and culture.  Those ideas began and grew in academia, which they have dominated for some time.  In a future post I will discuss the issue of exactly how and why this has happened.  In conclusion, I do not regret the Times decision to assign the review to   Adichie because she is female, black, or an immigrant.  I regret it because she did not make a real attempt to address most of the key issues of Obama's first term, or to place it in historical context--and because I think that is what all the Times's readers really need.                   


Saturday, November 21, 2020

What We Have Lost

 We have good news this week.  Kenneth nd, the Secretary of State of Georgia, and the Republican leaders of the Michigan legislature have shown that we still have among the Republicans of this nation--at least, the ones who do not hold national office--just enough honest men and women for our government to function honestly.  They have braved the hatred of much of their own party to certify, or accept, the victory of Joe Biden in their respective states.  Trump sent Rudy Giluiani and Sidney Powell out a few days ago to regale us with conspiracy theories worthy of QAnon, and they will become facts among a certain group of Republicans, but it looks as if Biden's victory will be certain when the states submit their electoral votes in two weeks.  It will remain to be seen whether some Republicans challenge the results when Congress formally counts the electoral votes on January 6, but any such challenge is certain to fail. Whether Trump attends the inauguration or not, he will have to leave the White House.

So ends the greatest threat to American democracy in particular and world democracy in general since the Civil War.  Lincoln rightly defined that conflict as the supreme test of the democratic experiment.  If parts of the nation could repudiate central authority at will, government by the people would have failed.  It would also have failed if a President who governs according to whim, who has packed the Justice Department to protect his friends and allies,  who promoted foreign interference in our elections, and who refuses to make and execute policy through any orderly process, had managed to win a second term.  The threat is not over.  Trump still dominates the Republican Party and will probably try to use twitter or a tv network to set himself up as a President-in-waiting after January 20, and Congressional Republicans are quite likely to resort to maximum obstructionism once again to try to bring him back, as they did in 1993 and 2009.  Those are subjects for future posts.

I fortunately grew up in one of the great eras of American politics, and it shaped me.  My nation had helped win the Second World War and had emerged as the leader of the free world.  I lived in a society with 90% marginal tax rates, a strong and expanding educational system, steady economic growth, and growing infrastructure.  Yes, for nearly a century, a Senatorial minority from the Deep South had blocked any and all legal attempts to secure full citizenship for black Americans, but I saw us overcome that when I was 16 and 17, in the great civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. School, and reading outside it, immersed me in the remarkable story of American history, and in fifth grade, I believe, the Landmark book about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by Dorothy Canfield Fisher  brought tears to my eyes.  Perhaps, I now think, the idea of individual rights meant so much to me because I was a middle child in a rather chaotic and very migratory household.  But in those days, despite continuing imperfections, nearly every American could feel that he or she was part of a great enterprise working for the benefit of all.  

As I have written many times, all this began to change at the moment that postwar America had reached a political and economic peak, in 1965, thanks to two developments.  First, the older generation made the catastrophic mistake of embarking upon the Vietnam War, tearing the Democratic Party apart and starting the nation on a different path at home.  Equally importantly, it emerged even before the escalation of that war, at Berkeley in the fall of 1964, that much of my own generation had an instinctive aversion to much of their parents' world, wanted to eat from its own tree of good and evil, and did not understand how unique their inheritance was.  Spurred by the war, many of us had decided by 1968 that our whole society was irredeemably corrupt, based upon false values.  Reflexive opposition to authority--political, legal, and intellectual--became, for many, a mark of enlightenment.  And the conservatives among us--and there were many--took advantage of the same rebellious spirit to began a long struggle against the achievements of the Progressive Era and the New Deal.  Both sides also began to value emotion more highly than reason.  Our intellectual culture began to decline in part because of television, and it has not survived the second, bigger assault that came from the internet.  Beginning the 1980s, and more rapidly by the 2000s, a very different America began to emerge.

Economic inequality is the fundamental fact of that America.  While Republicans have always favored it, Democrats had started abandoning the values of the New Deal as early as 1974, and Democratic administrations collaborated in the steps that set capitalism free.  Greater inequality naturally followed.  Neither party did anything to stop the de-industrialization of America, with terrible consequences. Individual farmers became a tiny minority with little political power.  I also remember that in fifth grade my class did a year-long geography program  looking at various regions of the United States.  The North Central states, we agreed--the old midwest--were the strongest part of the nation, because they combined industry and agriculture.  Now those states show the ravages of decades of decline, on both fronts.  That in 2016 led to their repudiation of traditional politics and the narrow victory of Donald Trump.  This year, Wisconsin and Michigan returned to the Democratic column, but by narrow margins, and without loosening the Republican grip on their legislatures and thus their gerrymandered Congressional delegations.

As you all surely know, the last four years have had significant consequences for the emotional health of many of our fellow citizens.  That is, I think, because our nation truly is a family--if sometimes a dysfunctional one--and we all had become children of a highly addicted, unstable, hopelessly narcissistic parent.  In a widely viewed clip, the commentator Van Jones teared up the day after the election as he declared that today, it was easier to be a dad.  I knew what he meant.  Yet just a few minutes later, on the same show, the conservative Republican Rick Santorum declared that many people on his side of the fence were now feeling the same things that Jones had been feeling for the last four years.  Jones, to his enormous credit, nodded at him understandingly.  I don't sympathize with the fears of the Republicans and I doubt Jones does either, but many truly do hold them and they stand in the way of a a return to a reasonable degree of consensus under Biden.   And only 4% of the vote separates the two utterly unreconciled halves of our electorate.

I still think that only one thing can cure our division: a determined and successful assault by the government on a serious problem, one that increases the security and prosperity of the American people.  That is what Lincoln led 160 years ago and what FDR led 80 years ago.  We now seem in sight of victory over COVID-19, but it has already increased the division among us.  (A long story in the November 22 New York Times on the development of new vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna shows, in inspring fashion, that private enterprise did rise to the occasion to meet this great crisis.  Having worried that the pharmaceutical companies and the government would be in too great a hurry to develop a sufficiently effective vaccine, I am greatly relieved.)  I think Joe Biden, the first President of the Silent generation--which came to adulthood in the wake of the Second World War--understands this at some level but I don't know if he can do it.  The biggest obstacle remains the Republican Party, which is entering its fourth decade of determined struggle to undo the achievements of the middle of the century and discredit the idea that the federal government can serve the needs of the American people. I described their approach in detail eight years ago. Those Republican values now dominate our court system, and even if the Democrats win the Georgia Senate elections, they will be strong enough in the Senate to make real progress very difficult. Meanwhile, Biden will face plenty of problems within his own party.

Various pundits are asking whether Biden could become a new FDR--just as they asked the same question exactly twelve years about Obama.  Then the answer was no, and I don't think it's likely to be yes this time.  Perhaps he will be more like another Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, who took office in 1885 after a similarly divisive and bitter campaign.  Cleveland was the first Democrat to take office since the Civil War.  He did not reverse any of the major Republican policies or check the trend towars inequality, but he made the Democracy (as it was then called) respectable again, and was successful enough to win the popular vote twice more and the presidency once. That will not be Biden's destiny: I don't see how an 82-year old man can seriously contemplate re-election.   But if Biden can restore some civility, some sense of normalcy, and some confidence in our national institutions, he will have done well.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A few thoughts

 This will be a brief note.  Like so many others, I am continually learning and  thinking about the meaning of the election and pondering what the Biden Administration is going to be like.  I am not especially optimistic on either front, but I will save my thoughts on these issues for at least a week.  It won't be time to go into them until the Trump threat to overturn the electorate has clearly failed.  That certainly is the direction things are going in, but it will be a few weeks yet before electoral votes are cast.  

I do want to comment on one Republican idea: that state legislatures in Pennsylvania, Michigan and elsewhere might direct the appointment of Trump electors, based on the constitutional provision that calls upon states to appoint electors "in such a manner as the legislature may direct."  That ship has already sailed.  The laws of every state require that electors be chosen by statewide popular vote (except in Nebraska and Maine where some of the voting is by Congressional district.)  The appointment process is already going on. Changing the rules in the middle of the election would violate a number of basic legal principles, and I'm glad to read that Republican legislatures are not showing any interest in this plan.

I also do not think that the changes in the Pentagon have anything to do with resisting the election result.  Trump fired Mark Esper vindictively, of course, but the other replacements of senior civilian officials at the Pentagon look like they might be related to a policy shift. (No senior military officials were affected.)  The two leading possibilities seem to be to ensure a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan--which would not disturb me--or to allow Israel to attack Iran, which would be much more serious.  Trump however may be too depressed and disoriented to make anything that significant happen now.

Now for the good news:  we seen to have fixed a lot of the problems in our electoral system.  Voting by mail has been a spectacular success, and it would have been even more successful if not for Republican-passed regulations that slowed the counting of mail ballots.  We have had one of the biggest increases in turnout in our history, and I haven't seen a single story about voter suppression.  Georgia, where there was more talk about voter suppression than anywhere, has gone Democratic. That, by the way, should encourage Democratic voters and organizers as they prepare for the two critical Senate elections in January.  

Really restoring our political system will require a lot more.  We will have to cope successfully with some major problems--and the Republican Party shows no signs of wanting to cooperate in that process.  That will be a subject for future posts.  

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Dodging the bullet

 Like so many of my fellow citizens, I felt extreme nervous tension early this past week, waiting for the election.  I realized how much it frightened me a few months ago when I made a routine dentist appointment for the morning of election day.  It wouldn't affect my vote--I knew I would cast it in person, well in advance, as indeed I did--but I was frightened to think that that day might actually come, and end with Donald Trump's re-election and American democracy in tatters.  Despair threatened on Tuesday night, and some of the younger viewers that I watched the returns with on zoom succumbed to it briefly, but I went to bad around 12:30 convinced that there were far too many outstanding votes to know what would happen, and that we would not have clear results at least until Wednesday morning.  After I got up Wednesday and had breakfast, it didn't take too much calculating to realize that Joe Biden was quite likely to win.  Now,. on Saturday morning, that seems like a certainty, although the four key states are counting their final ballots at an excruciating pace.  We will turn to Donald Trump's reaction later.

I had hoped to do a comprehensive state-by-state analysis of the differences between 2016 and 2020 this morning, but I can't find state-by-state popular vote data in convenient form--form that can be easily put into a spreadsheet. Wikipedia is waiting, apparently, for more final results.  I have enough overall data, however, to contribute some original observations.

The 2020 election saw a probably unprecedented increase in voter turnout, probably the largest such increase since women got the vote before the 1920 election.  The total vote in 2016 was 136.7 million; so far this  year 151.7 million votes have been counted, a full 10% increase, with more to come.  Equally importantly, we have seen a return to an effective two-party system.  In 2016, Clinton and Trump together secured only 94.2% of the total popular vote.  So far this year Biden and Trump have won 98.2% of the vote, and Biden, like Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, seems certain to have an actual majority of popular votes cast.  The Democrats appear to have picked up nearly all the votes that went to third parties in 2016.  Biden was a more appealing candidate than Clinton, and voters took this election much more seriously than the last one.  Biden already has about 13.2 million more votes than Clinton received in 2016 and his total will increase.  Clinton by contrast in 2016 did not quite equal Barack Obama's total in 2012.  All this confirms what I found in an earlier analysis of the 2016 election: the Democrats lost in 2016 because they nominated a very unpopular candidate.

That, however, is only half the story.  Donald Trump also gained significant votes, increasing from 63  million in 2016 to 69.9 million (so far) this year.  While Biden increased the Democratic share of the total vote from 48.1% to 50.5%,  Trump increased his share from 46.1% to 47.7%, evidently picking up a much smaller portion of 2016's large minor party vote.  That is what has depressed so many liberals and flabbergasted so many commentators.  I wanted systematically to look at where Trump had increased his vote share, but I don't have enough data in convenient form.   I will look one by one at some critical states.  His share of the vote in Wisconsin increased from 46.1% to 48.8%, even though he won it in 2016 and lost it this time.  He declined marginally in Michigan, where he went from 47.9% to 47.5% this year.  He has done better in Pennsylvania, increasing from 48.2% to 49.1%.  In Georgia he has fallen from 50.8% to 49.3%, and he currently has the exact same percentage of the vote in Arizona--48.7%--that he had in 2016, and in Nevada he has increased from 45.5% to 48%.  Of the critical states that are deciding the election, Georgia is the only one in which Trump's percentage of the vote has suffered a measurable decline--1.6%--and even there, his vote total increased by about 360,000 votes.  

What about the large states that have become Republican strongholds?  Trump in Texas had 52.2% of the vote in 2016, and he has exactly the same percentage of the Texas vote right now.  He had 49% of the Florida vote in 2016, and he has 51.2% of it now.   How about the biggest blue states? Trump gained slightly in California,  from 31.2% in 2016 to 33%. this year.   He gained significantly more in New York, 36.5% to 40.4%--a gain, so far, of 115,000 votes.  (Biden is currently running more than 300,000 votes behind Clinton in 2016 in the Empire state, but New York as 16% of its vote left to count.  Trump did lose about a single percentage point in most of the New England states, the only group I have discovered where he polled worse as a percentage of a larger electorate than he did four years ago.

I do not have time to do a systematic analysis of exit poll data this morning, but a quick look at CNN's data has yielded an extraordinary shock.  I knew that Trump increased his share among both black and Hispanic voters--he lost both of them badly, of course, but he did better than four years ago.  The CNN data shows him 7 points better among black voters and about 6 points better among Hispanics, where there was a substantial gender gap.  But the real shock is that despite all the talk about suburban women, white women voted for Trump in a slightly larger percentage--about 1.5% more this year as they did in 2016.  White men, on the other hand, shifted significantly away from Trump, losing about 6.5% from their 62% Trump majority in 2016. The gender gap shrank this year because white men shifted towards Biden.  That may have given him the election.  In  later post, I will revisit the issue of generational voting.

The electorate remains deeply divided, as the House and Senate results show as well.  I don't see much chance of Donald Trump overturning the election results, but I am very worried about the role he might play out of office, riding herd on the Republican Party and perhaps inciting violence.  Unless the Democrats do win two runoff elections in Georgia, the Senate will remain Republican, and it will be very hard for Joe Biden to pass the test I set for him last week--to substantially improve the lot of the American people in the next two years.  Still, it appears that a functioning adult--who will appoint more functioning adults--will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20.  The American people have barely passed one of the most severe tests in their history.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.  

States of the Union uses State of the Union addresses and other presidential addresses to tell the story of the political history of the United States from Washington's inauguration in 1789 through 2023. The addresses provide a remarkable record of how the country saw itself, what problems required solutions--both at home and in the larger world--what solutions presidents proposed, and what was actually accomplished. Meanwhile, election results register the verdicts of the American people. Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan emerge as our most influential presidents. These presidential addresses, it turns out, tell the amazing story of the great American political experiment that began more than two centuries ago, and faces one of its greatest tests today.

Here are some prepublication comments:

“ Drawing on readily available sources, David Kaiser provides a superb and concise political history of the United States. States of the Union provides the concise yet magisterial political history of the United States that today’s college students desperately need but increasingly cannot find.”
—James McAllister, Professor of Political Science, Williams College

States of the Union is an unusual book. It looks at American political history as an experiment—as a continuing effort to keep what Washington called the ‘sacred fire of liberty’ alive in the world. Kaiser uses U.S. presidents’ own words as a kind of lens through which to view this whole extraordinary story. And that approach is very effective. It puts the reader in direct contact with the relatively small group of people—the forty-six presidents—most deeply involved with managing the American project. It allows the reader, that is, to hear their voices and thus get a deeper sense for what they were doing and for how the experiment was going. The result is a wonderful book, one that anyone interested in American history will very much enjoy reading.”
—Marc Trachtenberg, Professor emeritus, University of California at Los Angeles

“ In this exceptional study of the speeches of American presidents, David Kaiser explores the way every chief executive—from Washington to Biden—has addressed public events, explained his policies and stated the nation’s first principles. Filled with essential facts and written in lucid prose, Kaiser’s book makes innovative use of State of the Union, Inaugural, and other official addresses as a record of the country’s historic challenges and opportunities, international and domestic. At stake, the presidents realized, were the twin commitments of democracy itself: individual equality before the law and a government elected by the people. Kaiser finds no inflexible model of public address dictated by literary custom or party bias. Rather, most presidents met good and bad news alike with a sense of the responsibilities of their office, an awareness of precedent, and an estimate of citizens’ needs. States of the Union truly brings to life both the leaders’ personalities and the country’s long history, making it a remarkable chronicle of the nation’s political experience.”
—Anne Rose, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Penn State University

States of the Union surveys how presidential rhetoric has highlighted each president’s policies and politics. Ably summarizing key elements of State-of-the-Union addresses and other major presidential speeches, historian David Kaiser analyzes how well they addressed major domestic and foreign policy issues of each era. Kaiser finds Lincoln’s brief second inaugural as his masterpiece—and this book reprints it in full. The author judges Franklin Roosevelt as the president with the clearest vision and the greatest ability to translate it into practical reality, enabling him to have a unique impact on the history of the modern world. Kaiser also offers trenchant, up-to-date assessments of Obama, Trump, and Biden. Compact, well-written presidential history.”
—Richard Breitman, Professor Emeritus,
American University


The book can be ordered here.

I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

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