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In Clinton’s Court

The Clinton Wars

by Sidney Blumenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 822 pp., $30.00

In the Reagan years Sidney Blumenthal made his mark as a bright campaign reporter and intrepid explorer of spreading conservative and neoconservative networks in think tanks and on Capitol Hill. After seeing Michael Dukakis battered into oblivion in 1988, he wrote a book decrying the viciousness and vacuousness of the American way of choosing a president. It was at odds, he felt, with the issues facing the country after the cold war. What was needed, according to Blumenthal’s prescription, was an injection of the intellectual energy neocons were displaying on the “progressive” side: “the invention of a political language and program” for what he portrayed as a new age. All along, he had been scouting for a leader fluent in such a language. “I wondered when a Democrat might emerge for whom modern politics was second nature,” he writes, setting the stage for his narrative of the roller-coaster ride the country and he himself experienced after his wish was fulfilled. “I was waiting for the new.”

Our political lonely heart didn’t immediately embrace Bill Clinton as “the new” at their first encounter, which occurred at a gathering in Hilton Head, South Carolina, at the start of 1988, four years before tickets to these Renaissance Weekends became hot items. Clinton was “perhaps too blunt about his ambition with someone he had just met” but the two—presciently, even eerily—chatted about a matter already preoccupying the young politician: how the media were taking down “the invisible barrier,” erasing “the distinction between public and private life.” Caught by reporters from the Miami Herald who had been assigned to lurk in the bushes, Gary Hart had been unable to defend his candidacy once his lit-tle fling with Donna Rice had been pumped up into a morality tale of hubristic self-destruction. The hubris, Blumenthal and his new acquaintance agreed, was on the part of journalists who appointed themselves as prosecutors licensed to delve anywhere and judges of whatever turned up. It all showed how slippery the landscape had become.

Respecting the invisible barrier, Blumenthal doesn’t tell us whether he had to repress any unworthy suspicions about why this subject might be preying on the mind of the would-be candidate. But four years later in New Hampshire, after watching Clinton battle back against accusations of adulterous consorting similar to those that had undone Hart, he felt he had just witnessed “the most electrifying political moment” since, as a youngster, the experience of seeing John F. Kennedy wind up his 1960 campaign in Chicago had sealed his addiction to politics.

Even before New Hampshire, Blumenthal had identified Clinton as “the new.” An article he had written for The New Republic titled “The Anointed” noted the candidate’s unusual adroitness, his ability to fuse opposites and “square political circles.” It would be wrong to describe what ensued as a seduction. Call it a meeting of minds among consensual political adults. The night the votes were tallied in New Hampshire, Blumenthal and his wife, Jacqueline, were invited to spend time with the Clintons. The next month he had lunch with Hillary Clinton in Chicago, the hometown of each of them, and recommended a book that dealt with Eleanor Roosevelt’s emergence as a distinct political figure. They continued to talk books, he tells us, for the rest of the campaign.

His inside track with the Clintons and evident sympathy for them were reasons Tina Brown asked him to write The New Yorker‘s “Letter from Washington,” as fine a niche as a political journalist could hope to occupy. Then, his easy access to an administration that, early on, had literally tried locking the doors between the press room and the rest of the West Wing made him an object of resentment among old colleagues who dismissed him as a journalistic courtier. Within a year, his old newspaper, The Washington Post, suggested sarcastically that his “Letter” be renamed “In the Tank,” after he became the recipient of a rare and, inevitably, self-serving presidential interview. A few weeks later, his editor told him that if he wasn’t going to join in the hunt for whatever wrongdoing could be squeezed out of the Whitewater affair—or “pseudoscandal,” as Blumenthal prefers to call it—he would have to relinquish the “Letter” and confine his reporting in Washington to subjects other than the Clintons.

These terms had to be considered demeaning by a journalist who regarded the presidency as “the chief engine of progress in American history” and its then avatar as a worthy successor to a line of progressive presidents stretching back to Jefferson. In his own recounting here, he was isolated not for his credulousness about the Clintons but for his skepticism about their persecutors; for not participating in what he variously calls the “delirium” and “irrational frenzy” that seized Washington and its press corps. “When I did not stampede along with the herd I was punished,” he writes. If the White House was going to be off-limits to him journalistically, he saw no bar to his wife going to work there or to him offering freelance counsel.

By the summer of 1994, in his estimation, he and Hillary Clinton had become “genuine friends.” By 1996, he was talking strategy with Dick Morris, consulting on the State of the Union Address, and tossing off phrases and themes for use by the President and others in the administration. (He claims credit for “One America” and “the indispensable nation” and indirect credit, being the first to call Clinton’s attention to the thematic potential in the coming millennium, for the “bridge to the 21st century.”) So even before he was finally invited to come to the White House in the second Clinton term as an assistant to the President, he had indisputably become the courtier he had been accused of being. “The decisive moment had arrived when I could become a wholehearted political participant,” he tells us without irony or regrets.

It was some fulfillment: ill-Starred, as in Ken, for Blumenthal as well as the President. He would get to testify to the grand jury twice and later tell the Senate impeachment trial that Clinton had lied to him about his encounters with an intern. He would come to see himself as the “scapegoat” for the failed prosecution. He would see himself maligned as “Sid Vicious” and a “sleazemeister” in the New York Post, a paper that ought to know when it sees one, and traduced or unmasked in an affidavit sworn to by his former good buddy Christopher Hitchens. And he would wind up with $300,000 in legal fees after prudently deciding to withdraw a libel suit, which had at its outset sought to recover $30 million from Matt Drudge and America Online for retailing a repulsive smear about spousal abuse that, Blumenthal tells us, he eventually traced to a Wall Street Journal editorial writer.

Out of all this turmoil, high aspiration, low comedy, and misspent passion, a certified writer who had achieved a little distance and perspective might have been able to fashion a memorable book. His dual status as a courtier would hardly have been a disqualification. But any thought that a Duc de Saint-Simon might have been lurking in the Versailles of the Clinton White House is soon dispelled as one endures the vertiginous experience of reliving our last president’s operatic ups and downs through this massive volume. By way of illustration:

He always thought he could teach something of their own craft to the most skillful professional men; and they, for their part, used to listen gratefully to lessons which they had long ago learned by heart. He imagined that all this showed his indefatigable industry; in reality, it was a great waste of time.

It might not be an outrageous stretch to apply that to you-know-who but, as the reader will have guessed, it’s Saint-Simon on Louis XIV. Sad to say, when it comes to the Clintons, there is not a single line of comparable acuity or detachment in the whole of The Clinton Wars. What you get instead are passages that would have been regarded as above par but hardly fresh if they had appeared in a news magazine cover story ten years ago. For purposes of comparison, try this:

He reveled in long seminars on policy, but there was none of the metallic grind about him. After a while you almost got the sensation that his endless discussions were like jazz riffs. He played them until he felt he had improvised the right composition.

The absence of bite when it comes to his protagonists might be attributed to an excess of partisanship or loyalty, which remains a virtue. But it is more than that. Blumenthal, who is still fighting the Clinton wars, has internalized the Clintons’ view of their experience. So what you find in these pages often has the feel of an early draft or preview of memoirs (his and hers) that have yet to appear. Familiar narrative corners are cut in familiar ways; obvious omissions are not remarked upon; and presidential self-pity flows between the lines. When things go awry, it’s generally someone else’s doing. Democratic congressional leaders keep Clinton from moving on ethics and campaign finance legislation. The “disgraceful behavior” of the wily British and French—they “connived to confound the Americans”—makes it impossible for Clinton to intervene in the Bosnia crisis for two and a half years. Colin Powell also blocks him.

Clinton turns to the political consultant Dick Morris after his party loses both chambers in the 1994 congressional election because his White House staff is in disarray, unable to present him with workable strategies, and excessively responsive to the media. He feels a need “to keep the staff at bay.” His national security advisers are “not bureaucratically strong” and lack “practical strategies.” Even after the staff has been shaken up and Clinton is supposedly master in his own house, speechwriters stick a line promising not to use ground troops in Kosovo in his speech to the nation and Sandy Berger, his national security adviser, fails to take it out. Clinton, we are told, is furious because his options have been limited (though it then takes him more than two months to allow other options to be prepared). Berger is “snookered” by the Pentagon when it forces the NATO commander who had been too blunt in his demand for ground troops, General Wesley Clark, into retirement. “I’d like to kill somebody,” Clinton tells Blumenthal.

You never know where the buck will stop. Clinton, it seems, is a prisoner of his own administration, in addition to having to face a baying press and savage opposition. Nowhere is this more the case than in the President’s “intense battle with terrorism, a mostly secret war that was largely screened from the public.” FBI director Louis Freeh, a Clinton appointee, becomes “a prime mover of scandal promotion against the Clinton administration,” to the point that “Freeh’s hostility to the White House dictated his lack of cooperation with the war against bin Laden.” Clinton wants to do more than fire a few cruise missiles at the al-Qaeda leader; he wants to drop special ops troops into the mountains of Afghanistan in a surprise attack. Powell’s successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Henry Shelton, recoils from his commander in chief’s idea, saying such an attack would be too risky.

The country’s good fortune—the relative peace and prosperity for which Clinton got credit before the Asian economic crisis showed another side of globalization and the bubble of the vaunted “new economy” burst—can also be portrayed as the President’s bad luck. “The absence of an easily identifiable crisis—a Great War or a Great Depression” leaves him vulnerable to the storms and furors, the “sheer destructiveness” of the unending series of petty controversies, revelations, and “pseudoscandals” that marked his presidency from the alpha of Whitewater to the omega of Mark Rich. It’s an argument that was heard from the White House even before Clinton left it, implying that his stature would have been clearer in a time that did not have to invent its own turbulence. In any event, the virulence of the opposition is for Blumenthal its own proof of Clinton’s worthiness as a progressive in the line of Jefferson, Jackson, and FDR. “If there is a law about progressive presidencies,” he writes, it’s that “in their efforts to create a new consensus they become the object of intense opposition… [which] fails to distinguish between hatred of the man and of his politics.” It is by his enemies, goes this argument, that ye must know him.

Blumenthal’s defense of the Clintons is just one of the several books he is seeking to wrestle into a single narrative and by no means is it the best. There is also his own apologia, not to be confused with an apology: his fairly absorbing, usually convincing account of his own experience as he molted from commentator to insider to scapegoat and, finally, bit player in the second impeachment of a president. And there is his analysis, mostly from the outside, almost as a journalist again, of the forces on the right and in the media that were arrayed against the presidency he was trying to defend and champion.

In general, the book falters when he is writing as an insider, as if he still carries an obligation to stay “on message.” It becomes more arresting when he looks the other way. His closeness to the Clintons, it sometimes seems, bears an inverse relation to the value of his testimony, not because it challenges conventional beliefs but because it’s so carefully constructed and unrevealing—counter-counter intuitive and, at considerable length, replete with frequent slabs from Clinton speeches that leave a reader wondering whether they’re there because Blumenthal thinks they still have force or because he can’t suppress his pride in whatever authorship he had.

I can count no more than a half dozen snapshots of the Clintons in eight hundred pages that struck me as relatively telling and fresh. It’s interesting to be told that both Clintons had “disdain” for White House operatives who felt their liberal standing was compromised when the President made tough political choices that seemed to lean to the right and that “Hillary coined a phrase she used whenever this syndrome appeared: ‘naïve surprise.’” It’s interesting to come across Mrs. Clinton’s lightning deduction after hearing Chief Justice Rehnquist say to her husband, “Good luck. You’ll need it,” upon swearing him in for the second time. “They’re going to screw you on the Paula Jones case,” she said. And it’s interesting to read Blumenthal’s account of the humiliating day the President finally had to acknowledge under oath that his denials over nearly eight months of a sexual relationship with “that woman” had been less than truthful.

That evening Clinton made a brief but not abject statement to the na-tion with as much dignity as he could muster, which turned out to be more than enough for most Americans who had already decided, according to the polls, that they could disapprove of the President’s personal behavior but still prefer him to those trying to unseat him. Blumenthal watched the speech on CNN in a hotel room in Rome. Ten minutes later the phone rang. “It was the President, asking me what my reaction was,” he writes. “I told him that it was all right. Hillary asked me what I thought. I told her the same. The President said he was pleased with it. Hillary also approved.” Then as the phone was handed to White House political operatives, Blumenthal writes, “I could hear the President and Hillary bantering in the background. Whatever they would have to do between themselves to get over this episode, they were still working as a team.” Blumenthal doesn’t make explicit what this passage seems to declare: that the President’s acknowledgment on television that he had “misled people” was the only apology Blumenthal would ever get. So much for the inside view.

As an outsider, an almost journal-ist, Blumenthal holds your attention when he pieces together the various components of what Mrs. Clinton called a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” from Little Rock enemies and haters to the lawyers of the Federalist Society who worked their connections to the Office of the Independent Counsel to shift its focus from real estate to sex. This is a logical extension not only of his old Washington Post beat but also efforts he made as a White House operative to encourage former colleagues in the Washington press corps to look squarely at the accusers at the time the melodrama to which Ms. Lewinsky’s name is attached was being driven by both sides to the point of constitutional crisis. Little of this is really new—the story has been told before, piecemeal, by various journalists (among them James B. Stewart, Jill Abramson, Robert G. Kaiser, and Jeffrey Toobin)—but Blumenthal manages to get almost the whole cast of characters into one tent and it’s not a small one. We hardly missed them but here they are again: Sheffield Nelson, Cliff Jackson, David Bossie, Floyd Brown, Richard Mellon Scaife, Theodore Olson, Stephen Boynton, David Henderson, R.J. Rushdoony, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Lucianne Goldberg, George Conway III, Jerome Marcus, and Richard Porter were all deservedly mentioned in dispatches at one time or other for their anti-Clinton scheming; now they get recalled from the obscurity that has mostly been their lot. They are portrayed as master manipulators of the all-too-compliant media, as if leaks, media manipulation, and character assassination were new to Washington and journalistic standards only started crumbling after the onset of the “delirium” the Clintons aroused.

Disgraceful things did happen. On more than one occasion, an Internet gossip columnist did set the agenda for mainstream news organizations. Stories without sources did gain instant currency. Some were fabricated. All-news cable channels did scramble to gain an edge in the ratings by clinging obsessively to a single story for weeks, even months: “All Lewinsky all the time,” which became in practice a rampage of one-sided speculation that invariably crowded out any attempt to restore a sense of proportion, not to mention substantive news.

But these phenomena can be explained more by commercial opportunism than delirium. Political opportunism did the rest. It was the inde- pendent counsel, not the media, who contrived a prosecution theory connecting the unfathomable nexus of Whitewater real estate and banking deals to sexual misconduct in the precincts of the Oval Office. It was the attorney general who was afraid to tell the independent counsel that his theory seemed far-fetched. It was a federal judicial panel that was all too eager to endorse it. And it was the independent counsel who, having failed to persuade the intern to wear a “wire” in order to entrap the President into an incriminating conversation, then insisted months later that she tell a grand jury what parts of her anatomy were explored when, and which encounters led to climax. Finally it was the independent counsel who shipped this dismal material to the House where the Republican leadership promptly dumped it on the media and public in order to persuade it that “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as defined by the Constitution, had occurred.

I make these points not to defend the media, which can hardly be criticized enough for their own health, but to raise yet again the question of why the Clintons from beginning to end chose the inchmeal tactics of trench warfare to defend themselves when they came under fire, throwing up a smokescreen of fibs and disclosing as little as possible. Not many people will want to dive into the details of the Whitewater case again. But since I had a measure of responsibility for the appearance of the first story on the subject, I can’t avoid quarreling with the depiction of the reporter that became standard in the Clinton camp and that is faithfully repeated by Blumenthal. Far from being a gullible tool of Clinton-haters with a casual relation to facts, Jeff Gerth is an estimable and painstaking investigative reporter who knows how to read legal papers and financial reports.

The story that appeared under his byline in The New York Times on March 8, 1992, at the bottom of the front page was the result of several weeks of cross-checking, double-checking, and document hunting on a subject that seemed worth exploring. It had multiple sources, including a lawyer designated to speak for the Clintons, but much was withheld. Having gone as far as he could under those circumstances, Gerth and his editors had to decide whether they knew enough to publish what they had. The decision seemed obvious and, at the time, routine. The story said that the Clintons had a half-interest in a real estate development company in the Ozarks and that the other half was owned by an old friend who was at the helm of the biggest savings and loan association in the state when it became insolvent. It said Mrs. Clinton did some legal work for the savings and loan association at a time when her husband was governor. It said nothing about laws having been broken but asked “whether a governor should be involved in a business deal with the owner of a business regulated by the state.” The Clintons were reported as saying that many of the records had “disappeared.”

On its face, it was a legitimate story, not dissimilar from articles that appear every election cycle such as articles during the last campaign about the sweetheart deal (certainly a better one than Whitewater) that made George W. Bush an owner of the Texas Rangers and a multimillionaire. But it was difficult to follow in its details and not many news organizations tried; its impact on the election outcome was zero. Sixteen months later, the suicide of Vince Foster rekindled interest in Whitewater and the frenzy Blumenthal decries. The whereabouts of records were still at issue and, in the hope of changing the subject, Clinton bowed to the pressure for the appointment of a special prosecutor. (Clinton even accepted a new independent counsel law, which moved the power to appoint a prosecutor from the attorney general to a federal judicial panel. Rehnquist chose David Sentelle, a protégé of Jesse Helms, to head the panel, which then ousted Janet Reno’s choice, Robert Fiske, replacing him with Kenneth Starr.)

Eventually the records were produced, and finally, after much foot-dragging by both sides, no basis for a prosecution was found. Today, eleven years later, Blumenthal can write, “There was never anything to Whitewater. There was never anything to it in the beginning, middle or end.” So why did the Clintons allow their documents and answers to dribble out rather than offer full disclosure from the beginning as we now know they were urged to do by their campaign advisers? Only the Clintons know, but the delay helped to accomplish a couple of things. It prevented the publication of another story that was potentially more damaging and, in the meantime, the Arkansas governor became president.

Blumenthal gingerly repeats an assertion by Mrs. Clinton that Gerth was shown “documents.” The noun comes without an article or modifier; he doesn’t say “all” or “some.” Perhaps he knows that the White House in 1996 had to retract a statement by Mrs. Clinton that “We laid them all out.” Among the documents that Gerth requested and that were not produced were the Clinton tax returns for 1978 and 1979. These would have shown Mrs. Clinton’s windfall of $100,000 in speculative cattle future deals, a story Gerth finally nailed down in 1994. Again, there was no allegation of crime, just questions of standards—ethical standards—in this quest for easy money through deals involving next to no investment or effort, set up by friends who may have been acting out of friendship but who also needed and valued ac-cess to government. Had the cattle futures story appeared in the days before the New Hampshire primary in 1992, it would have come on top of two other “pseudoscandals,” the Gennifer Flowers story and the story about Clinton’s dealings with his draft board. That might have hurt.

Delay also raised the stakes but that was not altogether to the President’s disadvantage. What could not easily be defended as appropriate and scrupulous could be belittled once someone suggested it might be a crime. Similarly, in the Lewinsky case, the eight months the President bought through his initial denials gave the country time to get used to the impropriety and reach a sensible conclusion about whether his untruthfulness over a sexual matter was reason for him to go. Disclosure in the beginning might have spared us all a lot of grief but it would have been humiliating and, on the key political point, who knows if it would have spared him his job?

That was a question Bill Clinton seemed to want to put to Blumenthal in their conversation on the subject, the one on January 21, 1998, about which the former journalist finally had to testify after the White House dropped a claim of executive privilege that the Supreme Court was likely to knock down. Clinton repeated a point Dick Morris had made that same day: that Nixon could have survived Watergate had he gone on TV at the very start “explaining everything he had done wrong.” What had Clinton done wrong? Blumenthal asked. Nothing, the President said. Then there was no analogy, said the courtier who now admits to having had “nagging doubts.” He might have responded to those doubts and found a way to urge the President to make the kind of statement he would ultimately have to make in August. But he didn’t and doesn’t find room here to ask himself why. (He also doesn’t find room to mention that Morris took a poll that told Clinton he might not survive early disclosure.) Clinton, who seemed anguished, said he felt like a character in Darkness at Noon. Later Blumenthal would reflect that it was more like Tom Jones, which may well be how the affair will be remembered.

We are left with the question of whether Clinton had to lie not only for obvious personal reasons but to protect the presidency and the cause of progressive government. Blumenthal doesn’t quite say that but he comes close. If Clinton had run the risk of candor and the country had turned against him, the worst that could have happened politically would have been a premature Gore succession. But everyone, except perhaps Kenneth Starr, understood from the start that Clinton wasn’t the resigning type. He would persevere even if that meant facing impeachment. His supporters, among them his wife and Sidney Blumenthal, had to act as if they believed him. “Whatever my doubts,” Blumenthal writes, “I wanted to believe her—to believe along with her.”

After the impeachment fails, Blumenthal goes back to his normal work as political thinker in residence, preparing for the millennium and setting up seminars on the so-called Third Way so Clinton can compare notes with centrist political leaders such as Tony Blair, Lionel Jospin, Gerhard Schröder, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil. Blumenthal and his President seem to think that they are founding a new movement, a Clintonian international, one that accepts downsizing the welfare state and globalization as inevitable but somehow keeps alive a notion of a “global social contract” that, on the evidence here, is indefinable. He develops a taste for international preening and when he meets the new German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, at an embassy dinner, he is all too pleased to reflect on himself as an actor in history. “We were two members of the generation of ‘68,” he writes, “easily recognizable to each other politically, trying to find common ground.”

When you hit patches of the Third Way and Blumenthal’s digressions on the new “meritocracy,” epitomized, we’re told, by the Clinton administration, his book feels at once very long and very thin. It is made even longer by his unshakable didacticism, which moves him to provide a thumbnail sketch of virtually every person and institution whose ambit he enters, varying in length from several lines to several pages. Sometimes these are astute but what audience, in what country, in what century, does Blumenthal have in mind for his instruction on how Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, and E.B. White wrote for The New Yorker, founded in 1925; or how Aaron Burr in the age of Jefferson founded the Democratic Party of New York, later reorganized by Martin Van Buren in the Jackson years, and still later exemplified by Grover Cleveland?

He has room for decorative filler but no room to tell us in more than a page on the Rwanda genocide that the Clinton administration opposed the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and insisted on the withdrawal of the small UN force on the scene. He remembers that Van Buren was known as “the Red Fox of Kinderhook” and that Joe Lieberman was “the son of a New Haven liquor store owner” but somehow neglects to mention what was seen as the most salient bit of biography influencing Al Gore’s choice of a running mate in 2000: his Senate speech denouncing Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky matter as “disgraceful” and “immoral.” In this way he builds to his final arguments on how future presidents will stand “in the shadow of Clinton.” It feels a little early for such judgments. Blumenthal more or less acknowledges as much when he writes that we now view Clinton “through the prism of the presidency of George W. Bush.”

Where you stand on Iraq and tax cuts at a time of growing deficits will determine what you see. For those who think a weak international system is better than no international system and regret the flaunting of American power, the view through the Bush prism won’t be to the disadvantage of our last president. Clinton learned after the health care debacle not to gamble his presidency on one big thing. His successor, surrounded by those who talk easily of transformation and preemption, was not reluctant to gamble on one big thing.

The difference, of course, is not just character and ideology. It’s September 11, which brought on the great, testing crisis, which Clinton sometimes seems sorry to have missed. Down to his nerve endings, he probably feels that he would have handled it better. How he would have handled it is pure speculation but he dropped a hint on Iraq, at least, in an article he wrote for the Guardian a week before the war (March 18), in an attempt to bolster Tony Blair with his own Labour Party refuseniks. The article mentions “hawks in America” but not George W. Bush. It puts the blame for war on France and Russia for threatening to veto a British attempt to set a deadline in the Security Council. If the council had backed the Blair approach, Clinton wrote, Saddam Hussein “still might have disarmed without invasion or bloodshed.”

His silence on the neoimperial project of regime change and transformation is eloquent. Blumenthal wasn’t thinking about Saddam Hussein when he wrote that Clinton now has to be viewed through the prism of his successor. But for better or, possibly, worse, Bush has now had a bigger impact on the Middle East than Clinton had in eight years of sporadic bombing and valiant but ultimately futile peacemaking. In a last phone conversation just before he left office, Blumenthal tells us, Yasser Arafat told Clinton he was a great man. The President was immune to his flattery but not self-mockery. “The hell I am,” he replied. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.”

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