Respond to this Article October/November 2005

Why Americans can't write political fiction.

An essay.

By Christopher Lehmann

Whatever its many other deficiencies, American political reality has often seemed tailor-made for fictionalizing. Just consider the rich welter of issues and personalities that hover around our present-day national politics: Congress' special session on the Terri Schiavo case; the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans ads; the ongoing agons of the Valerie Plame case and the 9/11 commissions. We have a born-again dauphin commander-in-chief striving in countless ways to surpass his father's wan patrician legacy and usually failing. We have Justice Sundays, the Cindy Sheehan vigil, and the America Supports You Freedom Walk--events that beg for adaptation as low farce or high satire.

Or, dare one say it, literature. There is a broader point to American political fiction, easy to miss amid the familiar sound and fury of the nation's political and cultural life: Democratic politics is the country's national epic--with such key matters as the franchise, political representation and America's role in world affairs all adapting themselves over time to encompass the republic's preoccupations, for better or worse. Consider, just for starters, the genuine literary questions raised by our own political era's leading issue--the war in Iraq and the peculiarly American errand of coercing the Middle East into a state of political self-reinvention. The confident projection of American power into an alien political culture, rent by tribal divisions, mirrors back to us unexamined assumptions about our own national identity and purpose. Many of the same questions can be raised about the shoddy federal response to the collapse of New Orleans' physical infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation--a ghastly reverse-image of the confident projection of U.S. power abroad.

In the ever-accelerating information age, journalism has taken on the role of chronicling both the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation's political imagination. But technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues--reflection and depth of character chief among them--that our political fiction should be delivering.

In considering how literature might grapple with the moral issues at the heart of today's politics, one could do worse than ask, what would George Orwell do? In 1984, the political novel's most famous modern exemplar, Orwell reckoned with the most decisive forces loose in the modern world: not merely the rise of totalitarian political regimes, but also the triumph of a depersonalized mass culture, the humorless bureaucratized workplace, and the abolition of historical memory. Long after the Stalinist nightmare dissolved, 1984 has survived as literature--conjuring the vivid stink of Victory gin, the grim footage of mass carnage played for laughs, and the furtive state-forbidden sex of Winston Smith's Oceania. The novel's continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell's imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.

To gauge the arrested development of American political novels, one need look no further than the pallid state of our own literary satire. Christopher Buckley now passes for the high-water mark of political satire in the nation's literature. In 1994, Buckley drew upon his experience as a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush to produce Thank You for Smoking, an engaging send-up of the grimly farcical rounds of advocacy for the tobacco industry, as well as of the excesses of its opponents. Since then, however, Buckley's novels have acquired a one-note tetchiness in both tone and subject. They read less like gimlet-eyed parody than gussied-up "O'Reilly Factor" transcripts.

His latest novel, Florence of Arabia, contains more pained winces than belly laughs. It is the saga of Florence Farfaletti, a Foreign Service agent covertly orchestrating an uprising in the fictional Islamic fundamentalist kingdom of Wasabia in the heart of the Middle East's "no fun zone." Every political force in Farfaletti's path is turned into a surrogate for the motifs on the contemporary political scene that irritate Buckley's own conservative sensibilities, making the clear point that politics is the sport of distasteful appeasers and politically correct prudes. The French are surrender-happy snobs; gay characters are raging queens; feminists are frigid scolds. Need I go on? Thank you.

And Buckley is arguably the best political novelist now going. Lest you think I'm picking on him for ideological grounds, consider The Librarian, also published last year by Larry Beinhart, the provocateur behind American Hero, which Barry Levinson later adapted into the film Wag the Dog. Beinhart's novel relates how college librarian David Goldberg, in the course of collecting archival documents for a wealthy political donor, stumbles upon a trove of material showing the incumbent president, Augustus Scott, a thinly disguised W.-figure now up for reelection, to be implicated in a boatload of nefarious conspiracies. They include, for starters, ballot-disrupting race riots in Florida and a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty and a nuclear power plant. This is all done at the behest of big oil and to "steal the election" from a female Democratic challenger who served as a nurse in Vietnam while Scott evaded the draft.

An ultra-earnest book like The Librarian produces much the same self-distancing perspective on the political world as does a ham-fisted farce like Florence of Arabia--a vision of politics as the squalid self-interested manipulation of events beneath the dignity of any sane moral actor. The result is an odd political literature of principled non-engagement, wherein the task of protagonist and author alike is to rise above the subjects that propel character, plot, and literary experience. This arm's-length disdain for our literature typically shows that the political process is a bit like expecting all of Moby Dick to unfold without any mention of the whale.

Writers like Buckley and Beinhart are heirs to a longstanding distemper in American political fiction. They both look upon the political process as a great ethical contaminant and task their protagonists with escaping its many perils with both their lives and their moral compasses intact. What might be bracing satires wilt into two-dimensional fables in which the same basic lesson is learned over and over again: spurn the process and save your soul.

Joe Klein's much-praised, anonymously published book Primary Colors, a campaign-trail roman a clef based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run, is perhaps our most influential recent variation on the theme. Just as its presidential aspirant Jack Stanton is transparently based on Bill Clinton, so is its narrator, the young black political operative Henry Burton, clearly modeled on former divinity student George Stephanopoulos. There are, to be sure, superficial differences: Stephanopoulos seems to be a self-tutored prig, and Henry comes by his moral pedigree via his dad, who was a civil rights-era preacher and political leader. But Henry spends most of the novel as Stephanopoulos spent his White House tour as domestic adviser: conspicuously fretting about the high compromises and low moral trespasses of his chosen political mentor.

Mainly, though, Primary Colors is a shallow novel about politics because it is a novel exclusively about the campaigning process--the media-centric business of gaining marginal advantage among a field of pandering presidential aspirants. As such, it's as two-dimensional as the process it professes to scorn; its moral dilemmas and its vision of political success turn alike on the packaging of mass sentiment in which nothing more is risked--and nothing more is at stake--than the tactical logic of spin. In this hermetic, process-dominated environment, Henry Burton's disillusion becomes just one more prepackaged sentiment. It's an ironic fulfillment of Eudora Welty's famous dictum that politics and literature should maintain a "private address"; Primary Colors is a novel where the process of politics decisively rules out the formation of literary character.

Klein's tale of seduction and abandonment by the adulated great leader interlocks closely with the plot trajectory of Robert Penn Warren's big message novel All the King's Men, published 50 years earlier and now being remade as a Sean Penn vehicle directed by Steven Zaillian. It's probably no coincidence that the name of Klein's narrator echoes that of Warren's--an aristocratic newspaperman named Jack Burden drawn into working for Willie Stark, the thinly disguised Huey Long character who propels Burden's own first-person account of political disillusion.

In most respects, Warren's novel has aged poorly. Its Faulknerian prose manages to be both purple and flat while its political reflections are just banal. ("Man is conceived in sin and born of corruption," runs Willie Stark's oft-quoted motto, "and he passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud"--a nugget of wisdom as hard-won as it is subtly voiced.) At the simple level of characterization, Jack Burden's odyssey is unpersuasive--his alleged innocence is more a product of tedious grad school soliloquizing than any discernible virtue. Likewise, Willie Stark's temptation of Burden into the lurid exercise of demagogic power is pasteboard populism, an opportunity to score cheap points against a discredited leader like Long--and the grievously distorted political persuasion he represented--on behalf of what is ultimately an aristocratic conception of Old South noblesse oblige. Yet Warren's overheated language of sin and corruption does hearken back to the odd moral fastidiousness that shapes so much of the obdurate badness of American political fiction.

American letters famously came of age in conditions of frontier infatuation and intense individualism, and most American novelists treated public life, like most reminders of old world civilization, with marked suspicion. The first American renaissance roughly coincided with the rise of Jacksonian democracy; but in the 1830s, few writers dallied with the mass fascination with democratic forms that foreign visitors such as de Tocqueville found so absorbing. Hawthorne and Emerson openly derided the idea of political reform; Poe and Charles Brockden Brown turned their gaze morbidly inward. Meanwhile, America's most popular storytellers, James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, hymned homely virtues, heartfelt romances, and unsophisticated accents, and had them all triumph over the sinister plottings of Europeans and American Indians.

Walt Whitman--a former clerk for the U.S. Department of the Interior--recognized that the true frontier of America was not, in fact, geographic, but political. With the most deadly political failure fresh in the nation's memory, Whitman, in 1871, issued his famous call for a distinctive, politically minded American literature in his essay "Democratic Vistas." A new national literature, Whitman argued, was the only force adequate to heal a newly sutured American nation. The country's "most fundamental want," Whitman wrote, was "the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses--radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish'd, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States."

A mouthful, to be sure. But Whitman's faith in the larger political uses of literature was justified in an age when sweepingly composed--if only erratically distinguished--works of literature furnished the leading edge of political reform. It was after all, Harriet Beecher Stowe's landmark novel Uncle Tom's Cabin that had galvanized Northern antislavery sentiment at the advent of the war. Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward spurred the Nationalist Party, one of America's earliest homegrown socialist movements. Years later, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle famously launched key reform legislation for the meatpacking industry. To reassert Welty's cool distance is to be willfully ignorant of the broader impact of American letters and the course of American political history.

But for all the impact of novels of advocacy, we have consistently failed Whitman's prophecy in one crucial respect. America has almost never produced a serious novel addressing the workings of national politics as its main subject. Indeed, it's hard not to read Whitman's own rueful characterization of his own literary generation--a "parcel of dandies and ennuyées" usually just "whimpering and crying about something, chasing one aborted conceit after another, and forever occupied in dyspeptic amours with dyspeptic women"--and not remember many of the scribes churning out the modern American political novel. The genre is as distressingly flat and uninvolving as it was when "Democratic Vistas" was published.

By the time serious American novelists took up politics as a mature literary theme, the moral perils formerly descried at the borders of frontier life had migrated to a specific set of forbidding institutions--in the specific locale of the nation's capital. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner made this the unmistakable point of the first modern American political novel--and certainly the only one to supply the name of an actual political epoch--The Gilded Age. Twain and Warner's 1873 book traces the fortunes of a frontier ingénue named Laura Hawkins who has moved to the heart of D.C. salon society via the wholesome way stations of Missouri and East Tennessee. When legislation before the Senate threatens her father's bequest of Tennessee mining land, Laura is dispatched to Washington. Swept up in the shallow, glittering, scandal-ridden world of Washington power politics, Laura meets with a sad, melodramatic end after being tempted into adultery and murder. Her noble brother Philip, who deems politics "the maddest Vanity Fair one could conceive," turns his back on the process and beats a sylvan retreat to upstate small-town New York and his one true provincial love.

The Gilded Age was successful in its time, and while it has become overshadowed by Twain's more richly imagined works, its legacy can be seen in the genre it established. From The Gilded Age on, Washington was to be the premier setting of a strikingly continuous American political fable of innocence at risk. This sturdy tale typically pitches a political naif's fateful interest in the machinery of reform against the backdrop of irredeemably fallen, endlessly seductive relations of power in the nation's capital. If much of America's signature literature remains, in the memorable formulation of R.W.B. Lewis, the saga of the American Adam, Washington is the site of Adam's fall.

If Twain and Warner staked out these themes for the mass reading public, Henry Adams sharpened and refined them for his cultivated East Coast peers in Democracy, which he published anonymously in 1880. Democracy was subtitled, pointedly, an American novel, and so it was: a prim, yet oddly frank Victorian saga of a young widow, Madeleine Lee, daughter of a famous Philadelphia clergyman, who has determined to make her way in the world of Washington political power after years of leading the half-hearted life of a reformer and society lady in New York. She soon establishes herself as the keeper of one of Washington's more lively and fashionable salons, and is squired about town by the Illinois Sen. Silas Ratcliffe (a.k.a. the "Prairie Giant"), a Washington kingmaker clearly modeled on Chester A. Arthur's legendarily corrupt secretary of state, James G. Blaine: "The beauty of his work consisted in the skill with which he avoided questions of principle," Adams writes in one of the novel's typically prim bursts of moral hauteur.

The novel proceeds along a simple narrative arc: Ratcliffe's courtship of Lee is gradually requited and ripens just as his true nature is exposed in the revelation that he took a major bribe from a trans-Atlantic cable firm. The dour moral of Adams's fable is laid out by a minor character--a European diplomat at one of Mrs. Lee's salons who is (far from incidentally, in Adams's own Yankee patrician moral universe) also a Jew named Baron Jacobi. Discussing the question of political corruption in America, the baron announces "with his wickedest leer":

"I declare to you that in all my experience I have found no society which has had elements of corruption like the United States. The children in the street are corrupt, and know how to cheat me. The cities are all corrupt, and also the towns and the counties and the States' legislatures and the judges. Everywhere men betray trusts both public and private, steal money, run away with public funds.... You gentlemen in the Senate very well declare that your great United States, which is the head of the civilized world, can never learn anything from the example of corrupt Europe. You are right--quite right! The great United States needs not an example."

After Madeleine finally rebuffs Ratcliffe's proposal of marriage, the shifty Baron gets the last heavily symbolic gesture. Seeing Ratcliffe on the sidewalk outside the Lee house just after the senator's suit is rejected, Jacobi mocks him with insincere congratulations for the engagement he knows to be broken; and then, when the senator sets upon him in a violent rage, he beats him in the face with his cane. What more gruesome testimony could there be to the depths that American democracy has sunk--to be called out and bested by the likes of a withered, cunning, and morally superior old world soul like Jacobi?

In the century and a quarter since Democracy's publication, remarkably little has changed in the depiction of American political affairs in American literature. Joan Didion offered up her own updated version of Adams's novel in 1984. The book follows a senator's wife, with the heavily symbolic name Inez Victor, who gets enmeshed in a doomed affair with a CIA operative, a reverse-image of the romantic alliance at the heart of Adams's novel. Only in Didion's vision, the seamy side of democracy has become a full-scale global delusion and imperial folly: Victor's affair takes place in Southeast Asia at the time of the fall of Saigon, and is interspersed with dyspeptic flashbacks from earlier U.S. campaign and media appearances, all reinforcing the weightless unreality of a world that is nonetheless going definitively to hell.

The arch fastidiousness of Adams and his many literary descendants seems misplaced in one crucial way: The American political system has never really staked anything on the preservation of innocence. Indeed, its structural genius is very much the reverse--using the self-interested agendas of political players to cancel each other out, interlacing the powers of government in order to limit the damage that one branch can do, and making ambition at least address, if not fulfill, the public good in spite of itself. Our federal government, as any good reader of "Federalist 10" can report, is an instrument of cynicism erected on the open acknowledgment that human nature is flawed. It has unfailingly survived (and thrived) despite the vices novelists suggest have brought it to its knees. Expecting anyone to journey to the seat of national power and deliver a Mr. Smith-like blow for the sanctity of scouting and motherhood is a bit like wanting the final act of a musical to be all gun battles and explosions: It's what the critics call a genre error.

What's more, this stubborn moralizing impulse is what makes American political fiction, even today, such watery and unsatisfying literature: It deprives writers of the best material. Don't the intrigues sprouting from our well-known human flaws and excesses ultimately make for more engaging plots and character studies than the falls from grace of a thousand or so Washington ingénus? You can consult any of the scores of wiser, better-written European novels of politics--Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine, Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma, Gunter Grass's Dog Years, Joseph Roth's The Spider's Web, to name but a few--and see how much richer and more nuanced political fiction can be. You can also see the parry-and-thrust of ambition and vice sparking Gore Vidal's better historical fantasias--steeped as they are in a rather perversely relished old world fatalism--such as Burr, Lincoln, and 1876.

But most of all, you can see exuberant besotted sinfulness of all varieties on rich display in the one truly great modern American political novel, Billy Lee Brammer's 1961 The Gay Place. Unlike most novelistic chroniclers of our politics, who got their first close-up views of politics as either journalists (Klein), political confidants (Adams, Twain, and Warren), or mere consumers of news (Beinhart), Brammer wrote of the political from a true insider's vantage. He had been a press flack and speechwriter for Lyndon Johnson during his illustrious arm-twisting, back-slapping, and deal-making career as Senate majority leader. As such, Brammer described himself as unapologetically "pro-politician"--the sort of literary disclaimer that only seems to be necessary in American letters.

Brammer's inside view helped him, first of all, to bring off a deceptively simple inversion: For him, politicians are not the tempters in the garden of American innocence. They are moral protagonists. As political animals, they're accustomed to honoring few clear distinctions between their messy, conflicted, adulterous, and boozy lives and their obligations to the public weal, and so they are not in the business of sacrificing one for the sake of the other. This means, among other things, that they have few two-dimensional virtues to jeopardize and no melodramatic Victorian corridors of power in which to sully themselves. Brammer's protagonists are all sublimely self-aware adults: They bed each other's spouses and broker parliamentary support with the same bleary-eyed aplomb, and reflect openly about the shabby compromises and disappointments they spring on themselves as they imagine they are doing good.

And presiding above them all is the character clearly modeled on LBJ, Texas governor Arthur Fenstemaker. The Gay Place is actually three linked novellas, all set in the bohemian-cum-political capital of Austin of the late 1950s; and what links them is Fenstemaker, who manages to serve as the prime mover of each tale, with the foreknowledge and consent of precious few others. In "Room Enough to Caper," he coaxes an appointed boy senator--whose marriage is on the rocks and who is wracked with grief over what he takes to be his role in the death of his brother--into a reelection bid, by forcing a thuggish McCarthyite opponent on him, and jolting his self-respect back to life in the process. In "Country Pleasures," he engineers a favorable divorce and child custody agreement for a trusted adviser by way of pretending to bed the adviser's actress wife--all on the pasteboard set of the Giant-style film set where she's filming her latest movie. And in the book's finest extended tale, "The Flea Circus," Fenstemaker abruptly revives one assemblyman's career as an up-and-coming reform figure while just as abruptly disassembling another's--all in the service of winning passage of an education reform bill benefiting neglected poor and black students from a largely hostile legislature. Indeed, throughout the novel, the governor brings the personal agendas of everyone around him into alignment with a higher good, whether they--and sometimes even he--know it or not.

Fenstemaker is, in short, an anti-Willie Stark or Jack Stanton. Disillusion in so perfectly rounded and self-knowing a scoundrel is thankfully irrelevant. "The first principle," he announces to one of his protégés, "is that you've got to learn to rise above principle." No one in Fenstemaker's vast retinue ever quite manages to disown or chastise him, for they know that, far from defying their high-flown principles of politics, he embodies the possibilities of genuine political action. As Roy Sherwood, the jump-started adulterous reformer of "The Flea Circus" says, Fenstemaker is "Mahatma Gandhi and Rasputin . . . The Prince of Darkness and the Goddamn Mystic Angel. If I ever back off from Fenstemaker, it won't be because I lost faith. Just the reverse. Because I might put so much faith in him I'd stop believing in myself."

Fenstemaker represents something else as well: a kind of heroic vitalism rarely found in a culture sapped by the very sort of cheap moralizing that turns up in your average American political novel. "The Flea Circus's" Roy Sherwood again zeroes in on this point as he ponders a pair of truly earnest naifs in his political circle:

"They were all such amateurs, he thought. Risen out of innocence, out of grace passing into awareness and a kind of hollow sophistication with hardly a corrupting experience--a genuinely horrific crime--come in between. And there were parallels. You could trace the wornout course of their piddling derelictions right alongside their politics. It wasn't enough; not enough to break through into awareness and good intentions; not enough, moreover, to stand away and point to how the public and private business ought to be carried on, clucking your distaste and disapproval. It was insufficient--in fact, it was ruinous. He wondered about the Governor. Had he somehow managed to transcend into some blessed state, passed them all, perilously close to the abyss until reaching a point of holy ground from which he could view the whole speckled landscape, viewing it with a tyrannizing emotion? At least he remained operative--old Fenstemaker--he knew what absolutely had to be done; he could engage himself and then withdraw without losing that commanding vision.... The truly able, it appeared, had only so much time to squander on disillusion and self-analysis. Then those destructive vanities were turned round and put to the business of doing what had got to be done. The truly gifted, as opposed to the merely clever, were too busy running things to be bothered. He thought of his cat. . .battling himself against a mirror."

This half-drunken interior monologue neatly and sparely dispatches the self-serving lie of American political innocence and its many "piddling derelictions." It also, far from incidentally, points toward the sort of redemption that characters like Fenstemaker can achieve even after tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and setting up shop as harvesters and fermenters of that fruit. Fenstemaker is a forever unstable compound of means and ends, virtues and sins, righteousness and vanity--no less so than his real-life model, who masterminded both the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

But he's also, like any such tortured literary character from Ahab to Winston Smith, hostage to his own saving plan of action--that "commanding vision" allowing him to arrange and disarrange events according to his own holy ground "perilously close to the abyss." The genius of Brammer's novel is its willingness to wrestle openly with the implications of a tragic, divided political nature--not merely for stars of first magnitude like Fenstemaker but also for the many lesser political beings in his orbit, falling so continuously short of the glory. True knowledge of sin, after all--not the lurid self-dramatizing Robert Penn Warren kind--is the original force that sparked the original halting Puritan dalliances with formal democracy on the North American continent. Under that dispensation, everyone is an imperfect vessel of the people's will--most especially those anointed its official servants. In this scheme of things, politics is, quite literally, Fenstemaker's saving grace, and his often brutal and cunning course through Brammer's novel charts a very American, though thankfully illusion-free, pilgrim's progress. Such is the stuff of great literature--and, indeed, of reasonably good politics.

Whitman emphatically agreed. Toward the end of "Democratic Vistas," he urged the nation's young men never to scorn the stuff of political engagement, however unseemly it appeared under the grotesquely corrupt husbandry of the Grant administration:

"It is the fashion among dillettants and fops (perhaps I myself am not guiltless,) to decry the whole formulation of the active politics of America, as beyond redemption, and to be carefully kept away from. See you that you do not fall into this error. America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain'd nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dillettants, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well. As for you, I advise you to enter more strongly yet into politics. I advise every young man to do so."

Whitman was anything but pie-eyed about American politics, as befits a former Grant administration appointee who had been abruptly discharged when he was discovered to be the author of the "immoral" Leaves of Grass. He wrote candidly about what he confessed was the "appalling prospect" of a less-than-informed universal suffrage; he also wrote of the grim watches he endured as a nurse to military casualties on both sides of the Civil War. But he was also a sufficiently sharp-eyed writer to see through the vapid pose of unearned political disillusion, and to savor the genuine imaginative promise of American democracy. One certainly can't read Whitman's impatient litany of political failings and think that all that much has changed in the temper of our politics. Likewise for the prospect of the nation "doing very well" in spite of said temper. So let the dilettantes and fops of our own grimly diminished literature, besotted with its fashionable gestures of despair, reflexive irony, and terminal purism, take heed. In pursuing their own reveries of unsullied detachment from the political fray, they're acting much like Roy Sherwood's cat, ardently doing battle with half-comprehended superficial impressions of the world, and bumping up against its own reflection.

Christopher Lehmann is an editor at CQ Weekly and the author of Revolt of the Masscult. His wife, Ana Marie Cox, has a political novel coming out in January in which no one's innocence is redeemed.


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