The Antiwar, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Drug-Enforcement-Administration, Anti-Medicare Candidacy of Dr. Ron Paul
NY Times | July 23, 2007
Whipping westward across Manhattan in a limousine sent by Comedy Central's “Daily Show,” Ron Paul, the 10-term Texas congressman and long-shot Republican presidential candidate, is being briefed. Paul has only the most tenuous familiarity with Comedy Central. He has never heard of “The Daily Show.” His press secretary, Jesse Benton, is trying to explain who its host, Jon Stewart, is. “He's an affable gentleman,” Benton says, “and he's very smart. What I'm getting from the pre-interview is, he's sympathetic.”
“GQ wants to profile you on Thursday,” Benton continues. “I think it's worth doing.”
“GTU?” the candidate replies.
“GQ. It's a men's magazine.”
“Don't know much about that,” Paul says.
Thin to the point of gauntness, polite to the point of daintiness, Ron Paul is a 71-year-old great-grandfather, a small-town doctor, a self-educated policy intellectual and a formidable stander on constitutional principle. In normal times, Paul might be — indeed, has been — the kind of person who is summoned onto cable television around April 15 to ventilate about whether the federal income tax violates the Constitution. But Paul has in recent weeks become a sensation in magazines he doesn't read, on Web sites he has never visited and on television shows he has never watched.
Alone among Republican candidates for the presidency, Paul has always opposed the Iraq war. He blames “a dozen or two neocons who got control of our foreign policy,” chief among them Vice President Dick Cheney and the former Bush advisers Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, for the debacle. On the assumption that a bad situation could get worse if the war spreads into Iran, he has a simple plan. It is: “Just leave.” During a May debate in South Carolina, he suggested the 9/11 attacks could be attributed to United States policy. “Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?” he asked, referring to one of Osama bin Laden's communiqués. “They attack us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years.” Rudolph Giuliani reacted by demanding a retraction, drawing gales of applause from the audience. But the incident helped Paul too. Overnight, he became the country's most conspicuous antiwar Republican.
Paul's opposition to the war in Iraq did not come out of nowhere. He was against the first gulf war, the war in Kosovo and the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which he called a “declaration of virtual war.” Although he voted after Sept. 11 to approve the use of force in Afghanistan and spend $40 billion in emergency appropriations, he has sounded less thrilled with those votes as time has passed. “I voted for the authority and the money,” he now says. “I thought it was misused.”
There is something homespun about Paul, reminiscent of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He communicates with his constituents through birthday cards, August barbecues and the cookbooks his wife puts together every election season, which mix photos of grandchildren, Gospel passages and neighbors' recipes for Velveeta cheese fudge and Cherry Coke salad. He is listed in the phone book, and his constituents call him at home. But there is also something cosmopolitan and radical about him; his speeches can bring to mind the World Social Forum or the French international-affairs periodical Le Monde Diplomatique. Paul is surely the only congressman who would cite the assertion of the left-leaning Chennai-based daily The Hindu that “the world is being asked today, in reality, to side with the U.S. as it seeks to strengthen its economic hegemony.” The word “empire” crops up a lot in his speeches.
This side of Paul has made him the candidate of many people, on both the right and the left, who hope that something more consequential than a mere change of party will come out of the 2008 elections. He is particularly popular among the young and the wired. Except for Barack Obama, he is the most-viewed candidate on YouTube. He is the most “friended” Republican on MySpace.com. Paul understands that his chances of winning the presidency are infinitesimally slim. He is simultaneously planning his next Congressional race. But in Paul's idea of politics, spreading a message has always been just as important as seizing office. “Politicians don't amount to much,” he says, “but ideas do.” Although he is still in the low single digits in polls, he says he has raised $2.4 million in the second quarter, enough to broaden the four-state campaign he originally planned into a national one.
Paul represents a different Republican Party from the one that Iraq, deficits and corruption have soured the country on. In late June, despite a life of antitax agitation and churchgoing, he was excluded from a Republican forum sponsored by Iowa antitax and Christian groups. His school of Republicanism, which had its last serious national airing in the Goldwater campaign of 1964, stands for a certain idea of the Constitution — the idea that much of the power asserted by modern presidents has been usurped from Congress, and that much of the power asserted by Congress has been usurped from the states. Though Paul acknowledges flaws in both the Constitution (it included slavery) and the Bill of Rights (it doesn't go far enough), he still thinks a comprehensive array of positions can be drawn from them: Against gun control. For the sovereignty of states. And against foreign-policy adventures. Paul was the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate in 1988. But his is a less exuberant libertarianism than you find, say, in the pages of Reason magazine.
Over the years, this vision has won most favor from those convinced the country is going to hell in a handbasket. The attention Paul has captured tells us a lot about the prevalence of such pessimism today, about the instability of partisan allegiances and about the seldom-avowed common ground between the hard right and the hard left. His message draws on the noblest traditions of American decency and patriotism; it also draws on what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics.
Paul grew up in the western Pennsylvania town of Green Tree. His father, the son of a German immigrant, ran a small dairy company. Sports were big around there — one of the customers on the milk route Paul worked as a teenager was the retired baseball Hall of Famer Honus Wagner — and Paul was a terrific athlete, winning a state track meet in the 220 and excelling at football and baseball. But knee injuries had ended his sports career by the time he went off to Gettysburg College in 1953. After medical school at Duke, Paul joined the Air Force, where he served as a flight surgeon, tending to the ear, nose and throat ailments of pilots, and traveling to Iran, Ethiopia and elsewhere. “I recall doing a lot of physicals on Army warrant officers who wanted to become helicopter pilots and go to Vietnam,” he told me. “They were gung-ho. I've often thought about how many of those people never came back.”
Paul is given to mulling things over morally. His family was pious and Lutheran; two of his brothers became ministers. Paul's five children were baptized in the Episcopal church, but he now attends a Baptist one. He doesn't travel alone with women and once dressed down an aide for using the expression “red-light district” in front of a female colleague. As a young man, though, he did not protest the Vietnam War, which he now calls “totally unnecessary” and “illegal.” Much later, after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, he began reading St. Augustine. “I was annoyed by the evangelicals' being so supportive of pre-emptive war, which seems to contradict everything that I was taught as a Christian,” he recalls. “The religion is based on somebody who's referred to as the Prince of Peace.”
In 1968, Paul settled in southern Texas, where he had been stationed. He recalls that he was for a while the only obstetrician — “a very delightful part of medicine,” he says — in Brazoria County. He was already immersed in reading the economics books that would change his life. Americans know the “Austrian school,” if at all, from the work of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, two economists who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and whose free-market doctrines helped inspire the conservative movement in the 1950s. The laws of economics don't admit exceptions, say the Austrians. You cannot fake out markets, no matter how surreptitiously you expand the money supply. Spend more than you earn, and you are on the road to inflation and tyranny.
Such views are not always Republican orthodoxy. Paul is a harsh critic of the Federal Reserve, both for its policies and its unaccountability. “We first bonded,” recalls Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, “because we were both conspicuous nonworshipers at the Temple of the Fed and of the High Priest Greenspan.” In recent weeks, Paul's airport reading has been a book called “Financial Armageddon.” He is obsessed with sound money, which he considers — along with the related phenomena of credit excess, bubbles and uncollateralized assets of all kinds — a “sleeper issue.” The United States ought to link its currency to gold or silver again, Paul says. He puts his money where his mouth is. According to Federal Election Commission documents, most of his investments are in gold and silver and are worth between $1.5 and $3.5 million. It's a modest sum by the standards of major presidential candidates but impressive for someone who put five children through college on a doctor's (and later a congressman's) earnings.
For Paul, everything comes back to money, including Iraq. “No matter how much you love the empire,” he says, “it's unaffordable.” Wars are expensive, and there has been a tendency throughout history to pay for them by borrowing. A day of reckoning always comes, says Paul, and one will come for us. Speaking this spring before the libertarian Future of Freedom Foundation in Reston, Va., he warned of a dollar crisis. “That's usually the way empires end,” he said. “It wasn't us forcing the Soviets to build missiles that brought them down. It was the fact that socialism doesn't work. Our system doesn't work much better.”
Under the banner of “Freedom, Honesty and Sound Money,” Paul ran for Congress in 1974. He lost — but took the seat in a special election in April 1976. He lost again in November of that year, then won in 1978. On two big issues, he stood on principle and was vindicated: He was one of very few Republicans in Congress to back Ronald Reagan against Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination. He was also one of the representatives who warned against the rewriting of banking rules that laid the groundwork for the savings-and-loan collapse of the 1980s. Paul served three terms before losing to Phil Gramm in the Republican primary for Senate in 1984. Tom DeLay took over his seat.
Paul would not come back to Washington for another dozen years. But in the time he could spare from delivering babies in Brazoria County, he remained a mighty presence in the out-of-the-limelight world of those old-line libertarians who had never made their peace with the steady growth of federal power in the 20th century. Paul got the Libertarian Party nomination for president in 1988, defeating the Indian activist Russell Means in a tough race. He finished third behind Bush and Dukakis, winning nearly half a million votes. He tended his own Foundation for Rational Economics and Education (FREE) and kept up his contacts with other market-oriented organizations. What resulted was a network of true believers who would be his political base in one of the stranger Congressional elections of modern times.
A Lone Wolf
In the first days of 1995, just weeks after the Republican landslide, Paul traveled to Washington and, through DeLay, made contact with the Texas Republican delegation. He told them he could beat the Democratic incumbent Greg Laughlin in the reconfigured Gulf Coast district that now included his home. Republicans had their own ideas. In June 1995, Laughlin announced he would run in the next election as a Republican. Laughlin says he had discussed switching parties with Newt Gingrich, the next speaker, before the Republicans even took power. Paul suspects to this day that the Republicans wooed Laughlin to head off his candidacy. Whatever happened, it didn't work. Paul challenged Laughlin in the primary.
“At first, we kind of blew him off,” recalls the longtime Texas political consultant Royal Masset. “ ‘Oh, there's Ron Paul!' But very quickly, we realized he was getting far more money than anybody.” Much of it came from out of state, from the free-market network Paul built up while far from Congress. His candidacy was a problem not just for Laughlin. It also threatened to halt the stream of prominent Democrats then switching parties — for what sane incumbent would switch if he couldn't be assured the Republican nomination? The result was a heavily funded effort by the National Republican Congressional Committee to defeat Paul in the primary. The National Rifle Association made an independent expenditure against him. Former President George H.W. Bush, Gov. George W. Bush and both Republican senators endorsed Laughlin. Paul had only two prominent backers: the tax activist Steve Forbes and the pitcher Nolan Ryan, Paul's constituent and old friend, who cut a number of ads for him. They were enough. Paul edged Laughlin in a runoff and won an equally narrow general election.
Republican opposition may not have made Paul distrust the party, but beating its network with his own homemade one revealed that he didn't necessarily need the party either. Paul looks back on that race and sees something in common with his quixotic bid for the presidency. “I always think that if I do things like that and get clobbered, I can excuse myself,” he says.
Anyone who is elected to Congress three times as a nonincumbent, as Paul has been, is a politician of prodigious gifts. Especially since Paul has real vulnerabilities in his district. For Eric Dondero, who plans to challenge him in the Republican Congressional primary next fall, foreign policy is Paul's central failing. Dondero, who is 44, was Paul's aide and sometime spokesman for more than a decade. According to Dondero, “When 9/11 happened, he just completely changed. One of the first things he said was not how awful the tragedy was . . . it was, ‘Now we're gonna get big government.' ”
Dondero claims that Paul's vote to authorize force in Afghanistan was made only after warnings from a longtime staffer that voting otherwise would cost him Victoria, a pivotal city in his district. (“Completely false,” Paul says.) One day just after the Iraq invasion, when Dondero was driving Paul around the district, the two had words. “He said he did not want to have someone on staff who did not support him 100 percent on foreign policy,” Dondero recalls. Paul says Dondero's outspoken enthusiasm for the military's “shock and awe” strategy made him an awkward spokesman for an antiwar congressman. The two parted on bad terms.
A larger vulnerability may be that voters want more pork-barrel spending than Paul is willing to countenance. In a rice-growing, cattle-ranching district, Paul consistently votes against farm subsidies. In the very district where, on the night of Sept. 8, 1900, a storm destroyed the city of Galveston, leaving 6,000 dead, and where repairs from Hurricane Rita and refugees from Hurricane Katrina continue to exact a toll, he votes against FEMA and flood aid. In a district that is home to many employees of the Johnson Space Center, he votes against financing NASA.
The Victoria Advocate, an influential newspaper in the district, has generally opposed Paul for re-election, on the grounds that a “lone wolf” cannot get the highway and homeland-security financing the district needs. So how does he get re-elected? Tim Delaney, the paper's editorial-page editor, says: “Ron Paul is a very charismatic person. He has charm. He does not alter his position ever. His ideals are high. If a little old man calls up from the farm and says, ‘I need a wheelchair,' he'll get the damn wheelchair for him.”
Paul may have refused on principle to accept Medicare when he practiced medicine. He may return a portion of his Congressional office budget every year. But his staff has the reputation of fighting doggedly to collect Social Security checks, passports, military decorations, immigrant-visa extensions and any emolument to which constituents are entitled by law. According to Jackie Gloor, who runs Paul's Victoria office: “So many times, people say to us, ‘We don't like his vote.' But they trust his heart.”
In Congress, Paul is generally admired for his fidelity to principle and lack of ego. “He is one of the easiest people in Congress to work with, because he bases his positions on the merits of issues,” says Barney Frank, who has worked with Paul on efforts to ease the regulation of gambling and medical marijuana. “He is independent but not ornery.” Paul has made a habit of objecting to things that no one else objects to. In October 2001, he was one of three House Republicans to vote against the USA Patriot Act. He was the sole House member of either party to vote against the Financial Antiterrorism Act (final tally: 412-1). In 1999, he was the only naysayer in a 424-1 vote in favor of casting a medal to honor Rosa Parks. Nothing against Rosa Parks: Paul voted against similar medals for Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. He routinely opposes resolutions that presume to advise foreign governments how to run their affairs: He has refused to condemn Robert Mugabe's violence against Zimbabwean citizens (421-1), to call on Vietnam to release political prisoners (425-1) or to ask the League of Arab States to help stop the killing in Darfur (425-1).
Every Thursday, Paul is the host of a luncheon for a circle of conservative Republicans that he calls the Liberty Caucus. It has become the epicenter of antiwar Republicanism in Washington. One stalwart member is Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who during the debate over Iraq suggested renaming French fries “freedom fries” in the House dining room, but who has passed the years since in vocal opposition to the war. Another is John (Jimmy) Duncan of Tennessee, the only Republican besides Paul who voted against the war and remains in the House. Other regulars include Virgil Goode of Virginia, Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland and Scott Garrett of New Jersey. Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Jeff Flake, the Arizonan scourge of pork-barrel spending, visit occasionally. Not all are antiwar, but many of the speakers Paul invites are: the former C.I.A. analyst Michael Scheuer, the intelligence-world journalist James Bamford and such disillusioned United States Army officers as William Odom, Gregory Newbold and Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell's former chief of staff), among others.
In today's Washington, Paul's combination of radical libertarianism and conservatism is unusual. Sometimes the first impulse predominates. He was the only Texas Republican to vote against last year's Federal Marriage Amendment, meant to stymie gay marriage. He detests the federal war on drugs; the LSD guru Timothy Leary held a fundraiser for him in 1988. Sometimes he is more conservative. He opposed the recent immigration bill on the grounds that it constituted amnesty. At a breakfast for conservative journalists in the offices of Americans for Tax Reform this May, he spoke resentfully of being required to treat penurious immigrants in emergency rooms — “patients who were more likely to sue you than anybody else,” having children “who became automatic citizens the next day.” (Paul champions a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship.) While he backs free trade in theory, he opposes many of the institutions and arrangements — from the World Trade Organization to Nafta — that promote it in practice.
Paul also opposes abortion, which he believes should be addressed at the state level, not the national one. He remembers seeing a late abortion performed during his residency, years before Roe v. Wade, and he maintains it left an impression on him. “It was pretty dramatic for me,” he says, “to see a two-and-a-half-pound baby taken out crying and breathing and put in a bucket.”
The Owl-God Moloch
Paul's message is not new. You could have heard it in 1964 or 1975 or 1991 at the conclaves of those conservatives who were considered outside the mainstream of the Republican Party. Back then, most Republicans appeared reconciled to a strong federal government, if only to do the expensive job of defending the country against Communism. But when the Berlin Wall fell, the dormant institutions and ideologies of pre-cold-war conservatism began to stir. In his 1992 and 1996 campaigns, Pat Buchanan was the first politician to express and exploit this change, breathing life into the motto “America First” (if not the organization of that name, which opposed entry into World War II).
Like Buchanan, Paul draws on forgotten traditions. His top aides are unimpeachably Republican but stand at a distance from the party as it has evolved over the decades. His chief of staff, Tom Lizardo, worked for Pat Robertson and Bill Miller Jr. (the son of Barry Goldwater's vice-presidential nominee). His national campaign organizer, Lew Moore, worked for the late congressman Jack Metcalf of Washington State, another Goldwaterite. At the grass roots, Paul's New Hampshire primary campaign stresses gun rights and relies on anti-abortion and tax activists from the organizations of Buchanan and the state's former maverick senator, Bob Smith.
Paul admires Robert Taft, the isolationist Ohio senator known during the Truman administration as Mr. Republican, who tried to rally Republicans against United States participation in NATO. Taft lost the Republican nomination in 1952 to Dwight Eisenhower and died the following year. “Now, of course,” Paul says, “I quote Eisenhower when he talks about the military-industrial complex. But I quote Taft when he suits my purposes too.” Particularly on NATO, from which Paul, too, would like to withdraw.
The question is whether the old ideologies being resurrected are neglected wisdom or discredited nonsense. In the 1996 general election, Paul's Democratic opponent Lefty Morris held a press conference to air several shocking quotes from a newsletter that Paul published during his decade away from Washington. Passages described the black male population of Washington as “semi-criminal or entirely criminal” and stated that “by far the most powerful lobby in Washington of the bad sort is the Israeli government.” Morris noted that a Canadian neo-Nazi Web site had listed Paul's newsletter as a laudably “racialist” publication.
Paul survived these revelations. He later explained that he had not written the passages himself — quite believably, since the style diverges widely from his own. But his response to the accusations was not transparent. When Morris called on him to release the rest of his newsletters, he would not. He remains touchy about it. “Even the fact that you're asking this question infers, ‘Oh, you're an anti-Semite,' ” he told me in June. Actually, it doesn't. Paul was in Congress when Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 and — unlike the United Nations and the Reagan administration — defended its right to do so. He says Saudi Arabia has an influence on Washington equal to Israel's. His votes against support for Israel follow quite naturally from his opposition to all foreign aid. There is no sign that they reflect any special animus against the Jewish state.
What is interesting is Paul's idea that the identity of the person who did write those lines is “of no importance.” Paul never deals in disavowals or renunciations or distancings, as other politicians do. In his office one afternoon in June, I asked about his connections to the John Birch Society. “Oh, my goodness, the John Birch Society!” he said in mock horror. “Is that bad? I have a lot of friends in the John Birch Society. They're generally well educated, and they understand the Constitution. I don't know how many positions they would have that I don't agree with. Because they're real strict constitutionalists, they don't like the war, they're hard-money people. . . . ”
Paul's ideological easygoingness is like a black hole that attracts the whole universe of individuals and groups who don't recognize themselves in the politics they see on TV. To hang around with his impressively large crowd of supporters before and after the CNN debate in Manchester, N.H., in June, was to be showered with privately printed newsletters full of exclamation points and capital letters, scribbled-down U.R.L.'s for Web sites about the Free State Project, which aims to turn New Hampshire into a libertarian enclave, and copies of the cult DVD “America: Freedom to Fascism.”
Victor Carey, a 45-year-old, muscular, mustachioed self-described “patriot” who wears a black baseball cap with a skull and crossbones on it, drove up from Sykesville, Md., to show his support for Paul. He laid out some of his concerns. “The people who own the Federal Reserve own the oil companies, they own the mass media, they own the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, they're part of the Bilderbergers, and unfortunately their spiritual practices are very wicked and diabolical as well,” Carey said. “They go to a place out in California known as the Bohemian Grove, and there's been footage obtained by infiltration of what their practices are. And they do mock human sacrifices to an owl-god called Moloch. This is true. Go research it yourself.”
Two grandmothers from North Carolina who painted a Winnebago red, white and blue were traveling around the country, stumping for Ron Paul, defending the Constitution and warning about the new “North American Union.” Asked whether this is something that would arise out of Nafta, Betty Smith of Chapel Hill, N.C., replied: “It's already arisen. They're building the highway. Guess what! The Spanish company building the highway — they're gonna get the tolls. Giuliani's law firm represents that Spanish company. Giuliani's been anointed a knight by the Queen. Guess what! Read the Constitution. That's not allowed!”
Paul is not a conspiracy theorist, but he has a tendency to talk in that idiom. In a floor speech shortly after the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, he mentioned Unocal's desire to tap the region's energy and concluded, “We should not be surprised now that many contend that the plan for the U.N. to ‘nation-build' in Afghanistan is a logical and important consequence of this desire.” But when push comes to shove, Paul is not among the “many” who “contend” this. “I think oil and gas is part of it,” he explains. “But it's not the issue. If that were the only issue, it wouldn't have happened. The main reason was to get the Taliban out.”
Last winter at a meet-the-candidate house party in New Hampshire, students representing a group called Student Scholars for 9/11 Truth asked Paul whether he believed the official investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks was credible. “I never automatically trust anything the government does when they do an investigation,” Paul replied, “because too often I think there's an area that the government covered up, whether it's the Kennedy assassination or whatever.” The exchange was videotaped and ricocheted around the Internet for a while. But Paul's patience with the “Truthers,” as they call themselves, does not make him one himself. “Even at the time it happened, I believe the information was fairly clear that Al Qaeda was involved,” he told me.
“Every Wacko Fringe Group In the Country”
One evening in mid-June, 86 members of a newly formed Ron Paul Meetup group gathered in a room in the Pasadena convention center. It was a varied crowd, preoccupied by the war, including many disaffected Democrats. Via video link from Virginia, Paul's campaign chairman, Kent Snyder, spoke to the group “of a coming-together of the old guard and the new.” Then Connie Ruffley, co-chairwoman of United Republicans of California (UROC), addressed the crowd. UROC was founded during the 1964 presidential campaign to fight off challenges to Goldwater from Rockefeller Republicanism. Since then it has lain dormant but not dead — waiting, like so many other old right-wing groups, for someone or something to kiss it back to life. UROC endorsed Paul at its spring convention.
That night, Ruffley spoke about her past with the John Birch Society and asked how many in the room were members (quite a few, as it turned out). She referred to the California senator Dianne Feinstein as “Fine-Swine,” and got quickly to Israel, raising the Israeli attack on the American Naval signals ship Liberty during the Six-Day War. Some people were pleased. Others walked out. Others sent angry e-mails that night. Several said they would not return. The head of the Pasadena Meetup group, Bill Dumas, sent a desperate letter to Paul headquarters asking for guidance:
“We're in a difficult position of working on a campaign that draws supporters from laterally opposing points of view, and we have the added bonus of attracting every wacko fringe group in the country. And in a Ron Paul Meetup many people will consider each other ‘wackos' for their beliefs whether that is simply because they're liberal, conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, evangelical Christian, etc. . . . We absolutely must focus on Ron's message only and put aside all other agendas, which anyone can save for the next ‘Star Trek' convention or whatever.”
But what is “Ron's message”? Whatever the campaign purports to be about, the main thing it has done thus far is to serve as a clearinghouse for voters who feel unrepresented by mainstream Republicans and Democrats. The antigovernment activists of the right and the antiwar activists of the left have many differences, maybe irreconcilable ones. But they have a lot of common beliefs too, and their numbers — and anger — are of a considerable magnitude. Ron Paul will not be the next president of the United States. But his candidacy gives us a good hint about the country the next president is going to have to knit back together.
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