Restless intellect drives Kerry's positions
This article was reported by Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Nina J. Easton and is based on "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography" (Public Affairs, 2004).
When John Forbes Kerry was chosen to deliver the class oration at his Yale graduation ceremony in 1966, he didn't intend to offer his fellow students "any eternal truth." His purpose, he wrote in his draft, was "to challenge and not to preach, to question and not to answer." But then Kerry switched course, threw out the speech, and delivered a prescient critique of US foreign policy in Vietnam.
Kerry's layers of complexity were more evident by his subsequent action: He volunteered to serve in the war he was already questioning.
Today, the words of that 22-year-old college student define the political life of the 60-year-old Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate he came to be. As Kerry makes his case to voters that he is better suited than George W. Bush to lead the nation, he is bedeviled by accusations that he lacks a clear vision, that he drowns his positions in nuance, and that he frequently contradicts himself. On the campaign trail, protesters chide him by applauding with flip-flop sandals.
As detailed in a forthcoming Globe biography, "John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography," Kerry is a man with a strong but restless intellect, a political figure who is at his best when probing rather than presenting. Just as North Carolina Senator John Edwards was the consummate trial attorney on the campaign trail, charming voters as he once charmed juries, Kerry remains the prosecutor he once was, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities of his opponents but a lawyerly ability to argue more than one side of an issue.
As a senator, Kerry's experience in Vietnam drove him to ferret out government misdeeds, but not always with success or political acuity. Ironically, in the course of one Senate investigation (his "last" Vietnam mission, he said), he concluded the government he once protested was not involved in lies and coverups; there were no mass prisons of US soldiers secretly being held in Indochina, as many families and conspiracy theorists insisted. His efforts helped move the country toward normalized relations with Vietnam.
The early missteps
During the first half of his 20-year Senate career, Kerry earned praise for his investigations, particularly in disclosing the role of government figures in the Iran-contra controversy. But in two cases in which Kerry sought the spotlight for actions other than investigations, the efforts backfired: As a freshman senator in 1985, he tried to help broker peace with Nicaragua's Marxist government, only to be labeled by conservative opponents as a dupe of Moscow. As a second-term senator in 1992, he launched a rhetorical campaign against affirmative action, describing it as "inherently limited and divisive," only to be vociferously denounced -- this time by the left -- as racially insensitive.
The Globe biography also describes the Socratic nature of Kerry's decision-making style and how it has affected his positions on both American wars against Iraq. As a senator, Kerry seeks advice from many quarters, examines all angles, raises every doubt. At freewheeling debate sessions with his Capitol Hill staff members, he had a habit of keeping them guessing about his positions; sometimes they would not know how he planned to vote even as he walked onto the Senate floor.
"It was very frustrating," his former counsel Jonathan Winer recalled. "But he has to feel it's right in his gut, even when the staff preferred a shorthand" guide to his views.
Kerry's character is marked by a determination to be independent-minded. This was especially evident Feb. 28, 1969, when Kerry strayed from the standard Navy practice of firing from a speeding boat at the shoreline and instead ordered his crew to beach their 50-foot aluminum swift boat on a South Vietnamese riverbank and pursue enemy snipers. But as a politician, Kerry's independent gambits at times played poorly back home in Massachusetts, where liberal Democratic activists rued his backsliding and many mainstream party regulars considered him a grandstander.
While no one can predict with precision what kind of president a candidate will make, clues can be found in Kerry's past. What follows are windows into his political life that hint at how Kerry might govern if elected president.
At an April 2001 gathering of about 2,000 Bostonians honoring J. Joseph Moakley, a beloved congressman from South Boston who was dying from leukemia, former state Senate President William M. Bulger from Southie described the close-knit neighborhood and the nurturing effect it had on Moakley.
Then Kerry spoke.
"I felt a pang as I listened to him talk about the lessons learned in that community," Kerry said. "Because one of my regrets is that I didn't share that kind of neighborhood. I didn't know that. My dad was in the Foreign Service. We moved around a lot."
A rootless childhood underlies the shifting sands of Kerry's political life. He's not "from" a Massachusetts neighborhood; rather, his youth stretched through a dozen towns across two continents with only a few years spent in the state he calls home. Kerry made close friends through his boarding-school adolescence and at Yale (he lost some of those friends to the killing fields of Vietnam). But among those outside this elite social world, Kerry operated as a loner: As a commander of a swift boat patrolling the Mekong Delta, he often abandoned the camaraderie of crewmates to sit on a rooftop and scribble in his diary. Even in the august Senate, he flouted clubby rules of etiquette to launch his own free-lance investigations.
That lone-wolf manner was especially evident in his struggle to build a political base in Massachusetts. In 1972, during his failed bid for Congress, the patrician Kerry was greeted as an alien political life form in the white ethnic factory towns of Lowell and Lawrence. Already plagued with the "carpetbagger" label for moving through two other congressional districts before settling on this one, Kerry was soundly defeated after the flamboyant editor of the Lowell Sun tarred him as an outsider and "radical leftist war agitator."
"I did not have that network of roots, those personal connections of kids I grew up with, the high school I went to, the people who could say I played football with him," Kerry recalled of his first and only political defeat. "Just relationships; I didn't have 'em. I came in cold . . . It was an adventure based on an idea, which was ending the [Vietnam] war."
Twelve years later, when he made his next national run -- this time for US Senate -- Kerry allied with an influential figure, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn. Kerry had moved into Boston's Back Bay neighborhood in 1983, after his separation from his first wife, Julia Thorne. But he was not well known in the tribal world of Democratic politics in the city.
So Kerry relied on Flynn, the son of a longshoreman and a champion of organized labor, to open doors. "I always admired him because of his Vietnam record, the war part of it," Flynn said. "He was a wealthy kid going into the military. Usually, it's poor kids who fight these wars."
Political friends warned that the Kerry alliance would hurt Flynn in future elections. "It was that intense," Flynn recalled.
"Tip [O'Neill] calls me, all upset with me for not supporting [Kerry's opponent] Jimmy Shannon. Joe Moakley, same thing," Flynn said of his South Boston neighbor. "Organized labor and all the important politicians, it seemed, didn't like John Kerry."
But Flynn returned the favor of Kerry's earlier support of his mayoral candidacy. In the late summer of 1984, he brought Kerry to union halls and accompanied him to some of the city's famous saloons -- the Eire Pub in Adams Village, J. J. Foley's in the South End -- as well as many Irish bars along the 4-mile length of Dorchester Avenue, which runs through the city's most populous working-class neighborhood. "Getting into the Eire Pub at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, when people stop off to have one, the word got around that Kerry was trying to meet people where they actually gather," Flynn said. Perhaps more significantly, Flynn's large political organization became a proxy army in Boston for Kerry's successful 1984 Senate race.
Flynn was among those who saw another side, rarely revealed, to the patrician manner and diffident carriage that compose Kerry's public face. Flynn has parted ways with Kerry since their political alliance of the 1980s. But in 1994, when Flynn was in Rome, serving as US ambassador to the Vatican, Kerry visited his son Ray Jr. a number of times when he was hospitalized for treatment of a bipolar disorder. "He would stop by, with magazines, and talk sports and politics to Little Ray," the elder Flynn recalled.
Similarly, Toby Guzowski remembered how Kerry, in 1989, "spent many hours" at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston at the bedside of his mother, Ann Guzowski, a longtime Kerry volunteer who was being treated for terminal breast cancer. Chris Greeley, a former aide and now a lobbyist, said he experienced that solicitous side of his boss in 1986 when his mother died. "His capacity to respond when you need it can be a little overwhelming," Greeley said.
Reclaiming the spotlight
Kerry landed in Washington to begin his first term as US senator in early 1985. He was determined to regain the prominence he had enjoyed more than a dozen years before as a leading antiwar protester. By now, the mop-haired protester had transformed into a suit-clad 41-year-old father of two. After his crushing 1972 defeat, Kerry had spent a decade in political exile, attending law school and later running the office of Middlesex District Attorney John J. Droney, and finally serving for two years as lieutenant governor under Michael S. Dukakis.
But Kerry's reputation as a political opportunist trailed him to Washington. Some Vietnam veterans still bristled that he had risen to fame in part by accusing soldiers of committing atrocities against civilians. Massachusetts politicos still remembered his district-shopping. And although he excelled in the Middlesex prosecutor's office in the late 1970s, his critics there recalled that Kerry's ambitions for his boss's job -- a man who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease -- were transparent.
At one point during his first year in the Senate, Kerry told a Globe reporter that "the perception of me as a showboat has persisted by virtue of the strong image people have of 1971 and 1972, which has proven indelible."
Even Kerry's mother acknowledged her son's image problem that year. "He's a very warm, caring person, despite possibly an outer appearance of being self-centered and ambitious," she said.
Kerry had always displayed a knack for drawing media attention. And just four months into his first Senate term, Kerry was about to become the man of the moment in the most contentious policy debate in Washington -- Nicaragua.
Kerry was convinced that Central America was emerging as America's next Vietnam. President Reagan wanted Congress to support the contras trying to overthrow Nicaragua's Soviet-friendly Sandinista government. The Republican president had proclaimed the Contras -- and rebels like them around the developing world -- "freedom fighters" against communist dictatorships.
To Kerry and other Democrats, the contras were not freedom fighters, but rather a CIA-funded "mercenary army, which has been guilty of atrocities against civilians," as the Massachusetts senator told colleagues at the time. Kerry worried about the prospect of American troops once again dying on behalf of an ill-conceived military confrontation with a faraway communist government.
Together with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, also a Vietnam veteran, Kerry planned to lead the charge to stop Reagan's war. If the strategy unfolded as planned, the freshmen senators would be applauded by anyone who cared about an American foreign policy conducted peaceably and with honor. They would emerge as heroic foes against a warmongering Reagan White House.
But Kerry's game plan had a hitch. And that hitch had a Marxist face -- Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua.
Mission in Managua
On April 18, 1985, Kerry and Harkin, reporters in tow, flew to Managua to meet with top Sandinista officials. A congressional vote on Reagan's request for aid to the contras was five days away. And the pair of senators hoped their efforts could revive stalled peace negotiations between the United States and the Sandinistas.
"My generation, a lot of us, grew up with the phrase 'give peace a chance,' as part of a song that captured a lot of people's imagination,' " Kerry would soon tell his Senate colleagues. "I hope that the president of the United States will give peace a chance."
The contras, mostly national guardsmen from the former Somoza dictatorship, were notorious for violence against Nicaragua's civilian population. But the Sandinista officials on the senators' itinerary carried their own baggage: The Marxist government had imported Soviet and Cuban military advisers. It had censored the media, confiscated property, and jailed dissidents.
Kerry acknowledged the Sandinistas' failings and planned to press officials for assurances that needed changes were on the horizon. After dinner at the foreign minister's residence, Kerry told a reporter accompanying him on the trip, "We asked for a statement of their response on a number of issues that ranged from the status of the contras to individual liberties to the issue of Soviet bases in Nicaragua."
Two days later, as the senators were returning to Washington, they were handed a 2-page offer from Ortega to the US government: The Sandinista government would agree to a cease-fire and restore civil liberties if the US government ceased its support of the contras. "If the United States is serious about peace, this is a great opportunity," Kerry said.
Kerry and Harkin arrived back in Washington on Saturday afternoon and took their places center stage in the brewing debate over Reagan's request for aid to the contras. The trip to Nicaragua already had been a media boon for Kerry. "Time and again, reporters and television crews focused on the more telegenic Kerry, leaving him, embarrassed at times, speaking for both of them as Harkin stood in the background," a reporter on the trip noted.
Back at home, Kerry was on the network news within hours of landing, saying he was delivering a proposal to the White House to "stop the killing." On Sunday, when Senate leaders met with Reagan at the White House to discuss aid to the contras, Kerry -- who won the only spot available to the two freshmen by flipping a coin -- was in attendance. The freshman senator also squeezed in an appearance on the CBS news program "Face the Nation," where he applied the lessons of Vietnam to Reagan's interventions in Central America.
Then things started turning sour.
That afternoon, the White House denounced the Ortega peace offer as a slick "propaganda initiative" and suggested the naive senators had been used by a Marxist government intent on affecting the upcoming Tuesday vote. "I'm sure it's quite a problem for us when senators run around and start dealing with the communists themselves," Secretary of State George P. Shultz said.
The Reagan administration, eager to overthrow the Sandinistas, had plenty of ideological reason to denounce the Kerry-Harkin mission. But some of the fine print of the administration rebuttal suggested that the senators might have problems of their own making to come.
In the document Kerry delivered, Ortega reaffirmed the "nonaligned nature" of the Nicaraguan revolution, despite the country's ties to the Soviet Union and Cuba. And in response to promises that civil liberties would be restored, the State Department said Ortega had extended for six months the government's repressive state of emergency -- the day after meeting with Harkin and Kerry.
Kerry said he was not naive about the Sandinistas' repressive behavior. A Kerry adviser on the trip recalled that Kerry was "disgusted" by the foreign minister's lavish home, which had been confiscated, even while purportedly leading a "people's revolution" in the poverty-plagued country.
Nevertheless, Kerry told his Senate colleagues on Tuesday, the same day as the House vote on a $14 million contra aid package, that it was time to end "the bloodshed, the suffering, the terrorism."
"I am willing . . . to take the risk in the effort to put to test the good faith of the Sandinistas," he said.
That day, the Sandinistas collected an important victory when the House rejected Reagan's request for aid to their enemy, the contras.
A day later, Daniel Ortega, who had promised to force Soviet and Cuban advisers out of his country if aid to the contras ended, boarded an Aeroflot jet for Moscow to collect a $200 million loan.
Reagan's speechwriters couldn't have scripted a better I-told-you-so ending.
Ortega's trip to Moscow "embarrassed us, to be perfectly truthful," Kerry's powerful Massachusetts colleague, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, said at the time. (But Connecticut Senator Christopher J. Dodd wondered aloud why his Democratic colleagues were so stunned: "Where did my colleagues think he was going to go, Disney World?" he said. "The man is a Marxist.")
Kerry issued his own response to the Ortega trip. "I'm as mad as anyone that [Ortega] is in the Soviet Union," he said. "But the fact is, if we're not willing to talk, the question has to be asked, 'Where else is he going to turn for help?' "
Ortega's Moscow trip also produced an opening for the White House to renew its crusade for aid to the contras. Six weeks later, the Democratic-led House dramatically reversed itself and approved $27 million in nonmilitary funding for the contras. The Senate also approved aid.
The Iraq challenge
When Kerry applied his maverick instincts to investigations in the 1980s and early '90s, he was far more successful. His free-lance investigation into White House aide Oliver L. North's secret operation to fund the contras helped jump-start Congress' official Iran-contra investigation and led to one Reagan aide pleading guilty to charges of withholding information from Congress.
In 1989, after intense investigation, Kerry's subcommittee issued a report concluding that the CIA and other US agencies had turned a blind eye to drug trafficking on the fringes of the contra network. His investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, commonly known as BCCI, helped lead to the bank's closure.
Vietnam left Kerry with conflicted views about war's ultimate claim on human life. He said he was not a pacifist. But the images of the horrors of combat, of American soldiers returning in body bags, haunted him and influenced his positions on Central America in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Still, he has supported US military intervention, particularly in Kosovo in 1999.
On certain issues, Kerry was resolute: As a liberal, he fought Reagan-era nuclear weapons systems, backed environmental controls, and repeatedly voted against efforts to restrict abortions. As a centrist on crime and federal spending, he was one of the first Democrats to support the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit control act and later was instrumental in President Clinton's efforts to put 100,000 more cops on the street.
But on other issues, Kerry's positions could be hard to pin down. His supporters did not view this as a fault, but rather as the byproduct of a dynamic and curious mind. The former Yale debater relished playing devil's advocate with his Senate advisers, drawing them into pointed discussion and debate. But soliciting opinions didn't mean he would adopt them.
"When he does this thing where he is going on too long, he is sharing with you his internal thought process of how he got from here to there," his former counsel Winer said. "There have been things that he has rejected from a staffer or a friend, which then I have heard him [adopt] three months later, and that is because three months later he has worked it through and internalized it and he knows it is his . . . I can't tell him what to do. [His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry,] can't tell him what to do. [Chief of staff] David McKean can't tell him what to do. [Media adviser] Bob Shrum can't tell him what to do. You can suggest it, and maybe he'll do it and maybe he won't. But he is not going to surrender that personal autonomy that is the core of [his] integrity."
To critics, Kerry's display of his thought process is Kerry the straddler, trying to create a record so broad that it becomes one big Rorschach inkblot in the minds of the electorate. Never would Kerry become more vulnerable to this charge than in his gyrations over America's two biggest wars since Vietnam -- both against Iraq.
On Aug. 1, 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein rolled his army across a desert border and into the tiny, oil-rich emirate of Kuwait. Hussein, who had been openly lusting after his next-door neighbor, now declared Kuwait his country's 19th province, thus threatening neighboring Saudi Arabia -- and Western oil supplies.
Hussein was fresh from an eight-year war with Iran, a massive bloodletting provoked by his earlier invasion of that country. His ruthlessness was well established; two years earlier, he had murdered as many as 7,000 Kurds in northern Iraq by dropping canisters of poisonous gas on a city of 50,000.
The international community responded swiftly to the Kuwait invasion, imposing an embargo on Iraq until Hussein agreed to withdraw. President George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, ordered a massive buildup of US military force in the region and began the arduous work of stitching together one of the most diverse military coalitions in history.
A month after the invasion, Kerry said Hussein should be given more diplomatic wiggle room for withdrawal. "My greatest fear is this issue is too much box and not enough capacity to move out," Kerry told Globe editors and reporters 27 days after the invasion. "That line is pointing in a very dangerous direction."
Despite the embargo and a massive US military buildup in the region, Hussein refused to budge. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry expressed concern that fall that the Bush administration appeared to be moving toward war.
In January, despite widespread fears that a military operation would lead to tens of thousands of American casualties, the Bush administration asked Congress for authorization to invade. With the prospect of another Vietnam uppermost on his mind, Kerry gave an impassioned speech opposing the impending war.
"Are we ready," he asked his colleagues, "for another generation of amputees, paraplegics, burn victims" and the enduring traumas faced by those who have fought in combat?
But the war was widely seen as a success. After a US bombing campaign showcased advanced military technology, coalition ground troops routed the Iraqi Army in 100 hours. In March, when Kerry joined other senators to visit US troops still massed on the Iraq border, he said he was "delighted by the outcome" of the war.
Eleven years later, Kerry faced a vote on another resolution, this time made by the senior Bush's son, that would authorize the use of US military might against Iraq.
Kerry made clear during a television interview just weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that he considered Saddam Hussein a threat. "Saddam Hussein has used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, and there is some evidence of their efforts to try to secure these kinds of weapons and even test them," he said on "Face the Nation."
In 2002, Bush administration officials began publicly suggesting that war might be necessary to oust Hussein and bring an end to the threat he posed to the region and the United States. Nevertheless, on Aug. 21, President Bush dismissed growing speculation about an invasion as a "frenzy" and said he was a "patient man" who would consult international allies and Congress before taking action.
Back home in Boston, the heat was on Kerry. When about 80 antiwar protesters demonstrated outside the senator's office, Kerry issued a statement saying that "while I want us to arrive at a policy that eliminates the threat that Saddam Hussein represents, I want us to arrive at a policy that does that and advances the cause of America."
On Sept. 12, 2002, Bush addressed the United Nations Security Council, setting conditions on Hussein that the president said later he doubted the Iraqi leader would meet. After Bush's remarks, Kerry said he was "very supportive of the president." But two days later, after Bush had urged immediate action by Congress, Kerry, on national television, called the Bush speech "a slap in the face" against the United Nations.
Furious bipartisan negotiations with the White House continued for weeks, with congressional leaders pushing for a stricter resolution on the use of force. On Oct. 1, with Congress preparing to debate the resolution's wording, Bush criticized efforts to "weaken" the resolution in a way that "ties my hands." He said he wanted to be able to act even if the United States did not win broad international support.
At issue was a bipartisan measure crafted by Senators Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware. Their alternative would have made the disarmament issue the principal goal of the threat of force.
With a showdown looming, Kerry, a harsh critic of the Bush foreign policy, called a new draft of the resolution "an improvement" over an earlier Bush proposal because it included advance notification to Congress. But he was still uncommitted and seemed to be wavering.
Risking the future
Among Kerry supporters, a debate raged over the upcoming vote. Some advisers warned him that a "yes" vote could mean a dangerous political fallout. "There were voices in the room that said, 'John, you'll never be the Democratic nominee,' and 'John, you're alienating your base,' " Winer said.
On the eve of a decisive vote, Kerry declared his support for the resolution in a 45-minute address on the Senate floor. "The vote that I will give to the president is for one reason and one reason only, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint conference with our allies," Kerry said in his address. "I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days -- to work with the United Nations Security Council . . . and to 'act with our allies at our side' if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force."
The next day, Oct. 10, both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to give Bush the leverage he sought. The bipartisan Senate vote was 77 to 23, with Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts among the opponents.
Within days, Kerry was answering the critics, suggesting it was a vote for peace, not war. At a Democratic Party dinner in Arizona four days after the vote, Kerry responded to charges that the Democratic majority had caved in the Senate.
"Wrong," he said. "What's happened is every single member of the United States Senate moved to take it to the UN with a willingness to enforce through the United Nations if that is the will of the international community."
He went on to say he would oppose unilateral US force. "There is no justification whatsoever for sending Americans for the first time in American history as the belligerent, as the initiator of it, as a matter of first instance, without a showing of an imminent threat to our country."
Routinely, he would say that the resolution did not actually give Bush a "free hand" to wage war. "We've given him the opportunity to work with the international community and to try to bring the world together on something that is a concern," Kerry said in Arizona, four days after his vote.
Kerry also began offering as his defense the argument that a "yes" vote would give the White House needed leverage to pressure Hussein to disarm. He had expressly rejected the leverage argument 11 years earlier, when Bush's father wanted to go to war against Hussein.
In 1991, when he voted against the senior Bush's war resolution, Kerry said: "For us in Congress now, this is not a vote about a message. It is a vote about war because whether or not the president exercises his power, we will have no further say after this vote." In 2002, when he voted in favor of George W. Bush's war resolution, Kerry declared he would support the resolution only as means to pressure Hussein to disarm through "tough weapons inspections in conference with our allies."
Within months, it would become clear that the first stages of the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination would be shaped by an event of Republican making -- President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Kerry's vote haunted him in the months leading up to the January opening of the 2004 presidential caucuses and primaries. For a burgeoning antiwar movement, former Vermont governor Howard Dean had become an intriguing alternative. Kerry's presidential campaign, meanwhile, had become riddled with internal strife; as a candidate he was criticized as a stiff figure with a muddled message, particularly on the nation's most divisive issue, the war in Iraq.
Nevertheless, on Jan. 27, 2004, Kerry accomplished one of the most spectacular turnarounds in modern US politics when he capped a surprise win in the Iowa caucus with a victory in the New Hampshire primary, and then cleared the field with a string of triumphs in other states.
Now, Kerry is testing his complex political style on a broader electorate. In the decades since college friends teased him with kazoo salutes of "Hail to the Chief," a combination of ambition, skill, circumstance, and luck have propelled Kerry to this moment. To critics, Kerry is a calculating, shifting bundle of contradictions. To supporters, Kerry's complexity is the product of a probing intellect that grasps the nuances of issues.
If Kerry's experience has taught him "any eternal truth" since he penned that Yale class oration, it won't fit on a bumper sticker or in a 30-second commercial. His campaign for the White House will be both the oratorical challenge of his life and the most basic challenge of a politician: telling voters who he is, what he believes, and why he should be president.
Globe correspondent John Aloysius Farrell contributed to this report.
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