A President for the Ages


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Edited by Karl Weber

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The First American. Frontiersman and backwoods attorney. Teller of bawdy tales and a spellbinding orator. A champion of liberty some called a would-be tyrant. Savior of the Union and the Great Emancipator. All these are Abraham Lincoln — in his time America’s most admired and reviled leader, and still our nation’s most enigmatic and captivating hero.

Timed to complement the new motion picture Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln: A President for the Ages introduces a new Lincoln grappling with some of history’s greatest challenges. Would Lincoln have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? How would he conduct the War on Terror? Would he favor women’s suffrage or gay rights? Would today’s Lincoln be a star on Facebook and Twitter? Would he embrace the religious right — or denounce it?

The answers come from an all-star array of historians and scholars, including Jean Baker, Richard Carwardine, Dan Farber, Andrew Ferguson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Allen C. Guelzo, Harold Holzer, James Malanowski, James Tackach, Frank J. Williams, and Douglas L. Wilson. Lincoln also features actor/activist Gloria Reuben describing how she played Elizabeth Keckley, the former-slave-turned-confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; and a selection of speeches and letters that explore little-known sides of Lincoln; “The Faces of Lincoln,” exploring his complex contemporary legacy.

Whether you’re a lifetime admirer of Lincoln or newly intrigued by his story, Lincoln: A President for the Ages offers a fascinating glimpse of his many-sided legacy.


A Place at the Table
Last Call at the Oasis
Page One
Waiting for "Superman"
Cane Toads
Food, Inc.

"Now he belongs to the ages." When a grief-stricken Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war, uttered those words at 7:22 on the morning of April 15, 1865, it marked the end of Abraham Lincoln's nine-hour death-struggle against an assassin's bullet and the beginning of an epoch of mourning, memorializing, pondering, and debating the enormous historical legacy of our sixteenth president—an epoch that, it sometimes seems, has continued unabated for a century and a half. Every generation rediscovers and reinterprets Lincoln, in the process redefining what it means to be American, so central is he to our national story.
Today, the motion picture is perhaps the single most powerful medium by which we repurpose the past—"writing history with lightning," as President Woodrow Wilson is supposed to have said about Birth of a Nation, one of the first, and most controversial, cinematic efforts to define the legend of Lincoln. So when one of our era's greatest directors—Steven Spielberg—joins forces with one of our leading playwrights—Tony Kushner—and a cast of eminent performers, headed by the brilliant and versatile Daniel Day-Lewis, to offer a new interpretation of Lincoln's story, it's likely that millions of Americans will seize the opportunity to take a fresh look at his legacy and to ask what new meanings it may have for us today.
Hence this book. In the wake of so many thousands of literary attempts to distill the essence of Lincoln, it may seem futile to try to offer a new version of the familiar story. In an effort to meet this challenge—and to take seriously, even literally, Stanton's encomium of Lincoln as a man who "belongs to the ages"—we approached a collection of today's most eminent historians, journalists, and students of Lincoln with a novel assignment: to offer their own best judgments, admittedly speculative but solidly grounded in historical fact and generations of scholarship, as to how Lincoln might have responded to the political, social, economic, and military crises of times not his own.
We were delighted when these notable Lincoln scholars accepted the task. The results appear in the pages that follow. You'll read the thoughts of Henry Louis Gates Jr., as to how Lincoln (had he lived) might have managed the enormous challenges of race relations during the period of Reconstruction and beyond, Jean Baker's fascinating (and somewhat counterintuitive) assessment of how the Great Emancipator might have responded to the movement for women's suffrage, and Daniel Farber's insightful comparison of Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt as historical reshapers of the role of federal power in American democracy.
You'll read thoughtful discussions by the eminent historians and authors James Tackach, Allen C. Guelzo, Douglas L. Wilson, Richard Carwardine, and Harold Holzer on such topics as Lincoln and the use of atomic weapons, Lincoln and the creation of a new global order in the wake of World War II, Lincoln and modern communications and celebrity culture, and Lincoln and the religious right. And you'll read journalist James Malanowski's surprising (and surprisingly convincing) portrait of Lincoln as an "outlaw hero"; a penetrating analysis by Frank J. Williams, former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, of how Lincoln might have approached today's controversial War on Terror; and a lively interview with journalist Andrew Ferguson, author of the acclaimed Land of Lincoln, on what he discovered about Lincoln's many meanings during a year of traveling the country to meet some of the sixteenth president's most passionate admirers—and detractors.
Each of these chapters introduces, in a sense, a new Lincoln; yet the cumulative effect, we think, will be to deepen your understanding of and appreciation for the political genius, spiritual wisdom, and profound integrity of the man so many consider the greatest and most representative American.
We're also delighted to be able to include in this book some other features that we hope will enhance your insight into the Lincoln legacy. Gloria Reuben, a noted actor and political activist, describes the very personal journey she took as one of the performers in the Spielberg Lincoln film. Reuben brings to remarkable life a little-known yet fascinating figure in the story of Lincoln and his family: Elizabeth Keckley, a mixed-race woman who was born a slave and raised herself, through talent, tenacity, and courage, to become a talented dress designer, entrepreneur, and the chief confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. We think you'll agree that Reuben's chapter is a very special highlight of this book.
Finally, we've also sought to give Lincoln the opportunity to speak for himself. Widely regarded as the greatest writer among American presidents and one of the supreme prose stylists in American history, Lincoln authored many of the most memorable documents written in this country. We've selected a handful of the most significant and revealing examples, which you'll find interspersed among the chapters. We invite you to study these excerpts from Lincoln's own writings (which you'll notice retain the original nineteenth-century spelling, punctuation, and grammar) and enjoy the opportunity to immerse yourself, for at least a while, in the spiritually and intellectually invigorating currents of Lincoln's mind. It's a plunge that we think every citizen should take periodically, because from these springs have flowed some of the strongest, freshest streams of American freedom.
Karl Weber
Irvington, New York
September 2012

The earliest known photo of Lincoln, probably taken in Springfield,
Illinois, by Nicholas H. Shepherd (1846). Library of Congress
Karl Weber is a writer and editor based in Irvington, New York, who specializes in politics, public affairs, and business. He has coauthored such books as Creating a World Without Poverty, with Nobel Peace Prize–winner Muhammad Yunus, Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It, with Adrian J. Slywotzky, and Citizen You: How Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing the World, with Jonathan M. Tisch. He edited the Participant Media Guides Food, Inc. and Waiting for "Superman."
A mong the many unique distinctions borne by the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is the first major historical figure to be known to us through photography. Every previous giant of history, from Nebuchadnezzar to Cleopatra, Charlemagne to Elizabeth I, has an image that is more or less vague, based purely on contemporary descriptions and depictions of doubtful accuracy. By contrast, we know Lincoln the same way we later came to know Churchill and Hitler, Elvis and Marilyn, Ali and Oprah—through photographs that capture the concrete reality of the human face with a vividness, nearness, and objectivity previously impossible.
What's more, as with those later representatives of twentieth-century celebrity culture, we know Lincoln through a series of specific, iconic photos—images that somehow capture not just the reality of a moment in time but the historic context within which a life took shape and meaning. Close your eyes and the familiar images of Lincoln flash by on a mental screen: The senate candidate, young and beardless, with rumpled collar, a gently lopsided smile, and an untamable shock of hair slightly askew. The president on the battlefield at Antietam, impressively lean, towering in his stovepipe hat over his officers. The father, seated in an armchair, casting a gentle, bespectacled glance at an album spread open on his lap for the benefit of young Tad standing at his side. The aging statesman, his visage deeply care-creased, his eyes sunken as if haunted by the carnage of war, just days away from his own death (as we know, though he does not).
The faces of Lincoln, which we know through the mystery of photography; fragments of unmediated reality that are unmistakably alive yet somehow distant and untouchable, like the man himself.
About 130 authenticated Lincoln photos are now known. (You'll find reproductions of a number of them scattered through the pages of this book.) From those photographic images evolve the other familiar faces of Lincoln—the many Lincolns that pop up in people's minds when the name is mentioned: the portraits on the penny and the five-dollar bill, the disembodied granite head on Mount Rushmore, the nineteen-foot-tall figure of Georgia white marble grandly enthroned in Washington, and the filmed embodiments by actors from Walter Huston and Raymond Massey to Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, and Sam Waterston—and now, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis in the new film, scripted by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg, that is the occasion for the publication of this book. And let's not exclude such pop-culture incarnations as the audioanimatronic figure stiffly reciting excerpts from Lincoln speeches to entertain tourists at Disney World or the bearded, semi-comic pitchmen in a hundred television commercials promoting Presidents' Day auto sales. These, too, are faces of Lincoln—low-brow tributes to the national obsession with our greatest president and arguably our single greatest historical figure.
Every American president has multiple meanings—that's in the nature of politics and history, particularly in a country as vast, diverse, and eternally contentious as ours. But the amazing multiplicity of Lincolns is unique among presidents. Scholar Merrill D. Peterson has boiled them down to five core archetypes: Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator, Man of the People, First American, and Self-Made Man.1 From these five, as Peterson amply documents, flow countless variants.
Some of these multifarious Lincoln images were current in his own day and were fodder for his political campaigns, as well as his opponents'. Sobriquets like the Railsplitter, Woodchopper of the West, and Honest Abe were concocted as slogans; so were insults like the Black Republican and the Illinois Baboon, often accompanied by cartoons depicting Lincoln not just as ugly, buffoonish, and dimwitted but as harboring a secret lust for Negro women. (Images like these are worth recalling when the media declares the latest presidential race "the dirtiest ever"—as they do like clockwork, every four years.)
Other Lincolns have proliferated in the public consciousness during the century and a half since his death. Many have solid grounding in historical fact, others a mere toehold. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with many of these Lincolns from a school history class or a Ken Burns documentary.
There's Lincoln the frontiersman, the enterprising but largely unsuccessful businessman, the comic-opera warrior (leader of a tiny company of Illinois militia that served—and saw no combat whatsoever—during the short-lived Black Hawk War of 1832), and the aspiring inventor. (Lincoln remains the only president ever to have obtained a US patent, although the gadget he designed for lifting boats over shoals in riverbeds was never manufactured.)
There's Lincoln the shrewd self-taught attorney, the cracker barrel philosopher, and the indefatigable teller of stories, some downright obscene. (During his own lifetime, books purporting to collect Lincoln's favorite jokes and anecdotes—edited to suit Victorian notions of propriety—were already in circulation. No high school history book is likely to ever include Lincoln's scandalous but hilarious story about Ethan Allen and the outhouse—though it appears, remarkably, in Kushner's screenplay for Spielberg's Lincoln.)
There's Lincoln the family man, the (supposedly) henpecked husband, the doting father who let his small son run wild through the White House, the brooding sufferer from depression, and (some say) the "first gay president." (More on that notion later.)
There's Lincoln the Byronic lifelong aspirant to power, whose ambition (according to his longtime law partner William Herndon) "was an engine that knew no rest," the debater and orator of unmatched wit and eloquence, the obsessively self-editing speechmaker and letter writer, and the master of public opinion and political timing.
And of course there is Lincoln the lifelong opponent of slavery, the single-minded Union man, the ruthless wielder of military power, the tenderhearted commuter of sentences, the grieving father of his people, the Great Emancipator, and, ultimately, the martyr and savior of the nation.
So many Lincolns, each one somebody's favorite—especially, perhaps, the Lincolns of myth and legend. For the incurable romantic, the Lincoln of choice may be the grief-stricken frontier lover at the grave of Ann Rutledge, reputedly the one true passion of his life. (The image derives from an old, unsubstantiated story popularized by Herndon, who never much liked Mary Lincoln, and by Carl Sandburg, Lincoln's sentimental, quasi-official historian for much of the twentieth century.) For the autodidact, there's Lincoln riding the rural legal circuit, his nag of a horse dwarfed by its giant rider and walking at a snail's pace as Lincoln neglects the spurs, eagerly devouring yet another volume of Blackstone's Commentaries. For the believer in genius through inspiration, there's the president hastily penning his immortal speech on a fragment of torn cardboard while riding the train to Gettysburg (another myth too good to be abandoned despite the evidence against it).
Of course, I have my favorite Lincolns, too. As a lifelong baseball fan, I have a soft spot for an old story that says that Lincoln was in the middle of a game when a delegation arrived in Springfield from the Republican National Convention to formally notify him that he'd been nominated for the presidency. According to legend, Lincoln demurred, "Tell the gentlemen they will have to wait a few minutes until I get my next turn at bat."
Did it really happen? It's certainly possible, but only in the sense that it's possible I myself might be nominated for the presidency by the next Republican convention. The Mills Commission, the baseball history committee that came up with this story in 1939, is the same group that declared Abner Doubleday the inventor of the sport, a finding that every serious historian considers a mere fairy tale. But we baseball aficionados cling to it because it validates the historical status of our favorite game by associating it with America's greatest president.
I haven't yet stumbled across any articles claiming that Lincoln was an avid golfer, but I don't doubt they exist.a
As George Orwell said about Charles Dickens, Lincoln is well worth stealing—so it's no wonder that practically everybody has tried to appropriate him in support of their particular cause. Advocates of civil rights and racial equality, of course, have always recognized Lincoln as a spiritual ancestor. Not for nothing did Martin Luther King Jr. give his greatest address under Lincoln's marble gaze. That hasn't stopped white supremacists from cherry-picking Lincoln quotes to declare him a racist, a staunch advocate of segregation, and an opponent of racial equality.
In similar fashion, Lincoln (who was in fact a teetotaler in life) has been claimed by antiliquor crusaders as a "dry" and by the opposition as a "wet." During the debate over prohibition, while temperance crusaders were quoting Lincoln's comments about the evils of drink, publicists for a liquor industry association had copies of a liquor license granted to Lincoln during his youthful days as a storekeeper printed and distributed for proud display on the walls of taverns around the country.
Lincoln has been cited as a pioneering anti-imperialist (based on his vocal opposition to the Mexican War) and enlisted as a jingoist advocate of America's Manifest Destiny to expand. As Christopher A. Thomas has explained, the Lincoln Memorial itself was designed and built as part of a program by Republican Party leaders to celebrate the "active presidency" they credited Lincoln with establishing and that they saw embodied in such later enterprises as the Spanish-American War and the global American empire it spawned.
Lincoln has been hailed as both a laissez-faire free marketer and a defender of the downtrodden working man. During the 1930s, financiers named savings banks and insurance companies after Lincoln even as the American Communist Party was staging "Lincoln-Lenin" marches in honor of his proletarian sympathies. And Lincoln's Prophecy, a bogus screed warning against capitalist tyranny and the enthronement of corporate power in America, still circulates over Lincoln's signature, more than a century after it was first forged for use in the 1896 presidential campaign—now appropriated, inevitably, in support of the Occupy movement.
Liberal New York governor Mario Cuomo has enlisted the spirit of Lincoln on behalf of a twenty-first-century campaign against poverty, while conservative columnist George Will has called him a forebear of the antiabortion movement. Lincoln has been depicted as a prototype of the management consultant, an erstwhile leadership coach, a glad-handing self-help guru in the mold of Dale Carnegie, and most recently (heaven help us) as a vampire hunter.
And of course the multifarious Lincoln legend has long transcended national boundaries. The Russian novelist and spiritual seeker Leo Tolstoy (who called Lincoln "a Christ in miniature") told of meeting a Muslim chieftain in the remote Caucasus who affirmed that, yes, he had heard of the great American Lincoln: "He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of rose." Passed from place to place and from person to person, Lincoln's story had become transmuted into a larger-than-life tale from mythology. Years later, India's Jawaharlal Nehru kept two inspirational sculptures on his office desk—a statuette of Gandhi and a bronze cast of Lincoln's hand. The Republic of China issued postage stamps pairing Lincoln with Sun Yat-Sen, while Ghana issued a set of three depicting its prime minister Kwame Nkrumah paying homage at the Lincoln Memorial.
So many Lincolns—and who is to say that any of them is definitely wrong?
Even those who knew Lincoln personally confessed—often with bafflement—his many-sidedness and the essential elusiveness of his character. Frederick Douglass, the greatest African American leader of the nineteenth century, met with Lincoln on several occasions and was referred to by the president as "my friend Douglass." He visited Lincoln at the White House (sometimes having to argue with racist guards before gaining admittance), famously lauded the second inaugural address as "a sacred effort" and in his memoirs declared, "Mr. Lincoln was not only a great president, but a great man—too great to be small in anything. In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color." Yet in his 1876 speech at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument to Lincoln in Washington, Douglass also called him "preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men," avowed that Lincoln "shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race," and summed up Lincoln's antislavery efforts this way: "Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent ; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined." The description is paradoxical, as if, for Douglass, Lincoln's heroism, although undeniable, is festooned with caveats and limitations. (In his essay in this book, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers a much more detailed analysis of Lincoln's mixed meaning for Douglass and, indeed, for many African Americans.)
Some later interpreters of Lincoln have painted similarly mixed portraits. The great filmmaker D. W. Griffith somehow managed to treat Lincoln as a hero of unmatched nobility in the same film, Birth of a Nation , that depicted the terror-wielding Ku Klux Klan as representatives of Southern heroism, and, in his best-selling historical novel Lincoln, Gore Vidal portrayed him as a masterful politician, a would-be tyrant, and a calculating, devious egotist who even infected his family with syphilis.
Most Americans have a less ambivalent attitude toward Lincoln. Yet our emotional and intellectual ties to Lincoln tend to be far more complicated and far more personal than our links to most other historical personages. Only Lincoln could have inspired perhaps the greatest and most psychologically intimate elegy ever written about a public figure. Walt Whitman had never met Lincoln, though he often glimpsed him in the streets of Washington during the war years when Whitman worked as a nurse tending wounded soldiers. Yet Whitman's elegy reads like a tribute from a lover to his beloved:
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love. . . .
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea,
till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.
In his essay "Fern-Seed and Elephants," the literary critic, novelist, and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis contrasts the ways we relate to historical figures and literary characters:
There are characters whom we know to be historical but of whom we do not feel that we have any personal knowledge—knowledge by acquaintance; such are Alexander, Attila, or William of Orange. There are others who make no claim to historical reality but whom, none the less, we know as we know real people: Falstaff, Uncle Toby, Mr. Pickwick. But there are only three characters who, claiming the first sort of reality, also actually have the second. And surely everyone knows who they are: Plato's Socrates, the Jesus of the Gospels, and Boswell's Johnson. . . . We are not in the least perturbed by the contrasts within each character: the union in Socrates of silly and scabrous titters about Greek pederasty with the highest mystical fervor and the homeliest good sense; in Johnson, of profound gravity and melancholy with that love of fun and nonsense which Boswell never understood though Fanny Burney did; in Jesus of peasant shrewdness, intolerable severity, and irresistible tenderness.
Of course, Lewis's list of complex, vibrantly living historical personages—Socrates, Jesus, and Johnson—is the list that a scholarly, Christian Englishman would propose. For Americans, Lincoln is the undeniable fourth. The more we learn about Lincoln, and in particular the more we read Lincoln's own writings—the great speeches, the transcripts of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the letters and notes he drafted in response to personal queries and political controversies—the more deeply we feel the reality of his complicated and endlessly fascinating personality. Arch-cynic H. L. Mencken complained (in his third book of Prejudices, 1922) that "the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus making him fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.'s. . . . Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost." Maybe so—but when it comes to Lincoln, the work of the varnishers and veneerers has been largely futile. Unlike George Washington, who is for most Americans a plaster saint, we feel we know Lincoln as we know a friend or a family member; we understand, accept, and even revel in the contrasts in his character.
Lincoln somehow belongs to each of us, with a special intimacy that marks our relationship to few other public figures—especially when we limit ourselves to public figures from before today's era of factitious hy-perintimacy. Fueled by the Internet and by media phenomena ranging from People magazine and reality TV to continually streaming Twitter feeds, millions of ordinary citizens now apparently think of actors, athletes, and, yes, politicians as if they are close personal friends. It's an illusion, of course, but one that publicists, producers, and marketers are eager to feed and exploit. Lincoln is one of the few historical figures from the nineteenth century or earlier whom it's possible to imagine in this context, as Harold Holzer artfully explains in his essay in this book, "Lincoln—The Unlikely Celebrity."
And yet, despite the sense of intimacy we feel toward Lincoln (enhanced by the endless stream of biographies, histories, picture books, television shows, movies, and other bits of Lincolniana produced every year), it remains startlingly difficult to pigeonhole, dismiss, ignore, or patronize him. Lincoln still towers above us and our history, and the more we know about him the greater he seems to loom.
In this, our relationship to Lincoln mirrors that of his contemporaries. In Washington's lifetime, no one ever underestimated him; his physical stature, personal beauty, unblemished rectitude, and austere presence caused those around him to regard him with admiration bordering on awe. (On a bet, Gouverneur Morris once famously dared to greet Washington with a slap on the back; the blood-chilling glare he received in response made Morris vow never to repeat the gesture.)
By contrast, everyone underestimated Lincoln. Contemporary testimony makes it clear that most of the famous "team of rivals" who ended up as members of Lincoln's cabinet were initially baffled to find themselves politically outmaneuvered by someone they considered an uneducated frontiersman. But, the more they got to know him, the greater the depths of insight and wisdom they saw in him (one of the many nuances of the Lincoln story that is subtly and effectively captured in Tony Kushner's screenplay). By the time of his death, most had come to recognize in Lincoln a man of overpowering stature—not just politically but intellectually, spiritually, and morally.


  • Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, author of the screenplay for "Lincoln"
    "I was delighted to read this collection of essays by people who have grappled with Lincoln and who’ve come to know him, each on her or his terms, and on Lincoln’s terms as well. Here are Lincolns that you’ll embrace, Lincolns you won’t recognize, Lincolns you'll be skeptical of or maybe angered by, and Lincolns who’ll add richness and depth to the Lincoln you already know."

    Wall Street Journal

    "The companion book to the coming film, Lincoln: A President for the Ages, asks great historians "What would Lincoln do?" in situations from Hiroshima to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

    Huntington News
    “In fact, it's an excellent one-volume introduction to Lincoln's political career.”

    Civil War News
    “Written by some of the country’s leading Lincoln scholars, these essays update our understanding of the 16th president as the Civil War community eagerly absorbs Spielberg’s new film.”

History Wire

On Sale
Oct 30, 2012
Page Count
288 pages


About the Author

Karl Weber is a writer and editor whose work focuses on social, political, and business topics. He has worked with Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus, former president Jimmy Carter, and secretary of defense Ash Carter. Weber is also the proprietor of Rivertowns Books, an independent publishing imprint.

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