How Do We Rank Our Presidents? Interview with Robert W. Merry
David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.
Robert W. Merry has been a fixture in Washington, D.C. for over thirty years. He was a congressional correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1980s, covered Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign for the newspaper and subsequently became the Journal's White House reporter. In 1987, he was named managing editor at Congressional Quarterly, eventually becoming the president and publisher of CQ in 1997. Since 2011, Merry has been the editor of The National Interest, a bi-monthly foreign policy magazine.
In addition to his voluminous journalistic output, Merry is the author of numerous books on American history and politics, including Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop; Guardians of the American Century; Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition; A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent; and most recently Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
I sat down with Merry at his Washington office to talk about Where They Stand, the history of presidential rankings, the fluctuating ranks of some of our most famous (and infamous) presidents, and what history will have to say about our most recent chief executives.
Your book is the first book that takes into factor whether or not presidents or their parties have actually been re-elected. Why haven't scholars and pundits taken this into account before?
Well, it's been valued, I think, that the historians judgment is definitive, relevant, pertinent, and valuable, and the fact of the matter is that there's a great correlation between the judgment of historians, going back to the polls that started with Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and the voters. In other words, seldom do the historians basically say, “the voters got that all screwed up, that one-term president was a great president, and they never should have let him go so quickly, they should've given him another term.” But there are instances in which there are variations in the way contemporaneous voters and historians view presidents, and to me that just posed great fodder for analysis and discussion about how the presidency works and how presidents fail or succeed, and how we assess them.
Tell us about the origins of modern presidential rankings. You mentioned Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. was behind the original poll, but how did that expand from there to the plethora of polls today?
It's pretty interesting. In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., a Harvard professor noted in his own time (as indeed was his son, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., two decades later), sent out a questionnaire asking these historians -- mostly historians, but also a few journalists and political scientists -- to assess the presidents based on some basic criteria -- were they great, near-great, average, below-average, failure -- and then he collated that and ranked them based on the outcome. The accompanying article ran in Life magazine, and it was an instant success.
Interestingly, there was not another poll of any significance until fourteen years later, in 1962, and it was also put together by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.; this time, the article ran in the New York Times magazine. But by then, there was enough interest so that other academics began doing other polls of other academics, and Steve Neal, the journalist, did the same with journalists, and so what happened is that they built up a body of literature and a body of polling data that constitutes, in my view, history's judgment about the success or lack of success of the various presidents. I take this body of literature and the body of polling data seriously. I don't think it's silly or irrelevant -- books have been written debunking the whole thing. I don't do that. What I say in my book is, “that's interesting and valuable insofar as it goes,” but I would be interested in looking at what the voters were thinking and doing regarding their presidents contemporaneously, and crank that into the discussion. I don't rank presidents. I merely am initiating a discussion based on those two criteria.
By what standards are presidential rankers -- specifically historians -- judging presidents? How does politics enter into it?
Well, first of all, Schlesinger studiously avoided asking the respondents to the poll to mark what drove their decisions in terms of whether they were great, near-great, et cetera. They could create their own criteria for what constituted those categories. Later polls, however -- including Steve Neal's -- attempted to break it down, so in terms of a president's appointments, leadership, foreign policy, domestic policy, whatever. All that did was just sort of muck it up and make it more complex, in my view -- unnecessarily complex.
Did politics influence the rankings of presidents by academics? There's no question that it did, and we see that in Eisenhower's first entry in the 1962 poll, where he was ranked as mediocre at best. It was an utterly ridiculous ranking, as history later acknowledged -- Eisenhower rose up in subsequent polls and is now consistently ranked between eighth and fourteen, which is about where he belongs. And the same thing has happened to Reagan in the early polls after he left the presidency. He was ranked very low and now he's making his way up. So yes, political prejudices do play a role, but over time they tend to work themselves out so that there's something approaching a dispassionate view of presidents.
But as you pointed out in the book, this process can take a very long time. Ulysses S. Grant is a perfect example of that.
Yes, and that's what I call the vagaries of history, where a president over time can rise or fall based on not just how voters look at him, but how voters look at his time or the politics of his time. And Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson constitute two very good examples of the same phenomenon. Grant was considered a failure in polls consistently -- endlessly -- whereas Johnson was considered kind of middling. But now Johnson is slowly dropping in the polls of the historians and Grant is rising.
The reason is because we are now taking a different view of Reconstruction than we did for decades. For a very long time, historians generally considered the Radical Republicans in Congress to have been kind of villains in the Reconstruction era -- people who didn't understand the importance of bringing the sections back together and were rancorous and hard-nosed. Grant was aligned with them and Johnson was opposed to them, to the point where he was impeached and almost convicted and thrown out of the office. Now we're viewing the Radical Republicans as more akin to the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s, much more favorably, and therefore Grant rises and Johnson declines.
Another good example of a president rising and falling over time would be Andrew Jackson. Jackson, of course, was a beloved and very powerful president -- a dominant force in American politics for twenty-five years. But he did some things that, in retrospect, a lot of Americans aren't comfortable with, particularly in regard to Indian removal -- moving Indians west across the Mississippi River. At the time, however, the American people wanted him to do that. He was criticized by a minority, but the majority of Americans welcomed those policies -- not only welcomed them, fostered them, asked for them. So those vagaries of history are also part of the story.
Between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln there were no two-term presidents, and one of your criteria for gauging presidential success is whether or not a president wins re-election (let alone whether he's succeeded by a president of his own party). But you discussed at length James Polk as an example of a great one-term president. Granted, Polk left the presidency on his own terms, but are there any examples of good to great one-term presidents who were turned out of office by the voters?
That question gets to the crux of the theme of my book, because the theme of my book is that the voters are not stupid. Individual voters are stupid -- I've probably been stupid in some of my voting decisions -- but collectively there's a collective judgment, maybe even a collective wisdom, that emerges which directs the country. So then the question is: do the voters ever really make a mistake? Should they really have retained Jimmy Carter? Should they have retained John Quincy Adams? And I guess I find myself looking at these individual cases -- which I have -- and concluded that presidential politics is rather like retail, in that the customer is always right. And I think that the customer has largely been right.
So in the case of, for example, John Adams, widely considered to be by historians to be one of the better presidents, was turned out of office after his first term. He didn't preside over a very robust economy and he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were really scandalous in terms of how they were used against Americans and against people who came here. He wanted to get rid of French people living in America.
There's a famous story where there was an obscure French bookstore owner operating in Philadelphia, and under the Sedition Act he was a marked man -- he was going to be deported. And he had a friend who had connections in the government, and he asked his friend, “Can you find out why me? Why are they coming after me?” And his friend came back and he said, “Well, the question was posed to the president, and he said, 'nothing in particular, but he's too French.'” I have to say, the American people are going to toss out a president like that.
Don't get me wrong, John Adams was a great man and a great American, and a hero of our heritage, but he was not a great president, and so I think the American people sniffed that out and decided they were going to go for someone else.
You made the mirror image of that argument concerning James Madison, widely considered by historians to be a middle-ranking president but you argue that, in no small part thanks to verdict of contemporary voters, he really was an effective president.
He was a two-term president succeeded by his own party, which is my definition of success by the voters' judgment. Not only was he succeeded by his own party, but his successor was a two-term president succeeded by his own party. He was part of a political tradition that was highly successful in its time, and there was a reason why the voters were pleased, because the country was doing very, very well. The War of 1812 is largely why Madison gets docked by the historians, and my view, as I express it in the book, is that there are varying interpretations of the War of 1812 that could either make Madison look good or not-so-good depending on which interpretation you buy. I believe that he didn't really want to go into that war, but he was pressured into it and the circumstances were very, pretty bad for the country, and he had to do something to stand up for American rights in the face of British abuse.
But more than that, Madison handled the War of 1812 in a way designed to not get himself bogged down, to get out of it through negotiation as quickly as possible, and in that negotiation he didn't manage to settle the main issue that was the public issue -- which was the Britain's impressment of Americans into the Royal Navy and stopping American ships and taking American sailors and whatnot. But that problem solved itself when the Napoleonic Wars were over, and Madison did solve the bigger strategic question of who was going to control that vast Midwest -- what we now call the Midwest -- territory south of the Great Lakes. The British were trying to thwart Americans from moving into that territory but the war settled that matter in America's favor, and that was a very, very significant development for the expansion of America.
That begs another question: How much does foreign policy failure or success impact a president's rankings, both among historians and voters respectively?
Well an intractable war you can't control, can't get out of, and can't win is a poisonous trap for any president -- just look at Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman. Harry Truman was a great president but he got himself into a war that was intractable -- he couldn't get out of it and he couldn't win, and he lost his standing with the American people. Lyndon Johnson -- his presidency basically hit the shoals. It was destroyed by Vietnam, and ancillary problems that always arise when a certain problem of great magnitude becomes irrepressible, and that's what happened to Johnson. So foreign policy is a very dangerous area for presidents.
What about George Herbert Walker Bush, who had a victory in the First Gulf War and saw the Iron Curtain fall and the Soviet Union dissolve during his administration, but yet was a one-termer president.
George Herbert Walker Bush is a president who tests my theories and generates a lot of legitimate debate about whether the voter is always right or the customer is always right in these instances. I think that George Herbert Walker Bush harmed himself dramatically with his domestic economic policies. Had he continued the Reagan course, in my view, and continued the economic growth that was generated in Reagan's second term and continued the decline of the deficits that had also been part of Reagan's second term, that he would have been a successful president and would have managed to succeed himself. But he didn't do that, and the deficit shot up again, and the economy sputtered and that proved to be fatal.
Of the last five presidents, who will be remembered most favorably in presidential polls?
There's no question. It'll be Ronald Reagan, a two-term president succeeded by his own party, which is a very difficult feat to do -- only two presidents in the twentieth century were elected twice and succeeded by members of their own party. Not only was Reagan a two-term president succeeded by his own party, but he's very rare in that he transformed the political landscape of America and set it on a new course. He totally changed the economic policy debate in America, particularly with regard to fiscal policy, and he totally transformed foreign policy with regard to the Cold War, in ways I think arguably led to the decline and ultimate obliteration of the Soviet Union. So I think history is going to look at him very, very favorably.
I want to bring you back to the 1920s, because you just referenced briefly an earlier period in history where a party -- specifically the Republican Party -- won presidential election after presidential election. And you argued for a more favorable interpretation of those presidents in the 1920s, particularly Calvin Coolidge.
I think Silent Cal is under-appreciated. There's a body of thought in economic history suggesting that Coolidge was significantly responsible for the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover was something of an innocent bystander, as one wag said at the time. That may be true. But that may not be true. We don't know. But I do know this -- that the president is hired to do a job, and the job is to prevent crises, and if you can't prevent them, then to work through crises, and Herbert Hoover didn't manage to do that successfully -- in my view, he exacerbated the crisis, in fact he helped bring it on by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff bill, and then he raised taxes at a very inopportune time, and dealt a heavy blow to the economy.
But Coolidge, if you look at it from the standpoint of the voters, presided over marvelously good times, though people forget or else don't quite know that economic growth was slowing significantly in the last two years of his administration. Nevertheless he was presiding over a period of very solid boom times economically, nothing was happening in the world, there were no major scandals, he didn't get us into any intractable wars, so there was no reason for the American people to feel ill about Silent Cal. And, in my view, there's no reason for historians to dismiss him quite so much. I think they dismiss him because he was not in favor of activist government, but you don't always have to be in favor of activist government in order to preside over good times.
But was he, to quote the book (and referencing a phrase from Charles de Gaulle), a leader of destiny, a president who shaped his times?
Oh, no, not even close. But the fact of the matter is that not every president can be a leader of destiny. Not every timeframe calls for a leader of destiny on the part of the American people. So you really can't be a leader of destiny, and I define that as a president who transforms the political landscape and sets the country on a new course, unless the country needs it or wants it. If you try to do that when the country is not looking for it, they usually slap you down. I would use a good example in Bill Clinton. I think Bill Clinton was a very good president, but his first two years he attempted to repeal Reaganism, as he put it. The American people had fostered Reaganism, they had voted for Reaganism, they had given him two terms, they gave his successor a term. They weren't really interested in having a new president come in and say, “Ladies and gentleman, you screwed it up, you elected this guy and you didn't know what you were doing, and I'm going to clean up this mess for you.” He was basically saying the American people were stupid.
The American people don't consider themselves stupid. They may have been perfectly prepared to have a Bill Clinton come in and say “this is a new era, and I'm going to have to govern a little bit differently,” um, but to say that he's going to repeal Reaganism is going to raise their hackles, and he sought to do it with a number of policies, particularly his health care bill, and hence he had his head handed to him in the 1994 midterm elections. Compare that to Eisenhower. Eisenhower never sought, never even expressed the hint, that he wanted to repeal the New Deal, even though there were many people, mostly conservative people in his party, who wanted to do that. Eisenhower was too wise for that, though -- he knew that it would be an insult to the American people. He was still presiding in the FDR era, even though FDR was long dead, and that's the way things go. So not every president can be a leader of destiny.
How do you account for presidencies that have certain powerful mythologies built up around them because of special circumstances, like JFK?
Yeah, there's a great deal of emotion that surrounds John Kennedy, and I argue in my book that he showed signs of greatness. He certainly understood where the country needed to go, he was attempting to move it in that direction, he had great style, and he had a capacity to inspire the American people. All of those things are elements of greatness. He didn't succeed in bringing about the political success that would move the country in that new direction. That's not to say he wouldn't have, but he hadn't. And so I argue that we really can't know how to assess Kennedy -- we didn't have a chance. Tragically, he was cut short before he could prove what he could do.
But the great thing about this four-year term that we have in our system is that the American people are very patient with presidents, and they know that at the end of the four years they're going to make an assessment -- there's going to be a report card, and they don't care whether the success is in the first year of that four-year term, or the last year of that four-year term, um, they're going to make the assessment based on the four-year term. Kennedy had time to recoup and to demonstrate that he could be that kind of successful president who gets re-elected, but he hadn't done it at the time of his assassination, so my view is we really just don't know what kind of a president he would have been.
I want to talk a bit about presidential failures. Some of the presidents usually rated as failures -- for example, James Buchanan -- were failures at least in part because of the times they lived in, they proved to be incapable of rising to the challenge. But there are also presidents -- Warren Harding springs to mind -- who are rated as failures despite presiding over relatively tranquil times. So is there a common -- I hesitate to use the term character flaw -- but is there some sort of common element in the bottom five presidents, that can help us conceptualize them?
First of all, I don't necessarily buy that the bottom five, in terms of history's judgment, deserve to be there. We can talk about Harding. But I do think that what you see in the failures are presidents who don't pass the test that de Gaulle said was a fundamental test for the success of any statesman, and that is to understand the character of your times.
In the case of Buchanan, I consider Buchanan to be our worst president, ever, and he not only was a flawed president, I think he was a highly flawed human being. He was not a man of character. He was a man of essentially low character. He lied to the American people practically upon taking the oath of office, when he said at his inaugural address that he would accept the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case -- the decision no matter what it was, when in fact he knew what it was and had lobbied for it. This showed a cavalier attitude towards our separation of powers, a fundamental element of our system, and anyway to lie to the American people in such a way, in my view, constitutes a significant character flaw. You see that same kind of character flaw through much of his career, including when he was secretary of state to James K. Polk, a man whose presidency I've studied very thoroughly. And, in addition to his personal character flaws, Buchanan also lacked the courage of his convictions. He was wispy a weak reed. He was always worrying about whether or not he was going to make a decision or say something that was going to undermine his political standing. Great presidents don't think that way. If you aren't willing to take political risks, you aren't going to be a great president.
Compare that with Franklin Pierce. Franklin Pierce was Buchanan's predecessor. No more successful than Buchanan in terms of grappling with slavery, but not necessarily because he had a flawed character. He was just not powerful enough to break the deadlock. It really took a Lincoln, who changed the terms of debate. When Lincoln said -- it was a very, very powerful moment in American history -- when Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was basically making a statement that was contrary to the politics of his time, because the politics of that time were focused on attempting to prop up that house. And Lincoln said, ladies and gentlemen, it's not possible! We're going to have to find a new way out of this. That's what the country needs when it finds itself in that kind of a deadlock, and that's the kind of president that Lincoln proved to be, because he understood the character of his time.
What about Harding?
Yeah, I like Warren G. Harding. And I don't think he was a great president, but I don't think he was an abject failure. As I said about Coolidge, and even more so about Harding, he presided over good times. Not only did he preside over good times, he fixed the bad times that he inherited from Woodrow Wilson, whose second term was, in my view, a disaster in American history. Wilson gets very high marks by the historians, but the American people couldn't wait to get rid of him after his second term; his first term was a success. And bear in mind that the American people look at presidents, as they assess them, in four-year increments, because that's how they were invited to do so by the Constitution and by the Founding Fathers. So, they were perfectly happy to give Woodrow Wilson a second term based on his first term, but they weren't happy to give his party ongoing control of the White House after his second term because the American people thought that his second term was not very good, and I think history shows -- or should show -- that it was a disaster, including a very, very deep recession that had the makings of a very, very powerful economic dislocation. And Harding came in and turned that around very, very rapidly, and in the year 1922 we had a fourteen percent GDP growth rate in our country -- I think that may be the highest growth rate of any year, and it happened under Harding's administration. As I say in the book, he didn't get us into any intractable wars, but he ended up being beset by a serious scandal that he probably should have been more on top of -- he himself was not ever accused of doing anything that was scandalous and in fact he never did -- but he put some questionable characters in the government and they didn't conduct themselves very properly, and that ended up harming his administration a great deal, even though most of that stuff broke after he died in office.
Similar to Ulysses S. Grant in some ways, then.
Yeah, and for the same reason. Both Grant and Harding were too passive in terms of overseeing their own government.
What about Richard Nixon, who is currently lingering near the bottom of most presidential polls? You point out in your book that he had the makings of a successful presidency, in certain respects.
I think Nixon was successful in the realm of foreign policy, particularly in terms of our policies in Asia, and largely because of the strategic brilliance of the president himself. He brought to the presidency ideas and concepts that he himself had formulated which led to not only the overture to China but also to a changed viewpoint regarding what was happening in Asia and how America could kind of get right with the countries that later became known as the Tigers, the future economic giants of Asia. Nixon knew that America could play a significant role there as a balancing and a stabilizing force if he could get China to join the community of nations, while at the same time that policy would bring China forward as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. So it was absolutely brilliant.
Now, in order to do all of that, he had to get us out of Vietnam, and he had to do it in a way that wasn't going to lead to any humiliation of the United States, and that was not going to be easy. So he formulated, and presided over, the greatest military retreat in the history of American warfare, extricating 525,000 troops from a hostile enemy territory, and because of the horrendous political situation he had at home, he had to do it in the most dangerous possible way, by bringing combat troops out first, thus rendering highly vulnerable the support troops, because he had to reduce combat casualties in order to keep at bay unrest which had brought down his predecessor and could have easily brought down him. It was absolutely brilliant, and he doesn't get sufficient credit, in my view, for this delicate operation and effort that he presided over for four long years.
And he was subsequently re-elected while this was going on.
He was re-elected because he succeeded in that, and some other things. Now, in terms of domestic policy I think he made some horrendous decisions: wage and price controls, closing the gold window, combating inflation in the worse possible way, allowing inflation [in the first place] through some of his policies, and he, I think, intelligently but cynically brought forward policies designed to get him through the election, but then we ended up paying a significant price in terms the economic dislocation and havoc, really, afterwards, and I don't think he should get very high marks for that.
And then of course Watergate defines his presidency for good or ill, and whether that's fair or not that's just the way it is. And as I say in the book, he's probably not likely to get much of a better score anytime soon.
Bringing it forward all the way to more or less modern times: George W. Bush. Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, published his article in Rolling Stone back in 2006 declaring him the worst president in American history.
I think the big question that is stirring debate about George W. Bush's position in history is whether he's Harry Truman or Franklin Pierce. I certainly don't think he's Harry Truman. Harry Truman saved the West from Russian Bolshevism at the beginning of the Cold War. George W. Bush didn't accomplish anything like that at all. What he did was send us into a war that had no significant underpinnings of rationale, and which proved calamitous in terms of our relations with the world of Islam at a time which our relations with the world of Islam were in an extremely significant and extremely delicate state. And so I just don't see any way in the world that history is going to step back and look at this president and say, no, the immediate judgment was wrong, he really accomplished a great deal. I just don't see how that's going to emerge in historical terms.
I'm wondering if you can compare and contrast his presidency with that of Woodrow Wilson. Both were re-elected and both had serious foreign policy problems in their second terms, which ended up to a certain extent poisoning their presidencies. But on the other hand, Bush was re-elected during the Iraq war, while that was still ongoing, whereas Wilson's great failure was at Versailles after the war ended.
That's true, but the Iraq war was undertaken in 2003 and it was not so clear -- it was clear to people like me; I wrote a book about it because I was against the war -- that was going to be a calamitous outcome, but it wasn't clear to the American people, and there wasn't any particular reason why it should have been clear to the American people. It hadn't really taken a turn for the worst until after that election. But actually the analogy is very apt, I think, because both Wilson and George W. Bush are what I call split-decision presidents -- two-term presidents not succeeded by their own party. And what you find as you look at the split-decision presidents is always a successful first term, and Woodrow Wilson's first term was very successful -- I would say that George W. Bush's first term was moderately successful, certainly eligible for rehire on the part of the American people -- and followed by a second term that is somewhat or significantly less successful. In the case of Woodrow Wilson, hugely less successful; in the case of George W. Bush, whose first term was not as successful as Woodrow Wilson's, still significantly less successful. So yes, Wilson and George W. Bush sort of reside in the same category.
Let's bring it forward to Barack Obama. In your book, you reference Allan Lichtman and Ken DeCell's “13 Keys” model of gauging presidential re-election chances. Based on his “13 Keys,” Lichtman is predicting that Obama will win re-election. Do you agree with him?
Well, I've studied this on the basis of Lichtman's “13 Keys” as well, and I've been telling my friends that while Obama may be somewhat on the cusp, I think that he's going to be re-elected based on his first-term performance. And let me say something about this -- I give Lichtman and Ken DeCell of Washingtonian magazine full credit whenever I talk about this and the influence their book has had on me in terms of looking at presidential elections as referendums, and not necessarily contests with all kinds of atmospherics influencing the outcome. I don't believe that's the case. I believe the American people really do formulate an opinion on the performance of the incumbent and make their decision -- their collective decision -- accordingly. Therefore if we say, for example, the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate is therefore going to create a big debate on the entitlement situation...
Almost transforming the election into a leader of destiny-type situation.
Exactly. But actually, if you look at the DeCell thesis, in its pure terms, you'd have to say au contraire, my friend. There's not going to be a debate about that, because the American people are going to formulate their judgment based on Obama's performance. If you say in foreign policy his performance has been adequate, in terms of the voter judgment, if you say in terms of economic policy that his judgment has been inadequate, but that in and of itself, based on the “13 Keys,” is not enough to upend his presidency. If you say that he has generally formulated his presidency in a way that serves the interests of presenting a performance that generally wins re-election, then he's going to rise or fall based on that and not on a supposed debate about Paul Ryan and the entitlement programs.
Now, that's a difficult thing for me, because I happen to believe that Paul Ryan is right, that the debt overhang is the single most dangerous threat that the country faces. I don't think that Obama understands it, and I don't think that he has demonstrated much resolve in addressing it, but that's not what's going to turn this election. It's a reflection of our system -- it breaks deadlocks only after the crisis arises, and not when the crisis is on the horizon. That's unfortunate, but I think that's the reality. ,
So we're not going to get an answer to the great debate question. We're going to get an answer to the big debate question only by Obama's second-term performance, whether he addresses the crisis in time to avert the calamity that I think is bearing down on our country. If not, then he's not only not going to be a two-term president succeeded by his own party, but he's probably going to obliterate his party's chances of being a factor in American politics for a significant period of time.
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