President Obama's speech at Westminster awarded a B-

PART 1/3

The whole speech can be watched HERE , 'embedding' of which has been 'disabled by request' and full transcript at the bottom of the page.

President Obama opened his speech with a quip about the 'very high bar' of the occasion:

"I'm told the last three speakers here have been The Pope, Her Majesty the Queen, and Nelson Mandela, which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke."

As regular readers will already know, it was another 'very high bar' that really interested me: how would it compare with Ronald Reagan's speech to both houses of parliament in 1982?

Taking rhetoric, content and delivery into account, I'd have given the original great communicator a straight A and a B- for his sucessor .

Certainly there were a few highs (and lows), on which more below. But first, some reactions from the British media seemed to point towards a B- rather than an A:

Media moans
'Obama's historic speech fails to soar' - Mark Mardell, BBC website.

'partly platitudinous' - Steve Richards, The Independent.

'failed to raise the roof' - George Parker, Financial Times.

'failed to live up to his own high standards' - Andrew Grimson, Daily Telegraph.

'less moving than we had expected.. more of a hand-stitched tapestry than a speech' - Simon Hoggart, The Guardian.

Too much?
Simon Hoggart was arguably on to something, and was by no means the only commentator to suggest that Obama tried to cover too much ground.

As Andrew Grimson put it in the Daily Telegraph: "The presidential text sounded as if it had been worked on so hard and conscientiously by a vast team of helpers that it had lost all savour, and been reduced to a series of orotund banalities, of the sort which can be heard at every tedious Anglo-American conference: 'Profound challenges stretch out before us…the time for our leadership is now…Our alliance will remain indispensable.'"

And a similar verdict from Mark Mardell, the BBC's North American editor: 'It didn't quite work. It was flat and lacked soaring passion. That is part of the Obama conundrum. Sometimes this tremendous orator doesn't pull it off. It is often when the argument is over-constructed and the raw emotion can't burst through the stretched logic... This felt like an attempt to mix too many elements. Flattering Britain, promoting the essential relationship, American exceptionalism, Britain's role in creating it, universal values. They were all there, but like oil and water stayed stubbornly apart.

Quite a few commentators suddenly became expert observers of audience reactions and tried to make something of the fact that, apart from standing ovations before and after the speech, the president was only applauded once.

Needless to say, none of them noticed that it came after he'd used a rather neat contrast - which, as readers of my books and this blog will know, is one of the most reliable rhetorical devices for prompting applause:

[A] "it's possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament
[B] "and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States."

Nor did any of the instant experts seem to know that Ronald Reagan also only received one burst of applause when he spoke to parliament in 1982 - which came after he'd deployed an even more powerful rhetorical technique than a contrast on its own (video HERE).

Obama still lacks Reagan's teleprompter mastery
Both presidents majored on foreign policy. But, separated as the two speeches were by more than a quarter of a century, comparing their respective treatments of international issues of the day is no easy task.

But on their respective delivery of the speeches, Reagan's ability to read a speech as though he wasn't reading at all was second to none (not to mention his brilliance at carrying on as if nothing had happened when a teleprompter lets you down) - and it's one area where Obama still needs to do more homework/practice.

It's also something of which American communications expert Bert Decker has been very critical over the last few years and his blog on 'Obama, Teleprompters and Authenticity' is well worth a read.

1. The USA isn't the world's only democracy
If there’s one thing that irks me about speeches by American presidents (and other US politicians), it’s their tendency to overstate the case for their country being the first, finest or only example of freedom and democracy in the world (more on which HERE).

So the positive highlight of the speech for me was to hear him openly recognising that Britain has not only played a part in the development of liberal democracy but also qualifies as such in the eyes of Americans (or at least of this American president).

2. Don't overdo your references to Churchill (and use with care)
Obama had plenty to say about and quote from Churchill (as did Reagan in 1982) - which is, of course a sure-fire recipe for any American politician who wants to strike a few chords with a British audience.

But I thought he rather overdid it and made the mistake of using some not particularly well-known lines, which rather gives the game away that they'd been lifted from dictionaries of quotations.

And, when it comes to quoting more famous lines from Churchill, you really do need to get the context right.

It's all very well for Obama to say "Hitler's armies would not have stopped their killing had we not fought them on the beaches and on the landing grounds; in the fields and on the streets."

But Churchill's 'fight on the beaches' speech dates from 1940 - before the USA had joined in - and, in anticipation of an expected invasion, the beaches, landing grounds, fields and streets he was talking about were those of Britain, not Normandy, Northern France, the Netherlands or Germany.

3. Managementspeak
I've noticed in some of President Obama's other speeches that he or his speechwriters have tended to let bits of awkward management jargon - like 'going forward' - creep into his scripts.

Going forward was thankfully absent from this one, but there were a few other lines that could have benefited from rewriting.

There were at least to examples of putting things in place:

"In the last century, both our nations put in place regulatory frameworks..."

".. we must keep working through forums like the G20 to put in place global rules of the road to prevent future excess"

Words like 'moreover' tend to work (slightly) better in documents written for readers than when used in spoken Engish (and reminded me of former PM John Major) :

"Moreover, even when the free market works as it should"

And I'm not very keen on the current trend for turning nouns into verbs (nor am I quite sure what an "Afghan lead" is:

"we are now preparing to turn a corner in Afghanistan by transitioning to Afghan lead."

"Empowering" is also becoming more and more widespread as an all-purpose way of being vague in presentations and speeches both by managers and politicians:

"we should empower the same forces that have allowed our own people to thrive"

Nor was I very impressed by his echo of a vague threat that's been used a few times in recent years by Hillary Clinton (e.g. HERE):

"those who flaunt their obligations will face consequences."

In an earlier post on John F Kennedy's inaugural speech, I transcribed it so that readers could follow it pause-by-pause - i.e. with a pause at the end of each line. As quite a few fellow anoraks seemed to find this quite a useful exercise, it's laid out in the same way here:

My Lord Chancellor,
Mr. Speaker,
Mr. Prime Minister,
my Lords, and Members of the House of Commons:

I have known few greater honors
than the opportunity to address
the Mother of Parliaments
at Westminster Hall.

I'm told the last
three speakers
here have been The Pope,
Her Majesty the Queen,
and Nelson Mandela,
which is either a very high bar
or the beginning of a very funny joke.

I come here today
to reaffirm
one of the oldest
and strongest alliances
the world has ever known.

It has long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom
share a special relationship.

And since we also share an especially active press corps,
that relationship is often analyzed and
for the slightest hint of stress
or strain.

Of course, all relationships have their ups and downs.

Admittedly, ours got off on the wrong foot
with a small scrape about tea and taxes.

There may
also have also been some hurt feelings when the White House was set on fire
during the War of 1812.

But fortunately, it's been smooth sailing ever since!

The reason for this close friendship
doesn't just have to do with our shared history
our shared heritage;
our ties of language and culture;
or even the strong partnership between our governments.

Our relationship is special because of the values and beliefs
that have united our people through the ages.

Centuries ago,
when kings,
emperors, and warlords
reigned over much of the world,
it was the English who first spelled out the rights and liberties of man
in the Magna Carta.
It was here,
in this very hall,
where the rule of law first developed,
courts were established,
disputes were settled,
and citizens came to petition their leaders.

Over time, the people of this nation waged
a long and sometimes bloody struggle to expand and secure their freedom
from the crown.

Propelled by the ideals of the Enlightenment,
they would ultimately forge an English Bill of Rights,
and invest
the power to govern
in an elected parliament that's gathered here today.

What began on this island would inspire millions throughout the continent of Europe
and across the world.

But perhaps no one drew greater inspiration from these notions of freedom than your
colonists on the other side of the Atlantic.

As Winston Churchill said,
The "...Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, trial by jury,
and English common law find their most famous expression
in the American Declaration of Independence."

For both of our nations,
living up
to the ideals enshrined in these founding documents
has sometimes been difficult
has always been a work in progress.

The path has never been perfect.

But through the struggles of slaves
and immigrants;
and ethnic minorities;
former colonies
and persecuted religions,
we have learned
better than most
that the longing for freedom and human dignity
is not English
or American
or Western –
it is universal,
and it beats
in every heart.

Perhaps that’s
why there are few nations that stand firmer,
speak louder,
and fight harder
to defend democratic values around the world than the United States
and the United Kingdom.

We are the allies who landed at Omaha and Gold;
who sacrificed side by side to free a continent from the march of tyranny,
and help prosperity flourish
from the ruins of war.

And with the founding of NATO
a British idea –
we joined a transatlantic alliance that has ensured our security for over half a century.

Together with our Allies, we forged a lasting peace
from a cold war.

When the Iron Curtain lifted,
we expanded our alliance to include the nations of
Central and Eastern Europe,
and built new bridges to Russia
and the former states of the Soviet Union.

And when there was strife in the Balkans, we worked together to keep the peace.

after a difficult decade
that began with war
and ended in recession,
our nations have arrived at a pivotal moment once more.

A global economy that once stood on the brink of depression
is now stable and recovering.

After years of conflict,
the United States has removed 100,000 troops from Iraq,
the United Kingdom has removed its forces, and our combat mission
there has ended.

In Afghanistan, we have broken the Taliban's momentum, and will soon begin
a transition to Afghan lead.

And nearly 10 years after 9/11, we have disrupted terrorist networks and dealt al Qaeda
a huge blow by killing its leader -- Osama bin Laden.

we have met great challenges.

But as we enter this new chapter in our shared history,
profound challenges stretch out before us.

In a world where the prosperity of all nations is now inextricably linked,
a new era of cooperation is required to ensure the growth
and stability of the global economy.

As new threats spread across borders
and oceans,
we must dismantle terrorist networks and stop the spread of nuclear weapons;
confront climate change
and combat famine and disease.

And as a revolution races through the streets of the Middle East and North Africa,
the entire world has a stake in the aspirations of a generation that longs to determine
its own destiny.

These challenges come at a time when the international order has already been reshaped
for a new century.

Countries like China,
and Brazil are growing by leaps and bounds.

We should welcome this development, for it has lifted hundreds of millions
from poverty around the globe,
and created new markets and opportunities
for our own nations.

And yet, as this rapid change has taken place,
It’s become fashionable in some quarters
to question whether the rise of these nations
will accompany the decline of American and European influence around the world.

the argument goes,
these nations represent the future,
and the time for our leadership has passed.

That argument is wrong.

The time for our leadership is now.

It was the United States and the United Kingdom and our democratic allies that shaped a world in which new nations could emerge
and individuals could thrive.

And even as more nations take on
the responsibilities of global leadership,
our Alliance will remain indispensible
to the goal of a century that is more peaceful,
more prosperous
and more just.

At a time when threats and challenges require nations to work in concert with one another, we remain
the greatest catalysts for global action.

In an era defined by the rapid flow of commerce and information, it is our free market tradition,
our openness
fortified by our commitment to basic security for our citizens, that offers the best chance of prosperity that is both strong and shared.

As millions are still denied their basic human rights because of who they are, or what they believe, or the kind of government they live under,
we are the nations most willing
to stand up for the values of tolerance
and self-determination
that lead to peace and dignity.

Now this doesn't mean we can afford to stand still.
The nature of our leadership
will need to change with the times.

As I said the first time I came to London as President,
for the G20 summit
the days are gone when Roosevelt and Churchill could
sit in a room and solve the world's problems over a glass of brandy -- although
I'm sure Prime Minister Cameron and I would agree that er
some days we could both use a stiff drink.

In this century,
our joint leadership will require
building new partnerships,
adapting to new circumstances,
and remaking ourselves to meet the demands of a new era.

That begins
with our economic leadership.

Adam Smith's central insight remains true today:
there is no greater generator of wealth and innovation
than a system of free enterprise that unleashes the full potential of individual
men and women.

That’s what led to the Industrial Revolution that began in the factories of Manchester.

That is what led to the dawn of an Information Age that arose from the office parks of Silicon Valley.

That’s why
countries like China,
India and Brazil are growing so rapidly – because
in fits and starts, they are moving towards market-based principles that the United States
and the United Kingdom
have always embraced.

In other words, we live in a global economy that is largely
of our own making.

And today, the competition for the best jobs and industries favors countries that are
free-thinking and forward-looking;
countries with the most
creative and innovative
and entrepreneurial citizens.

That gives nations like the United States and the United Kingdom
an inherent advantage.

From Newton and Darwin to
Edison and Einstein;
from Alan Turing to
Steve Jobs,
we have led the world in our commitment to science
and cutting-edge research;
the discovery of new medicines and technologies.

We educate our citizens and train our workers in the best colleges
and universities on Earth.

But to maintain
this advantage
in a world that's more competitive than ever,
we will have to redouble
our investments
in science and engineering,
and renew our national commitments to educating our workforces.

We've also been reminded in the last few years that markets can sometimes fail.

In the last century, both our nations put in place regulatory frameworks
to deal with such market failures –
safeguards to protect the banking system after the Great Depression, for example,
regulations were established to prevent the pollution of our air
and our water during the 1970s.

But in today's economy,
such threats of market failure can no longer be contained within the borders of any one country.

Market failures can go global,
and go viral,
and demand international responses.

A financial crisis that began on Wall Street infected nearly every continent,
which is why we must keep working through forums like the G20
to put in place global rules of the road to prevent
future excess
and abuse.

No country
can hide from the dangers of carbon pollution, which is why we must build on what was achieved at Copenhagen
and Cancun to leave our children
a planet that is safer
and cleaner.

Moreover, even when the free market works as it should,
both our countries recognize that no matter how
responsibly we live our lives,
hard times or bad luck,
a crippling illness or a layoff,
may strike any one of us.

And so part of our common tradition has expressed itself in a conviction that
every citizen deserves a basic measure of security –
health care if you get sick,
unemployment insurance if you lose your job,
a dignified retirement after a lifetime of hard work.

That commitment to our citizens
has also been the reason
for our leadership in the world.

And now having come through a terrible recession, our challenge
is to meet these obligations while ensuring that we're not consuming
and hence consumed
with a level of debt that could sap
the strength and vitality of our economies.

That will require difficult choices
It will require different paths for both of our countries.

But we have faced such challenges before,
and have always been able to balance
the need for fiscal responsibility
with the responsibilities we have to one another.

I believe we can do this again.

As we do,
the successes and failures of our own past can serve as an example
for emerging economies –
that it's possible to grow
without polluting;
that lasting prosperity comes not
from what a nation consumes, but from what it produces, and from the investments it makes
in its people
and its infrastructure.

And just as we must lead on behalf of the prosperity of our citizens, so we must safeguard their security.

Our two nations
know what it is to confront evil in the world.

Hitler's armies would not have stopped their killing had we not fought them on the beaches
and on the landing grounds;
in the fields
and on the streets.

We must never forget that there was nothing inevitable about our victory in that terrible war –
it was won through the courage
and character of our people.

Precisely because we are willing to bear its burden, we know well the cost of war.

That is why we built an Alliance that was strong enough to defend this continent
while deterring our enemies.

At its core, NATO is rooted
in the simple concept of Article Five: that no NATO nation
will have to fend on its own;
that allies will stand by one another,
For six decades, NATO has been the most successful alliance in human history.

Today, we confront a different enemy.

Terrorists have taken the lives of our citizens in New York
and in London.

And while al Qaeda seeks a religious war with the West,
we must remember that they have killed thousands of Muslims –
men, women and children –
around the globe.

Our nations
are not and will never be at war with Islam.

Our fight is focused on defeating al Qaeda
and its extremist allies.

In that effort, we will not relent,
as Osama bin Laden and his followers have learned.

As we fight
an enemy that respects no law of war, we will continue to hold ourselves
to a higher standard –
by living up to the values
the rule of law
and due process that we so ardently

For almost a decade,
Afghanistan has been a central front
of these efforts.

Throughout those years,
the British people
have been a stalwart ally
along with so many others who fight by our side.

Together, let us pay tribute
to all of our men and women who have served and sacrificed over the last several years –
for they are part of an unbroken line of heroes who have borne the heaviest burden
for the freedoms that we enjoy.

Because of them,
we have broken the Taliban's momentum.
Because of them, we have built the capacity of Afghan Security Forces.

And because of them, we are now preparing to turn a corner in Afghanistan by transitioning to Afghan lead.

During this transition, we will pursue a lasting peace with those who break free of al Qaeda and respect the Afghan Constitution and lay down arms.

And we will ensure that Afghanistan is never a safe-haven for terror –
but is instead a country that is strong,
and able to stand on its own two feet.

Indeed, our efforts in this young century have led us to a new concept
for NATO that will give us the capabilities needed to meet
new threats:
threats like terrorism and piracy,
cyber attacks and ballistic missiles.

But a revitalized NATO will continue to hew to that original vision of its founders,
allowing us to rally
collective action for the defense of our people,
while building upon the broader belief of Roosevelt and Churchill that
all nations have both rights and responsibilities, and
all nations share a common interest
in an international architecture
that maintains the peace.

We also share a common interest
in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
Across the globe, nations are
locking down nuclear materials so
they never fall into the wrong hands,
of our leadership
from North Korea
to Iran, we
have sent a message that
those who flaunt their obligations will face
consequences -- which is why America and the European Union just recently strengthened our sanctions
on Iran,
in large part because of the leadership of
the United Kingdom
and the United States.

And while we hold others to account,
we will meet our own obligations under
the Non-Proliferation Treaty,
and strive for a world without nuclear weapons.

We share a common interest in resolving conflicts that prolong human suffering,
and threaten to tear
whole regions asunder.

In Sudan,
after years of war and thousands of deaths, we call on both North and South to pull back from the brink of violence and
choose the path of peace.

And in the Middle East, we stand united
in our support for a secure Israel
and a sovereign Palestine.

And we share a common interest
in development that advances dignity and security.

To succeed, we must cast aside
the impulse to look at impoverished parts of the globe
as a place for charity.

Instead, we should empower the same forces that have allowed
our own people to thrive –
we should help the hungry to feed themselves,
the doctors who care for the sick;
we should support countries that confront corruption, and allow their people to innovate;
and we should advance the truth that nations prosper when they allow women
and girls to reach their full potential.

We do these things
because we believe not simply in the rights of nations,
we believe in the rights of citizens.

That is the beacon that guided us through our fight against fascism
and our twilight struggle against communism.

And today, that idea is being put to the test
in the Middle East
and North Africa.
In country after country,
people are mobilizing to free themselves from the grip
of an iron fist.

And while these movements for change are just six months old,
we have seen them play out before –
from Eastern Europe
to the Americas;
from South Africa
to Southeast Asia.

History tells us that democracy is not easy.
It will be years before these revolutions reach their conclusion, and there will be difficult days along the way.

Power rarely gives up without a fight –
particularly in places
where there are divisions of tribe
and divisions of sect.

We also know that populism can take dangerous turns –
from the extremism of those who would use democracy to deny minority rights,
to the nationalism that left so many scars on this continent
in the 20th century.
But make no mistake:
what we saw
what we are seeing in Tehran, in Tunis
in Tahrir Square
is a longing for the same freedoms that we take
for granted here at home.

It was a rejection of the notion that people in certain parts of the world
don't want to be free,
or need to have democracy imposed upon them.

It was a rebuke to the worldview of al Qaeda,
which smothers the rights of individuals,
and would thereby subject them to perpetual poverty and violence.

Let there be no doubt:
the United States
and the United Kingdom stand squarely on the side of those who long to be free.

Now we must show that we will
back up these words
with deeds.

That means investing in the future
of those nations
that transition to democracy,
starting with Tunisia and Egypt –
by deepening ties of trade and commerce;
by helping them demonstrate that freedom
brings prosperity.

And that means standing up for universal rights –
by sanctioning those who pursue repression,
strengthening civil society,
supporting the rights of minorities.

We do this knowing
that the West must overcome suspicion
and mistrust among many
in the Middle East and North Africa –
a mistrust that is rooted in a difficult past.

For years, we have faced charges of hypocrisy from those who do not enjoy the freedoms
that they hear us espouse.

And so to them, we must squarely acknowledge that
yes we have enduring interests in the region –
to fight terror
sometimes with partners who may not
be perfect,
to protect against disruptions in the world's
energy supply.

But we must also insist that
we reject as false
the choice between our interests and our ideals;
between stability
and democracy.

For our idealism is rooted in the realities of history –
that repression
offers only the false promise
of stability;
that societies are more successful when their citizens are free;
and that democracies
are the closest allies we have.

It is that truth that guides our action in Libya.
It would have been easy
at the outset of the crackdown in Libya
to say that none of this was our business –
that a nation's sovereignty is more important than the slaughter of civilians
within its borders.
That argument carries weight with some.

But we are different.

We embrace a broader responsibility.

And while we cannot stop every injustice,
there are circumstances
that cut through our caution –
when a leader is threatening to massacre his people,
and the international community
is calling for action.

That’s why we stopped a massacre
in Libya.

And we will not
relent until the people of Libya are protected, and the shadow of tyranny is lifted.

We will proceed with humility,
and the knowledge that we cannot dictate
every outcome abroad.

Ultimately, freedom must be won by the people themselves,
not imposed from without.

But we can and must stand with those
who so struggle.

Because we have always believed that the future of our children and grandchildren
will be better if other people's children and grandchildren
are more prosperous and more free –
from the beaches of Normandy,
to the Balkans to Benghazi.

That is
our interests
and our ideal.
If we fail to meet that responsibility,
who would take our place
and what kind of world
would we pass on?

Our action –
our leadership –
is essential to the cause of human dignity.

And so we must act –
and lead –
with confidence in our ideals, and an abiding faith in the character of our people,
who sent us here today.

For there is one final quality that I believe makes the United States
and the United Kingdom indispensible
to this moment in history.

And that is how we define ourselves
as nations.

Unlike most countries in the world, we do not define citizenship
based on race
or ethnicity.

Being American
or British is not about
belonging to a certain group;
it's about believing in a certain set of ideals –
the rights of individuals
the rule of law.

That is why we hold
incredible diversity within our borders.

That’s why there are people
around the world right now who believe that
if they come to America, if they come to New York if they come to London, if they work hard,
they can pledge allegiance to our flag, and call themselves Americans.

If they come to England
they can make a new life for themselves,
and can sing
God Save the Queen just like
any other citizen.

Yes, our diversity can lead to tension.

Throughout history, there have been heated debates about
and assimilation
in both our countries.

But even as these debates can be difficult, we fundamentally recognize that our patchwork heritage
is an enormous strength –
that in a world
which will only grow smaller
and more
the example of our two nations says it is possible for people
to be united by their ideals,
instead of divided
by their differences;
it is possible for hearts to change,
and old hatreds to pass;
that it's possible for the sons and daughters of former
colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament,
and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army
to stand before you
as President of the United States.

That is what defines us.

That is why
the young
men and women in the streets of
Damascus and Cairo
still reach for the rights our citizens enjoy, even if they've sometimes differed with our policies.

As two of the most powerful nations
in the history of the world,
we must always remember that the true source of our influence hasn't just been the size of our economies,
the reach of our militaries,
or the land that we've claimed.

It has been the values
that we must never waver in defending around the world –
the idea that all beings are endowed
by our creator with certain
rights that cannot be denied.
That is what forged
our bond in the fire of war –
a bond made manifest
by the friendship
between two of our greatest leaders.

Churchill and Roosevelt had their differences.

They were keen observers of each other's blind spots
and shortcomings,
if not always their own,
and they were hard-headed about their ability to remake the world.

But what joined the fates
of these two men
at that moment in history was not
simply a shared interest in victory on the battlefield.

It was a shared belief in the ultimate triumph
of human freedom
and human dignity –
a conviction that we have a say in how this story ends.

This conviction
lives on
in their people today.

The challenges we face are great.

The work before us
is hard.

But we have come through a difficult decade,
and whenever the tests and trials ahead may seem too big or too many,
let us turn to their example,
and the words that Churchill spoke
on the day that Europe was freed:
"In the long years to come,
not only will the people of this island
but the world,
wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts,
look back to what we've done, and they will say 'do not despair, do not yield...
march straight forward'"
With courage and purpose;
with humility
and with hope;
with faith
in the promise of tomorrow, let us
march straight forward
enduring allies
in the cause of a world
that is more peaceful,
more prosperous,
and more just.

Thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. Well put.

    So many tinny and/or trite speech gimmicks, and when they are stripped out so little interesting intellectual content and insight remain.

    His speechwriters have run out of smart things to say and retreat into cliche. Is that a consequence of the fact they are too young and inexperienced? Shallow knowledge, next to no wisdom?


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