The Hardest Job in the World: Book Review

The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency (2020), John Dickerson, a long book with 31 chapters of varying interest. Presumably the book got much longer with the Trump presidency. One of the problems of being a mainstream journalist is the need for complete neutrality. The Conclusions look for some middle ground (including introducing the group “More in Common”), which sounds great in theory (especially to Median Voter Guy), but not practical. I hope to be more sanguine in 2021.

Dickerson makes the key point that the job and the process of electing presidents is preposterous. The election marathon takes different skills from doing the job; plus, much of the job is a time sinkhole (e.g., “consoler in chief”) that takes time away from actually running the vast, complex government structure. “The American presidency is in trouble. It is overburdened, misunderstood, and almost impossible job to do. … Bill Clinton called it the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system” (p. xiii-xiv). Dickerson refers to Eisenhower quadrant system matrix: important-not important; urgent-not urgent. Quadrant 1 (urgent and important) called for immediate action to act. Quadrant 2 (not urgent-important) was the planning phase and where the president needs to spend much of his time. Not important stuff (Quadrants 3 and 4) should be delegated or deleted. Unfortunately, much of this was ceremonial (pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving) and has to be done. The press is not necessarily that interested in Quadrants 1 and 2. They are interested in any photo op or reason a president can be criticized. It’s up to the chief of staff to enforce the quadrant system.

Introduction: “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think straight,” Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Mr. Eisenhower’s reluctance to engage in name-calling contests that he considers beneath the dignity of the president. … Sixty-four years later, under President Donald Trump, the presidency is a name-calling contest in which he appears to be competing with himself. In his first 700 days, President Donald Trump insulted 550 people, a brisk rate of one every 1.25 days” (p. xiii). It was Trump against the presidency: “It’s traditions get in the way of the quick results he wants” (p. xiii). “There are no easy matters that will ever come to you as president. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level” (Eisenhower, p. xviii). All the black swans soar to the president’s desk. “Presidents are caught in a crisis-by-crisis response operation that undermines the ability of any modern president to get a handle on the office” (Leon Panetta, p. xxii).

Part One: The Office of the President.

Executive in Chief. “FDR issued 3,522 executive orders. … Roosevelt not only accumulated power in the office, he created a new habit. In the future, Americans were more likely to look to the president for solution” (p. 6-7). Even under FDR, cabinet secretaries were autonomous and hard to control. FDR commissioned the Brownlow Committee to streamline the federal government, based on the continuing complexity and need for appointed experts. The public and Congress disagreed that FDR needed more power. Congress grudgingly gave him more assistants in 1939 and to reorganize the government. The power expanded during World War II. Now about 2,000 people work in the Executive Office of the President.

Commander in Chief. “President Eisenhower was a life hacker. He thought about not just what he did but how he did it and developed systems to make himself more efficient” (p. 17). Part of that was having a team understanding what was important and presidential. In 1947 Truman created the National Security Council and the CIA. The NSA was expanded by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs. “Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 was a triumph of priority setting in national security” (p. 21).

Welcome to the NFL. “The biggest shock they face is that eighty-five to ninety percent of the job is all about foreign policy, which is about five percent of the campaign. … You’re having to make decisions about countries and meet with world leaders and then on top of that there’s the secret world of intelligence” (p. 27). After 9/11, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The day begins with the President’s Daily Brief (which differed from one president to another). The complexity of the threats has gone up over time. [There are implicit biases with the people and agency making the brief. Different agencies have different agendas.] One issue was considering costs and risks of actions [plus Philip Tullock’s point that not all considerations may be on the table—was it possible Iraq did not have WMD?].

First Responder. Historically, presidents did not get involved in natural disasters, presumably a problem for governors. Eisenhower did essentially nothing after massive hurricanes during his tenure—the expected response. LBJ responded to Senator Russell Long’s plea for help in Louisiana. After that, the federal government starting caring for people in emergencies. Carter created FEMA in 1979. Dickerson refers to Katrina and Bush flyover response, not an especially bad response but widely criticized by the press. The Louisiana and New Orleans governments and responders were bad and FEMA director Brown not a compelling presence. Trump in Puerto Rico was also bad, but in his defense the leadership and infrastructure in Puerto Rico was awful.

Consoler in Chief. “Since Pericles spoke in ancient Athens, eulogies have followed a classic form. … Honor the dead. State why it is appropriate that we do so. Take from their death a lesson as to how we should live our lives. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln transformed the tragedy of the Civil War into meaning for the living” (p. 51). In 1986 Reagan grieved over the lost Challenger crew. Trump blew it in Charlottesville. Talking about racism was necessary: “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence”—then he had to add “on many sides, on many sides,” characterized as moral flattening rather than moral clarity.

Acting Presidential. “A president’s power to console comes from a ceremonial reverence Americans grant their presidents. To deserve the reverence, a president must act as steward of the dignity and stature of the office. In short, a president must be presidential” (p. 65). Washington was a master of dignity and decorum. Presumably, the Constitution contained Washington’s job description in Article II.

“Trump has chosen to govern by a different route, building support among his political base by weaponizing uncertainty … taking people who are uncertain and promising them certainty and giving them someone to blame” (p. 71).

“Johnson [LBJ] was exceedingly vulgar, a bully, braggart, and manipulator with corrupt business ethics. A man of ‘monstrous character,’ … and yet Johnson was effective and rightfully lauded for improving the lives of millions” (p. 73).

Action Hero President. The buck stops here. “In frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle was used to indicate whose turn it was to deal. A player who didn’t want to deal could decline the responsibility by passing the ‘buck’ to the next player” (p. 75). Deepwater Horizon, offshore drilling platform 2010 explosion and a river of oil. The president could do nothing, which appeared as a weakness. Bush on 9/11, his bullhorn response was seen as presidential; not so much for Katrina. Presidents are now more or less responsible for anything going wrong during their presidency. Eisenhower was willing to take the blame for subordinates. “A president who is a direct participant in a controversy is not the same as one who has a controversy take place on his watch” (p. 85): Obama on killing bin Laden versus Deepwater Horizon. Note local catastrophes: Texas and California have local experts working well with federal officials, not so much with Puerto Rico and the 2017 hurricane. What Trump did that was new was attack local officials in Puerto Rico.

Confidence Man: The Economy. Economics is not Dickerson’s strong suit. A good bit of the chapter is about the 2008 sub-prime debacle. As I remember it, Bush had almost no part in it. A more interesting story to me was the comparison of Hoover to Roosevelt in the Great Depression. Probably the biggest key is having the right personnel in key positions; in this case, Federal Reserve and Treasury. Bush/Obama had Wall Street insiders as leaders, not necessarily the best choices.

A Historic Partisan Gap. “President Reagan led a conservative revolution to reinvigorate the country by shrinking government … Tip O’Neill stood as the last political giant from the New Deal era. … O’Neill called Reagan ‘Herbert Hoover with a smile” (p. 114). The idea was increase defense spending, shrink the budget and cut taxes; execution meant cutting taxes and increasing defense. The result was substantial budget deficits. The Republicans and Democrats were splitting between conservatives and liberals—”voter homogeneity” (with less meeting in the middle). The split of districts (thanks in part to gerrymandering) meant Democrats had to win an overwhelming percent of votes to win a majority in Congress, ditto for the presidency (mainly because of the rural/urban split). “There was no overlap. By contrast, in the 1960s, 50 percent of lawmakers overlapped ideologically” (p. 122). Confirming judges became a big issue under Reagan.

Ideological purity became increasing the test of electability. How to disparage the opposition: “decay, failure, collapse, crisis, urgent, sick pathetic, shallow, traitors, hypocrisy, radical, waste, corruption, incompetent, self-serving, greed, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, selfish, insensitive, machine, bosses, obsolete” (p. 130). Most of these were written up by Gingrich.

A New Era of Partisan Warfare. Gingrich succeeded by pushing tough politics of questionable ethics and win-at-all-costs mindset. Bush (41) agreed to a tax-increasing budget deal to reduce deficits after his “no new taxes” pledge; called a “betrayal of Reaganism” by Gingrich. Bush had also used win-at-all-costs campaigning using Lee Atwater (and Willy Horton adds). After losing in 1992, it became clear that disappointing conservatives meant almost certain defeat.

On the Separation of Powers. “Passage of bipartisan bills like measures to confront opioid addiction or reduce mass incarceration pass either because the need is so overwhelming and immediate … or because coalitions form in both parties outside Washington, pressuring lawmakers for different reasons” (p. 142). The importance of political self-interest, based on Adam Smith and picked up by the framers. “By building a governmental system that acknowledged anticipated, and accommodated self-interest and ambition, the framers thought they could design a thriving government that could work in the real world, despite the low instincts of the human characters who cycled in and out of it” (p. 145). Many thought that handing power to a president was an invitation to abuse.

Just Be Like LBJ! “Joe Biden was someone Mitch McConnel could work with. … ‘Joe made no effort to convince me that I was wrong.’ … The difference between Obama and Biden is an echo in miniature of Kennedy and Johnson. Kennedy tried to work Congress but he just wasn’t as good at it” (p. 155).

“The call for presidents to sit down with the leaders of the opposite party is a vestige of a time when presidents and lawmakers were less connected to their party. … Presidents could appeal to ad hoc coalitions in Congress, which formed around beliefs on specific issues” (p. 160).

The End Depends on the Beginning. Dickerson put team building as a critical component. Leaders, according to Peter Drucker “accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but ‘we’ gets the credit. … This is what creates trust” (p. 167). Reagan, for example was a Washington neophyte, needed insider experience. He called Jim Baker, who worked for opposition, to be chief of staff. [Reagan] “was the opposite of Jimmy Carter, who knew far more and understood far less” (p. 170). The congressional liaison, for example, determines whether the president wants bipartisan solution (with a good reputation on both sides and knows how the system works) or super partisanship. Many staffers come from the campaign, with a lack of Washington experience and the wrong skill set. Lincoln is known for his “team of rivals,” mainly guys who thought they should be president. “These were the very strongest men. I had no right to deprive the country of their services.”

Lost in Transition. Congress passed the Presidential Transitions Improvement Act of 2015, requiring transition work early in the election year. Chris Christi ran to Trump transition. Christi and his team were immediately dumped when Trump won, of course with the backing of Bannon and Kushner. Trump ran on how poorly things were run in Washington. The result was cascading staffing catastrophes. Acting positions became common as nominees could not be confirmed by the Senate.

Hard at the Start. H.R. McMaster: “In the White House there are three types of people: those there to serve the president, … those there for their own agenda; and those there to save the country from the president” (p. 189). There are no metrics to measure White House success, except reelection. Incentives across the government are not aligned. “In government, legislation—the equivalent to the strategic plan—is the objective. [Or] … it is the first ten percent of the process. Ninety percent is implementation and execution” (p. 190). “Duties overlap, lines of authority are fuzzy, and departments that should work together are in constant conflict” (p. 191). Nixon: “We’ve checked and found that ninety-six percent of the bureaucracy are against us. … Nixon, like Trump, mostly disowned the bureaucracy” (p. 193).

“Success in a presidency … is measured by a president’s stewardship, trustworthiness, and commitment to the public good” (p. 196). Efforts to reform and increase efficiency were made by Teddy Roosevelt, Taft (Commission on Economy and Efficiency), Hoover, Clinton, and Bush 43” (p. 198). Trump tried to make firing easier. Congress actually has the authority to reform the executive branch.

How a President Decides. “One type of thinking is systematic, analytic, linear and rigorous. The other is more freewheeling, creative, iterative, and big-picture” (p. 207). A president needs both. Things are “staffed” before they go to the president for accuracy, coordination, and so on. Carter tried to give autonomy to his cabinet, but they built their own fiefdoms. It seemed like a good idea on paper.

Impulse Presidency. Kissinger on Watergate: “Some damn fool went into the Oval Office and did what Nixon told him to do” (p. 217). About Kelly: “You’ll never know the disasters he prevented” (p. 217). “Since Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, voters have shown an overwhelming desire to elect outsiders” (p. 219). [Trump] “brought a wrecking ball” [unlike previous presidents] “who wrestled with the tension between innovation and tradition” (p. 220). A “fixer” may be needed in complex real estate to “work the system,” but Trump continued this in the presidency, like using Giuliani for Ukraine.

What did people want according to Henry Ford: faster horses. Bureaucracy in government means standardization and order, lines of authority, and oversight. Trump’s process was often called “chaos.” Stuff happened under Trump, some of it good, like criminal justice reform or family leave policies. Then he abrogated treaties, like the Iran nuclear deal, climate agreement; then withdrew from Syria after talking to Erdogan. “President Trump was so abrupt and dismissive of his military team, including Secretary of Defense Mattis, that Mattis resigned” (p. 226). He also labeled the European Union as America’s foe. Trump started a tariff war with China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico. This was bad news for the economy, so he blamed the Fed. He shut down the government in 2019 because Democrats refused funding the border wall.

Woodrow Wilson invented the press conference in 1913 when lots of newspaper guys showed up in his office when he expected only a few: “Your numbers force me to make a speech to you en masse” (p. 235).

The Expectation. “FDR held congenial off-the-record gatherings with reporters, where he shaped their stories” (p. 242). Several presidents deceived the public (sometimes the press) usually over their health. “Press scrutiny increased most acutely after a string of lies and deceptions surrounding the US war in Vietnam and the Watergate break-in” (p. 242). Trust in the federal government went from 77% in 1964 to 18% now. Woodward and Bernstein became the reporters to emulate. Trump countered with daily tweets to his supporters [which also makes great viewing on nightly comedy shows]. 11% of Trump supporters trust the mainstream news. Psychiatrists point to Trump’s “intense focus on himself, his constant state of grievance, and his lack of restraint were classic markers of narcissistic personality disorder” (p. 245).

“Roosevelt’s flexibility was considered a great and necessary presidential skill, but his deceptions and emotional distance also had a darker side” (p. 250). “This is the heart of the critique of Trump’s presidency—that he is unburdened by conscience, that he tells repeated falsehoods with ease. He has affection for dictators in Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia not for geopolitical reasons, but because he admires power with no moral brake on its execution” (p. 251).

The Impossible Presidency. Book by Jeremi Suri: “Even the most capable modern presidents are doomed to fail. … Limiting the failure and achieving some good along the way—that is the best we can expect” (p. 257).

Part Two: Presidential Campaigns

Candidate of the People. Kennedy announced a revolution in government in 1959 because of TV. Voters could now base decisions on seeing the president (e.g., the charisma factor, image), rather than issues [nasty break, Elizabeth Warren]. TV made contests “vulnerable to manipulation, exploitation, and gimmicks, and public relations experts” (p. 262). Kennedy would make an end-run around party bosses. The same logic blasted Trump into the presidency. Kennedy said: “Primary contests not only educate the public—they educate the candidate as well” (p. 263).

Senator Estes Kefauver’s hearings investigated substantial corruption in big-city politics, including among Democrats and the Mafia; making him none too popular in Democrat circles. He wanted to be president, ran and won various primaries in 1952. The Democrat back-room-boys picked Stevenson instead.

No Hiring Manual for the Presidency. The campaign is all about winning, not about doing the job. The framers cobbled the electoral college as the best compromise; of course, they were not enthusiastic about universal suffrage. It did accommodate the slave states. That meant the path to victory was a majority of the electors, mainly through party leaders. “As voters replaced the parties as the main force in selecting candidates, the criteria for evaluating presidents became even more fluid. … The problem with downgrading the sausage-making skills is that government is still a sausage-making enterprise” (p. 279). This requires compromise; however, partisans aren’t interested in compromise.

Voters seem to want someone with no Washington connections; that is, no experience. “We are electing someone where we have no information to judge whether they are able to do the job. … The criteria for election became not what the job required but what the candidate could sell. … Renegade political behavior pays” (p. 280-1). Trump “built the tower of promises higher. … ‘I will give you everything’ … fix infrastructure … save Social Security … save Israel’” (p. 284).

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. “Ike … knew different tasks required different leadership approaches and that a key skill of a leader was identifying what the moment required. … Patton’s strength is that he thinks only in terms of attack. … [the point being to have “enough sense to use Patton’s good qualities without becoming blinded by his love of showmanship and histrionics] (p. 288).

“Reagan had been successful when the issue considered already had strong grassroots support. He had been able to pressure Congress if that issue has from the outset broad support. … If the people were not with him, the president could not change minds” (p. 298). Clinton’s attempt to sell his healthcare bill just lost him support and Republicans took control of the House. Ditto Bush on privatizing Social Security.

Restraint. The Berlin wall fell in November 1989. Bush showed considerable restraint, which was called “lack of leadership” by the press. “Bush wanted unification to be Germany’s triumph” (p. 311). Bush had relationships with world leaders, which were not photographed. However, he had a particularly mean-spirited campaign to win the 1988 election. “Unlike Forty-One, who recognized that the obligations of winning were different from the obligations of the job, Trump has carried over the unrestrained rhetoric and behavior of the campaign into the presidency” (p. 321).

“In an almost perfect inversion of the Trump approach, Eisenhower refrained from showy displays, because they detracted from his ultimate goals: a covert preoccupation with getting political results while appearing publicly nonpolitical was central to Eisenhower’s leadership style” (p. 310). Jefferson opposed war because it would centralize power, employing a [disastrous] economic embargo instead.

The Church of Perpetual Disappointment. “Snap judgments frame the first pieces of analysis on television” (p. 324). In debates with Romney, Obama’s advisors told him to be “fast and hammy” (p. 325). “Thomas Jefferson’s attack dog James Callender wrote a 183-page pamphlet in which he called President Adams a repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite, and a hideous hermaphrodite character. … Adam plunked him in jail” (p. 326). FDR mastered radio. Ross Perot introduced the infomercial.

“Virtually every consumer proposition today, from fast food and entertainment to social interaction, is deliberately crafted so that rewards are immediate while costs are deferred, and deferred so seamlessly that they almost disappear” (p. 335). This compared to the Great Depression generation that: “valued shared sacrifice, modesty, and self-discipline. … The baby boomers started to crack that standard. Individual fulfillment moved into the forefront in the culture” (p. 338). The “centrality of the self” was fulfilled by Trump. Most voters stick with their affiliated party as part of group identity. “Populist movements rely on inflammatory rhetoric to create a tribal us versus them condition. … Partisans gravitate toward affirmation rather than toward information” (p. 341).

“Whataboutism:” when the party falls short, “mention a time that some member of the other party fell short. … The goal is deflecting and confusing the issue. … Whataboutism does not work with the police, judges, or our mothers. If you work in customer service, do not try this. … Whataboutism is the state flower of negative partisanship” (p. 342).

Amping Up the Awful. “Journalists would get fired for knowingly printing lies. … Political psychology division identified how stoking chaos has become a form of expressing discontent. … This chaos attack on authority, expertise, and institutions has some hold in 40% of the American population” (p. 347). Illusory truth effect: “Only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy of even the most implausible claims. … Studies have shown that even when people are told, on good evidence, that the information they believe to be true was completely fabricated, they cling to their original understanding” (p. 350).

“In the 2016 campaign … the Russian Internet Research Agency’s disruptive efforts reached 126 million people on Facebook, posted 10.4 million tweets, uploaded more than a thousand videos to YouTube, and reached more than 20 million users on Instagram” (p. 351). The Russians were especially good at targeting conservatives and those sensitive to race and immigration.

Part Three. The Way We Live Now

Winning Above All. Trump: “I won.” Russia hacked the Democratic campaign manager [this was handled badly by both the Hillary campaign and Obama’s FBI], with the contents going to WikiLeaks—in consultation with the Trump campaign. Nixon had dirty tricks dealing with South Vietnam during his 1968 campaign. Reagan’s team may have coordinated with Iran on American hostages. Dirty tricks that resemble treason have happened, but Trump’s efforts seem the most illicit. “If there are no standards, then the whatever-it-takes mentality that has ruled in campaigns becomes the standard for the presidency” (p. 361).

Resolve to be Honest. “By the quant standards of the late fall of 2015, Trump’s assertive denial [a lie] was considered a gaffe. … He told outright lies, repeated lies even after having been fact-checked repeatedly, and made up stories when the truth would do. … He took credit for things he had nothing to do with and denied involvement in matters he orchestrated. … By offering a steady flow of disinformation, he controlled the news cycle and rallied his supporters. … [leading to] only one conclusion possible: that he sought to overwhelm the system with so many falsehoods as to challenge the very idea of knowable information” (p. 367-8). “Administrations aren’t built to fight lies. They’re built to protect the president and the president’s policies. … This happened during the Vietnam War, when the music of patriotism and service and duty was used to mask a series of deceptions” (p. 371).

Mark Twain: “Think of it, George Washington could not lie. Grown person, you know—could not lie. Comes right out and says it. Seems to me I’d a known enough to keep still about an infirmity like that” (p. 372).

“Great presidents like FDR and Lincoln succeeded, in part, because they hid their true intentions until the right time. Eisenhower said a leader must always show optimism, even if on the inside he longed to be in the fetal position” (p. 373).

Character Counts. James Q. Wilson: “To have good character means at least two things: empathy and self-control” (p. 380). “Trump has no time for empathy” (p. 381). Francis Fukuyama: “Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today” (p. 384). “Self-control: the ability to recognize the larger long-term obligations of the presidency and stick to them. … Self-control is the key attribute of President Eisenhower’s Quadrant Two” (p. 384). “Donald Trump’s Twitter account pings with the frequency of radar offering a real-time picture of the location of his id” (p. 386). Substance for Trump is not the issue, it’s authenticity and boldness, and his strange transparency. “He was self-indulgent and brash in the incendiary way that wins ratings on reality shows” (p. 387).

It’s My Party. Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in March 2016, which was blocked by McConnell, much to the pleasure of Republicans. By comparison, Eisenhower was hated by conservatives for his court picks. He was also considered “soft on the New Deal.” Trump reduced business regulations and picked some 150 judges by the end of 2019. The Congressional Review Act makes removing regulations fairly easy. Plus he cut corporate and personal taxes. Republicans changed positions on the budget deficit, trade, immigration and military intervention; now isolationists and protectionists.

The Uncertain Never Trumper. “Donald Trump’s essential insight: The old codes of the job hurt the country and hurt those voters who support him. Norms are the white glove traditions of special interests and political elites. … Unburdened by political correctness and the old rules, the president doesn’t let table manners get in the way of taking care of business” (p. 402). “Voters spurred by negative partisanship think the other party is destroying the country” (p. 405).

“Never Trumpers, pundits, former GOP officials, and campaign operatives ask how a movement that once cared so much about standards could shed those standards and even the idea of objective measurement. … Never Trumpers are unconvinced by justifications that the country needs Donald Trump to save America from the forces of evil. The expedient has always used the ends-justify-the-means argument” (p. 405-6). “The modern Republican Party grew from the idea that stable, traditional notions about individual freedom and proper conduct were the shield against corrosive fads of the moment” (p. 406).

Donald Trump’s America. For Trump it was always about the base: “A blue wave means crime and open borders. A red wave means safety and strength. … The president has also tried to define Democrats as economic socialists, gun grabbers, and advocates of special rights at the cost of traditional values and religious liberty” (p. 411). Fukuyama: “To propel themselves forward, such figures latched onto the resentments of ordinary people who felt that their nation or religion or way of life was being disrespected” (p. 418), “For better or worse, Donald Trump has governed exactly as he campaigned. He has been a chaos president. There is no plan for him to change” (p. 420).

Conclusions. Dickerson tries to come with improvements, which seem more wishful thinking that pragmatic suggestions. He does offer a critique of the media: “The media have often failed the voters. We focus too much on the polls, treat the campaign as theater, simplify complex problems into binary choices, and stoke conflict, while abdicating our responsibility to help people get through the conflict” (p. 425). “Our view of the presidency is distorted by our inflated expectations about what a president can do and warped by a candidate’s immodesty about what they will do” (p. 426). He turns to Michael Lewis (Fifth Risk) to indicate the importance and professionalism of the federal agencies and that the government is overloaded rather than bloated; there is just a lot to do.

“If we are not a country of partisans, we can take actions to stop living in their world” (p. 449).

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© 2016 Gary Giroux