It wouldn't be a John McCain town hall without occasional off-color humor.
"There was a poll, a poll that had to do with favorability," the 76-year-old U.S. senator tells the crowd of about 300 in Oro Valley, a mostly white enclave just north of Tucson.
"Members of Congress ranked in this poll — on favorability — just below colonoscopy," comes the Henny Youngman-esque punchline.
John McCain's No Profile in Courage Never Has Been
Some adults chortle. A few groan. The high school kids of Basis Charter School, where the town hall is taking place on a weekday afternoon, look nonplussed.
Welcome to the McCain show, which Arizona's senior senator's been on the road with lately in the Grand Canyon State, at places like Oro Valley and Sun Lakes, where the old outnumber the young.
Step right up and ask the irascible "straight shooter" anything at all. Whether it has to do with Syria, sequestration, gay marriage, or gun control, McCain has an answer, a quip, a comeback.
But in Oro Valley, the meat of the hour-long meeting is McCain's pitch for comprehensive immigration reform as envisioned by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, of which he's one.
Actually, McCain isn't so much selling as telling his constituents this is the way things will be, assuming the 844-page bill he and the others have produced can make it out of the Senate and then emerge triumphant from the U.S. House of Representatives, where the extremist Tea Party faction remains a force to be reckoned with.
With the aid of charts, he notes that the number of apprehensions in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector is down and that the number of Border Patrol Agents is up, as is the amount of spending meant to secure the border.
The new bill would throw even more federal dollars at border militarization.
"Two and a half billion dollars will be spent on fencing and surveillance," McCain intones. "Another billion and a half will be spent on technology."
There would be drones and sensors, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, he tells them. The goal: 90 percent of all illegal crossers apprehended.
Moreover, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be required to assure Congress that new border-security measures are working.
For the undocumented already in the United States, there would be a 13-year wait before they could apply for citizenship. During that time, they would have to jump through hoops: background checks, fines, payment of back taxes.
E-verify, the federal system that can check an employee's eligibility to work, would become mandatory for all employers in the United States. Unless someone has "a tamper-proof document," according to the senator, one showing eligibility, then he or she won't be able to get a job.
"The magnet that draws people to this country is jobs from the [southern border]," McCain states. "If the word gets out that if you come to this country [illegally], and you can't get a job because you don't have the right documentation, that will have a strong effect."
Unlike in other McCain town halls, the questions from the Oro Valley crowd on the Gang of Eight's immigration fix are mixed. Some express nativist sentiments, others a pro-immigrant mentality.
One elderly woman asks about the "anchor-baby problem," then regales McCain with a weird story about a drug lord coming to America for a day so his girlfriend can give birth to a U.S. citizen.
McCain acknowledges her concerns, despite her bigoted language.
He reminds her that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says if you're born on U.S. soil, then you are an American — so the issue would have to be addressed from "a constitutional standpoint."
Good answer for a guy born on a naval base in Panama.
On this day, the senator is less forgiving of questions from the pro-immigrant side.
One woman asks McCain to consider reunification of families in the new plan. Currently, families often are separated during the deportation process, indefinitely.
"I'd be glad to examine it," he says. "But I have no sympathy for repeat crossers of our border."
State Senator Steve Gallardo drove down from Phoenix to ask McCain about shortening the 13-year wait to apply for citizenship. Gallardo also expresses concern that further border militarization would lead to additional deaths in the desert, as migrants take even more rugged and forsaken routes to avoid detection.
McCain is dismissive. Cutting down the 13-year wait is "not something I can sell to the Congress of the United States."
As for those crossing the Sonoran Desert, McCain says he doesn't want anyone to die, but neither does he want them coming across to begin with.
"I want them to know that if they go through that, there's not going to be a job for them here," he tells Gallardo.
And yet, occasionally during the meeting, McCain lauds the America of Lady Liberty.
"Every group of immigrants that has come to this country has grasped the bottom rung," he states at one point, "the least attractive jobs and the hardest work, and then they have moved up the ladder. That's what America's all about."
McCain's current immigration stance is a far cry from the McCain of 2010. Locked in a death-match GOP primary with anti-immigrant talk-show host J.D. Hayworth, he embraced nativist rhetoric, Arizona Senate Bill 1070, and Fox News pinup boy Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
In 2010, immigration reform would have to wait until the border was secure, 'til the building of the "danged fence," as he famously stated in an oft-run campaign ad.
His sprint to the far right worked. McCain outflanked Hayworth, besting him 57 percent to 32 percent.
McCain had been for immigration reform in 2005, 2006, and 2007. During the 2008 presidential primary, he backtracked: Border security became his goal. After that, he would discuss immigration reform. Maybe.
In 2010, he doubled down on nativism, becoming, for the moment, a Tea Party wannabe.
Now he's done yet another 180, praising the tired, poor, huddled masses — to a degree, of course.
As a result, McCain and the Gang of Eight have won plaudits from reformers on the left and from the establishment press, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, the latter hailing the gang's efforts as part of a new "Immigration Spring" in America.
And McCain's new BFF, President Barack Obama, seems content to let him quarterback legislation on a problem Obama has promised to solve since his 2008 campaign (against McCain).
But as with numerous other issues, our senior senator's current position on immigration is steeped in self-serving hypocrisy, the hallmark of his career. A Machiavellian warrior, McCain's spent his entire time in public life as a political gyroscope, twisting whichever ways necessary to assure electoral victory, media praise, and, now, a legislative legacy worthy of a "maverick."
John McCain hates it when he's confronted about his inconsistencies on immigration — or, it seems, on any other subject.
At the town hall in the senior citizen mecca of Sun Lakes, McCain takes it on the chin for his new immigration bill — and on his break with the McCain of 2010.
Attendees suggest cutting off illegal immigrants' "welfare" (even though the undocumented cannot get welfare) and offer that "guns" are the only thing that stops migrants from crossing the border.
One particularly memorable exchange hit home.
"You said, 'Build the dang fence,'" an angry man yells at McCain, referencing the infamous 2010 commercial with Paul Babeu. "Where's the fence?!"
"In case you missed it, I showed you," McCain replies, pointing to a diagram behind him.
"That's not a fence!" the man shoots back.
"That's not a fence?" asks McCain, who moves to sarcasm. "It's a banana. We're putting up a banana with about $600 million worth of appropriations."
McCain appeals to the crowd's compassion and common sense, reminding members that America is a "Judeo-Christian nation."
"There are 11 million people living here illegally," McCain states. "We're not going to get enough buses to deport them."
True, but that's not the song McCain sang in 2010, the one that got him elected to his fifth senatorial term.
At the time, McCain was all about his 10-point border-security plan, which he co-authored with Jon Kyl, Arizona's junior U.S. senator at the time.
In it, the issue of illegal immigrants already in the United States wasn't addressed. Rather, the plan called for 3,000 National Guard troops on the border, 3,000 more Customs and Border Patrol Agents, the addition of drones and other military technology, the expansion of Operation Streamline (which hits border-crossers with criminal penalties), and the completion of 700 miles of border fence.
Anti-immigrant hardliner Babeu gave the plan his imprimatur. In that notorious campaign ad, Babeu walks alongside McCain on the border near Nogales, Arizona, telling the grizzled politician, "Senator, you're one of us."
This, following McCain's "complete the danged fence" line.
Statistically, crime was down in Arizona, even on the border. But McCain, Babeu, and other anti-immigration opportunists gave the impression that Arizona was awash in criminality because of undocumented migrants.
"Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder," McCain says at the beginning of the ad.
"We're outmanned," Babeu responds. "With all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona."
Ironically, less than two years later, Babeu's attempt at a run for U.S. Congress was kneecapped by a scandal wherein the sheriff's contentious homosexual affair with a Mexican national was brought to light by New Times' Monica Alonzo (see "Babeu Revealed," Special Reports).
Seems Babeu's ex-lover was in the country on an expired visa, and Babeu had employed him to work on some of the sheriff's campaign websites.
Considering his Tea Party talking points, Babeu's involvement with this man — and the sheriff's alleged threats to have him deported — are comic and twisted.
In other words, it's hard to imagine McCain embracing Babeu again.
Born of political expediency, McCain's alliance with Babeu wound up making a fool out of the senator.
On June 5, 2010, at Chase Field before a Diamondbacks-Colorado Rockies game, McCain pinned a purple heart on the chest of Pinal County Sheriff's Deputy Louie Puroll, who — according to the deputy's account — had been wounded earlier that year in a shootout with members of a drug cartel in the Vekol Valley.
New Times' Paul Rubin later showed that Puroll made up the confrontation, calling into question even the flesh wound Puroll received. Had the deputy shot himself?
In 2011, Babeu fired Puroll for lying about receiving bribe offers from cartel members and a fake death threat aimed at Rubin, purportedly from a pal of Puroll's.
Still, the initial outrage over Puroll's shooting fed into the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant jingoism Babeu and McCain peddled.
Puroll's improbable shootout occurred just days after Governor Jan Brewer had signed Senate Bill 1070, which made "attrition through enforcement" Arizona's official immigration policy.
Though portions of the law were upheld by a federal judge, and some of those same portions later were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fallout from the law — which essentially put any brown person under "reasonable suspicion" for an immigration check by law enforcement — was dramatic and severe.
Boycotts of Arizona, massive demonstrations, civil disobedience, and unbridled ethnic animosity ensued — making Arizona an object of derision.
As a result, the state's economy took a hit.
According to the Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, convention and tourism losses here because of 1070 topped $186 million. Add on a loss of an estimated $40.7 million in state tax revenues and 172,000 related job losses.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, issued a policy analysis of 1070 in September 2012. The report estimated that the number of undocumented people in Arizona decreased by 200,000 because of 1070 and Arizona's employer-sanctions law.
The undocumented fled to friendlier states, choosing not to "self-deport," as anticipated by 1070's legislative bullhorn, later-recalled state Senate President Russell Pearce.
Instead, the Cato white paper states, "Upon leaving Arizona," these undocumented immigrants "took their labor, businesses, purchasing power, and housing demand with them."
This exodus made the state's housing bust and its recession worse than they otherwise would've been.
Before 1070's passage, experts warned of such disastrous economic consequences of go-it-alone state immigration measures. But extremist stalwarts, such as Pearce, are on record as saying they didn't care if "attrition through enforcement" shrank our economy — as long as it drove out brown people.
Given McCain's extensive ties to big business and his support of immigration reform during the George W. Bush administration, he should've known better than to side with a political troglodyte like Pearce.
Nevertheless, he did just that, calling 1070 "a good tool . . . a tool that needs to be used" just one day before the state Senate approved the ethnic-cleansing statute.
So, it's hard to argue with the nativist in Sun Lakes who asks McCain about that "danged fence." The questioner may be a bigot, but when it comes to McCain saying anything to get re-elected, he's dead-on.
See, it's not for nothing that journalists have referrred to McCain as "Jukebox John" and "a Republican weather vane" when it comes to immigration and other issues.
After the senator takes the last question from his Oro Valley audience, he turns his attention to the local press.
I ask him what he would say to those who perceive a massive shift in his 2010 rhetoric on immigration.
"I would say they're wrong," he replies.
I then ask whether he still supports SB 1070. His reply is practiced and vague.
"I support the effort that was made in this state," he says, "because of the frustration that [state and local officials] had because of people coming across our borders.
"I have made it clear in this [current federal immigration] bill that we have to have border security as a trigger, among other things, just as I said in 2010. So anybody who says my attitude or my position has changed is wrong."
"So you still support 1070?" I press.
"I've answered your question," he snarls.
Here is a smidgen of McCain's infamous temper, though there's more to come when I delve into statements made as he toured Arizona's Wallow Fire area in June 2011 and stated to the press that some wildfires in the state were started by illegal aliens.
"They have set fires because they want to signal to others," McCain said at the time. "They have set fires to keep warm, and they have set fires to divert law enforcement agents . . . from them."
But a day later, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman contradicted McCain, telling CNN there was "no evidence I'm aware of" to back up the contention.
Hispanic leaders denounced McCain, demanding an apology. None came.
It turned out that two Anglo cousins from southern Arizona sparked the Wallow blaze. They hadn't put out their campfire properly. The result was that 538,000 acres were incinerated in Arizona and New Mexico.
I ask McCain whether he regrets his statement.
"I regret the racist allegations that were made to me, particularly in light of a [U.S. Government Accountability Office] study that said some of these fires were set by people who came to this country illegally," he says, peeved. "They should apologize to me!"
In a review released months later, done in part at McCain's behest, the GAO found 30 fire investigations between 2006 and 2010 that "identified illegal border crossers as a suspected source of ignition."
Note the word "suspected."
Thing is, only 77 out of the 2,126 human-set wildfires during that period were even investigated.
Which is why the GAO had to conclude that "the total number of fires ignited by illegal border crossers on federal lands in the Arizona border region is not fully known."
McCain's statements as he toured the Wallow Fire were unnecessary and inflammatory, scapegoating further an already scapegoated community.
When I stress that those responsible for Wallow were Anglo, McCain orders me not to interrupt him again.
"I see you're with New Times," he sneers, looking at my press badge.
"Yeah," I say, "Nice to meet you."
"Well, it's not nice to meet you!" he snaps.
Obviously, a nerve has been struck. I observe that he'd gone hard right in 2010 to knock off J.D. Hayworth.
"You're entitled to your opinion," McCain says.
What was worse about the illegals-cause-forest-fires flub was that McCain already had won re-election a couple of months earlier. It was as though the dial in his head still was locked on pandering to the Tea Party.
But McCain's hard-right migration didn't start with his re-election effort in 2010, even if it reached its zenith then.
During the 2007-08 fight for the GOP nomination for president, McCain's rivals — including future Republican nominee Mitt Romney — hammered his supporting "amnesty" in the form of an '07 federal immigration bill (killed because of pressure from the far right).
McCain's rhetoric often sounded pro-immigration, with talk of how immigrants enrich America and how the undocumented are "all God's children." But the drubbing forced a shift, with McCain declaring in one debate, "I commit to securing the borders first."
That mantra of "secure the border first" (before considering immigration reform) became McCain's position in 2010, as it would for Jeff Flake during his run for the U.S. Senate last year.
In the 2013 immigration bill, a plan to secure the border must be in place six months after the bill becomes law. Only after that can the 11 million undocumented apply for "registered provisional immigrant" status, a precursor to a green card, and citizenship long after that.
Thus, as the bill now stands, the process of securing the border and legalizing the undocumented are somewhat parallel, a significant change from "secure the border first."
But in 2010, McCain still was trying to appeal — with the help of Sheriff Babeu — to the very people he would blast less than a year later as "Tea Party Hobbits."
At an October 2010 Tea Party rally in Tucson, McCain (looking dorky in a blazer and baseball cap) stood next to Babeu and basked in the sheriff's effusive praise of the senator's hawkish border stance.
When it was McCain's turn to speak, he thanked teabaggers repeatedly for their patriotism.
"You're not just changing Arizona, you're changing America," he told the cheering crowd.
He explained that the GOP wasn't the party of "no" but of "hell no" — meaning, to teabaggers, that Republicans didn't support a pathway to citizenship, much less amnesty.
"My friends," he said, "our obligation to the people of this country and the people of Arizona is to get our borders secure first. We can do that."
McCain then took aim at Democratic U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva and then-Democratic Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, leading the Tea Partiers in chants of "So long, Raul!" and "Goodbye, Gabby!" — the latter illustrated by a placard emblazoned with the phrase and a shoe in the act of kicking.
A few months later, Giffords was bleeding from a bullet to the head, fired by a crazed lunatic wielding a Glock 19 with a 33-round magazine. Six were wounded fatally in the attack, including U.S. District Judge John Roll. Thirteen, including Giffords, were injured.
There's speculation that the Tucson massacre may have softened John McCain to argue for gun control, that it may have something to do with his current stance in the gun debate. But he's playing politics here, too.
In April, McCain voted for an amendment extending background checks to gun shows and Internet sales. Sadly, the measure failed, six votes shy of the 60 needed to prevent a filibuster.
At the Oro Valley town hall, former Giffords staffer Pam Simon identifies herself as a survivor of Giffords' 2011 "Congress on Your Corner" event, where psychopath Jared Lee Loughner played angel of death.
"I was also wounded on [that] January 8," she tells McCain. "I would like to thank you so much for your vote on . . ."
Applause drowns out the rest. Everyone knows she is talking about the background-check amendment that failed. She asks him if Congress might consider the proposal again.
He gives it a 50-50 chance.
McCain's a pro-Second Amendment senator from a rabidly pro-gun state, but he's emerged a hero in the background-check fight, though his vote didn't make a difference and was canceled out by Jeff Flake's "nay."
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has been glowing in its praise of McCain.
After Joe Biden's recent visit to Sedona to speak at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, the vice president posted a photo of himself and McCain on his White House blog, where he waxed nostalgic about his "old friend of over 35 years," whom he described as "an honorable, decent man" who "has the courage to vote his conscience."
McCain defended President Obama's strident remarks after the background-check amendment failed. And Obama's nonprofit advocacy group, Organizing for Action, recently encouraged its members "to thank Senator McCain for his vote" on the gun legislation by adding their names to an online message of support for him.
Heartwarming stuff, though undeserved. McCain's "yes" on the background-check amendment hardly was brave, nor was it a new position for him. It remains one of the few issues on which he and the National Rifle Association have disagreed.
In May 1999, the NRA hadn't even that small disagreement with McCain. That's when he voted against an amendment closing the gun-show loophole offered by New Jersey U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.
On several occasions since, though, McCain has stated that he supports tightening the loophole.
So it's no surprise that when it comes to any gun legislation more stringent than closing the gun-show loophole, McCain's against it.
In 2009, speaking to NRA members at the group's annual convention, held that year in Phoenix, he patted himself on the back for standing tall against California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein's 1994 assault-weapons ban, which expired in 2004.
"I voted against the original ban on so-called assault weapons," McCain told the gun enthusiasts. "I made sure the ban ended after 10 years, and if the ban is re-introduced in Congress, I will vote against it."
True to his word this time, when Feinstein attempted to bring back the ban in mid-April, McCain voted no, along with almost all of his fellow Senate Republicans and several Democrats in name only.
In February, at a town hall meeting on gun control and gun rights at the Musical Instrument Museum here, McCain was confronted by Caren Teves, mother of one of the victims of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
Teves asked McCain to vote for an assault-weapons ban, which would include a prohibition against high-capacity magazines.
McCain rejected the suggestion, saying such a ban had zero chance of congressional approval. And he contended that the ban would do nothing to save lives in urban centers such as Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has waged war against senseless gun violence.
"Murders in Chicago; there's no assault weapon used in them," McCain contended. "There's no large clip being used. It's a handgun where people go up and kill people. An assault-weapons ban will not have the slightest effect on the murders in Chicago and other metropolitan areas."
Does McCain really think assault weapons never have been used in Chicago? Sure, a nationwide assault-weapons ban isn't a panacea, but it could help reduce the carnage of mass shootings.
Mother Jones magazine recently found that more than half of mass shooters over the past three decades owned an assault weapon, an extended magazine, or both.
Tucson killer Loughner was jumped by bystanders when he stopped to reload after burning through an extended, 33-round magazine. If nothing larger than 10-round magazines had been readily available, Loughner, hypothetically, might have killed fewer people.
A restriction on clips larger than 10 rounds was part of the Feinstein proposal.
But should we really expect a politician like McCain, who has prostituted himself to the NRA, to cross the gun lobby in a more profound way than voting for closing background-check loopholes, a bill he had to know was headed for defeat?
In Oro Valley, I ask McCain whether he'll decline future contributions from pro-gun groups like the NRA, considering that it's opposed to even the most modest gun-control law.
I mention that, since 2006, he's on record as accepting more donations from the NRA than any other member of Congress, according to a New York Daily News report.
"I'll take contributions from anybody that is legally in this country," he barks back.
"Anybody?" I say. "What about the Communist Party?"
"I said anyone that's legally here," he says.
"The Communist Party is legally here," I say.
Rolling his eyes, the septuagenarian senator retreats from the room.
An out-of-town reporter familiar with McCain commented to me after the exchange that the senator is much more cordial to journalists in the nation's capital.
Which may explain why he's snowed many of them into believing that he is, in the words of the veep, "an honorable, decent man" with "the courage to vote his conscience."
Savvy reporters know the McCain brand — the principled "maverick" giving people "straight talk" — for what it is: a shtick.
It's an act that's been honed over decades and perpetuated in self-congratulatory autobiographies and inspirational tomes written by McCain with the assistance of former staffer Mark Salter. These include Faith of My Fathers, Character Is Destiny, Worth the Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick, and Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life.
New Times managing editor Amy Silverman has detailed in several pieces over the years the tawdry, sometimes sinister truth behind McCain's mask of civic perfection (see "Vintage McCain," Special Reports).
In the mid-'90s, Silverman wrote about how McCain's beer-heiress trophy wife, Cindy, obtained pain killers for her ravenous addiction by enlisting compliant doctors to write prescriptions in the name of employees of her nonprofit American Voluntary Medical Team, which flew medical professionals to war-torn hotspots worldwide.
Part of the story was how the McCain team massaged the media, spinning Cindy McCain's pill-popping machinations and giving her the aura of victimhood. End result: Her lawyer scored her a wrist-slap punishment of having to enter a federal drug-diversion program.
Her attorney also persuaded the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to criminally investigate a former employee at one of her nonprofits, apparently because he knew too much. No charges were filed.
In her 2008 piece "Postmodern John McCain," Silverman described how she helped TV producers for both 60 Minutes and 20/20 research McCain for projected hard-hitting pieces, only to have her work abandoned when the news programs decided that, hey, they liked the maverick.
It's reminiscent of a line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, spoken by a newspaperman character: "When legend becomes fact, print the legend."
McCain the legend, who himself was tortured during 51/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has been lauded for opposing torture.
But in 2011, The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen describes McCain the senator's opposition to torture as "spotty," recalling how he voted in 2008 against an amendment offered by Senator Feinstein that "would have banned torture, not just by Defense Department personnel but by interrogators of the Central Intelligence Agency."
About the torture issue, Cohen observes: "[The senator] was against it before he was for it before he was against it."
In the past, McCain has championed campaign-finance reform and opposed soft money in politics — and he's banking on voters remembering that and forgetting his membership in the Keating 5.
These are the five U.S. senators who took lavish contributions from Phoenix savings-and-loan tycoon Charles Keating in the 1980s and 1990s. Later, when Keating was investigated by federal regulators, the Keating 5 allegedly attempted to derail the probe.
McCain was forced to reimburse Keating $13,433 for free flights aboard Keating's corporate aircraft to the S&L kingpin's Bahamas retreat.
But McCain already had received $112,000 in contributions from Keating and his pals. And Cindy McCain and her beer-magnate dad had invested $359,000 in a shopping mall developed by a company connected to Keating.
Add in McCain's onetime opposition to a state and federal Martin Luther King Day, and his consistent warmongering for American military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — even after the Dubya administration found zero weapons of mass destruction in the latter — and you wonder why any media hack ever fell for McCains rhetoric.
Over time, more reporters have figured out the senator. There's even an intriguing sub-genre of books intended to debunk McCain's elusive maverick-ness. Among these are Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, and Cliff Schecter's The Real McCain.
As Schecter observes, McCain's "political calculus" never changes. The senator always is "moving, adjusting, re-sighting — aiming for the political advantage of one John Sidney McCain III."
Maybe McCain's act finally is wearing thin with the home crowd. The Behavior Research Center released a poll in April showing McCain with a mere 26-point approval rating with Arizonans.
McCain will be 80 in 2016, when he'll be up for re-election, assuming he runs. If he does, perhaps the maverick malarkey won't fool voters again.
Maybe Arizonans will recognize him for what he is, finally: a politician who (among other unsavory acts) whipped up hatred of Latino immigrants for political gain, a consummate political opportunist with no second thoughts about using the ugliest rhetoric to vilify society's weakest members.
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