After 11 years of host­ing a must-watch news show, RACHEL MAD­DOW has earned the right to put her feet up (es­pe­cially with a busted an­kle). But in a fraught po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, her per­spec­tive is more im­por­tant than ever

InStyle (USA) - - Directory - by LAURA BROWN pho­tographed by CHRISTO­PHER STURMAN

When it comes to in­formed, pas­sion­ate po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors, Rachel Mad­dow is lead­ing the pack

RRachel Mad­dow is putting her feet up in her of­fice. How­ever, this doesn’t de­note com­pla­cency (not that any­one would ac­cuse Mad­dow of that). She has no choice. She frac­tured her left an­kle six weeks ear­lier when “get­ting on a boat in a pair of boat shoes,” she grum­bles while pump­ing up the com­pres­sion on the large boot cov­er­ing her foot.

Mad­dow’s of­fice is very on-brand: A wall func­tions as a white­board (today, the word “opi­oids” is scrawled in big let­ters, fol­lowed by other top­ics of in­quiry). On the floor rest chunky piles of manila fold­ers and at least a dozen bot­tles of whiskey, te­quila, and as­sorted spir­its. (“Utah makes a great whiskey,” she says, grin­ning. “Who knew?”) On the wall fac­ing Mad­dow’s desk stands a cloth­ing rack filled with around 20 nearly iden­ti­cal black blazers, their rigid­ity tem­pered by some racy beige and navy numbers far­ther down the rail.

Mad­dow, 46, is en­ter­ing her 12th year as host of The Rachel Mad­dow Show. When she started as an­chor in 2008 (fol­low­ing a ca­reer in ra­dio and a guest-host­ing gig on Count­down with Keith Ol­ber­mann), the coun­try was en­ter­ing the Obama years, which now seem like some­thing of a dream se­quence. The left-lean­ing MSNBC was a comfy place back then, but Mad­dow never rested on her lau­rels. Al­ter­nately thor­ough and goofy but re­lent­lessly cu­ri­ous and armed with a ton of knowl­edge, she dou­bled the ratings for the net­work’s 9 p.m. time slot in a mat­ter of days.

Now, of course, we are in a dif­fer­ent time. Mad­dow’s stated mis­sion—“to in­crease the amount of use­ful in­for­ma­tion in the world”—is more vi­tal than ever. And it’s a tes­ta­ment to her smarts and in­nate de­cency that she de­liv­ers even the most trau­matic news with a light hand (though some­times she has to pinch that hand to keep from cry­ing).

And de­spite host­ing a nightly news show for 50 weeks a year, Mad­dow found time to write her sec­ond book, Blowout, about big oil and gas, “the rich­est, most destruc­tive in­dus­try on earth.” Yet, rather than an eat-your-spinach oblig­a­tory read, the book ra­di­ates zing, in­tel­li­gence, and black hu­mor. Much like its author.

LAURA BROWN: So I have two ques­tions and then you can fill in the mid­dle. How the hell do you wake up in the morn­ing, and how the hell do you sleep at night?

RACHEL MAD­DOW: I don’t sleep very well, but that’s mostly be­cause of my torn lig­a­ments. But I have a won­der­ful job. Ev­ery­body who’s stressed out about pol­i­tics or who’s feel­ing over­whelmed by the pace or progress of news these days should be jeal­ous of my job. I read the news all day and then fig­ure out what I think is im­por­tant and use­ful to con­vey about it, which is such a bless­ing. It’s also com­pli­cated and chal­leng­ing and up­set­ting at times, but you’ve just got to push it all down.

LB: Is it some­how eas­ier on your psy­che to be the “great dis­tiller” and look at things an­a­lyt­i­cally?

RM: We’ve got this in­ter­nal mantra on the show—to in­crease the amount of use­ful in­for­ma­tion in the world—and it’s a very help­ful guide. We don’t try to cover ev­ery­thing ev­ery day. We try to read ev­ery­thing ev­ery day so we know ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on, but it doesn’t mean we’re go­ing to cover it all. We cover sto­ries that are a) im­por­tant and b) to which we can add some­thing im­por­tant. For me, that’s how to not be over­whelmed, be­cause you’re ac­tu­ally pro­cess­ing the in­for­ma­tion and mak­ing sense of it. Yes, some­times the amount and the pace of it gets over­whelm­ing. But my job is to catch up.

LB: Right. So run me through your stan­dard day, from eyes awak­ing.

RM: I’m pretty good at com­part­men­tal­iz­ing. I don’t look at my phone first thing when I wake up. I’m not a morn­ing per­son, but my girl­friend, Susan [Mikula, a pho­tog­ra­pher], is. She’s up hours ahead of me, so if some­thing truly epic has hap­pened, she’ll ei­ther wake me up or tell me as soon as I get up. When one of the first Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in­dict­ments hap­pened, I re­mem­ber I was hav­ing a re­ally good dream. I was dream­ing as a puppy, dream­ing of bun­nies. I had a puppy-eye view of the bun­nies. So I’m chas­ing a fluffy bunny, and it’s a nice day, and then there’s this gen­tle shak­ing. “Honey, honey, the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser’s been in­dicted. Your phone has been ring­ing.” And I was like, “OK, time to go.” LB: Yanked from the puppy’s arms!

RM: I was the puppy! [laughs] I need to be gen­tly drawn into the day. Then I try to do some­thing that’s not work-re­lated. These days it’s go­ing to phys­i­cal ther­apy be­fore start­ing work around 11:30. And then I read solidly with­out talk­ing to any­body. It’s a re­ally im­por­tant part of my day in terms of get­ting my head on—and it’s fun. In my own coded short­hand I take

“I have Scotch, rye, bour­bon, Ir­ish pot-stilled whiskey, mez­cal. In case of the apocalypse, you should come to my of­fice.”

notes about what’s go­ing on in the world. We also have a news digest, which is pre­pared by a dif­fer­ent staffer ev­ery day. It’s geared to­ward the ex­per­tise and in­ter­est of me and the staff at that par­tic­u­lar mo­ment. For ex­am­ple, lately we’ve been cov­er­ing the mys­te­ri­ous

Rus­sian nu­clear ex­plo­sion that hap­pened at the be­gin­ning of Au­gust. My staff goes out of its way to scour what’s go­ing on with that and make sure it’s all in there. I also read my gi­gan­tic stack of book­marks be­fore we go into our news meet­ing, which is all hands on deck, in­clud­ing the in­terns.

LB: Who is the mono­logue boss? Do you write it your­self?

RM: Yes. Some­times a cou­ple of pro­duc­ers will be as­signed to the A block, which is the mono­logue block, but then I draft it. Ei­ther I type it or I have a pro­ducer come in with a lap­top to record and tran­scribe what I’m say­ing. So I’m ei­ther writ­ing it with my hands or writ­ing it with my voice. Ide­ally, it should be writ­ten by

6:30, but some­times it’s not done un­til 7:45 , which causes a panic. Then we just have to go fast. There’s a lot of lit­eral run­ning around.

LB: What calms you when it’s 8:30 and it’s not loaded in yet?

RM: When my day gets late, it’s not be­cause it’s tak­ing me a long time to write. It’s be­cause I can’t stop read­ing and learn­ing.

There’s a rea­son why we’re con­sid­er­ing 150 po­ten­tial news sto­ries at our meet­ing. It’s not be­cause we’re go­ing to do 150 sto­ries; it’s be­cause we need to know what we are con­sid­er­ing and are de­lib­er­ately leav­ing out. Act­ing from ig­no­rance is a weak po­si­tion. Act­ing from knowl­edge means you have to put the hours in, you have to have put the work in, and you have a firmer base on which to stand. I think that makes you speak louder and clearer.

LB: When did you re­al­ize that be­ing able to make a pop­cul­ture joke on­screen while re­port­ing the news was pos­si­ble? RM: I don’t know that it was a de­lib­er­ate thing. I did make a de­ci­sion that I wanted to avoid ho­mog­e­niz­ing fac­tors in my work process. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t ab­sorb­ing the same in­for­ma­tion as ev­ery­body else and that I wasn’t watch­ing other peo­ple do­ing my same type of work. Not be­cause I don’t re­spect those peo­ple but be­cause I don’t want to seem like them. I don’t read opin­ion pieces. I try not to watch a lot of ca­ble news. I try to stay in my own lit­tle silo. And be­cause I’m a goof­ball, I end up talk­ing about se­ri­ous news things in a goof­ball way. I didn’t know that it would work. To the ex­tent that it does, that’s a sur­prise.

LB: It worked pretty much im­me­di­ately in 2008 when you came in. What sort of sweet spot was MSNBC dur­ing the Obama years, and how did the tenor change when you knew that the flip of the ta­ble was hap­pen­ing?

RM: It felt like the world turned up­side down. So at that point you ask your­self, “Should we do things in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way?” It turns out that our in­ter­nal mantra for a pres­i­dent with­out a scan­dal in eight years [is dif­fer­ent for] a pres­i­dent who comes into of­fice after hav­ing paid his $25 mil­lion fraud set­tle­ment [for Trump Univer­sity], which hap­pened right be­fore he was sworn in. There was a gut-check mo­ment of “Do we know who we are? Do we know what we’re do­ing? Yes, we do.” LB: I ac­tu­ally think it be­comes sim­ple: There’s wrong and in­de­cent, and then there’s right and de­cent.

RM: You model good be­hav­ior by what sto­ries you choose to tell. If you feel like in­ci­vil­ity or lack of fealty to the truth is a prob­lem, then you model what it is to be de­cent and true and pri­or­i­tize those things.

LB: And that’s how you sleep. Now, go­ing into an­other cam­paign sea­son, your show is the one that ev­ery Demo­crat worth his or her salt needs to go on. How many have been on the show so far?

RM: Not all of them, but a lot of them. I want them all to come on once they drop out. [laughs]

LB: Of the Demo­cratic field, who do you re­ally en­joy in­ter­view­ing? And who’s a chal­lenge? RM: It just so hap­pened that my exit in­ter­view with [Wash­ing­ton gov­er­nor] Jay Inslee was a ton of fun. Then there’s [New Jersey sen­a­tor] Cory Booker, who I’ve known for­ever, since col­lege. We’ve spent Thanks­giv­ing to­gether. But that does not trans­late into me hav­ing su­per-loose in­ter­views with him, which is in­ter­est­ing. We’re not best friends. I’ve prob­a­bly in­ter­viewed [Minnesota sen­a­tor] Amy Klobuchar more than any of the other can­di­dates. It’s al­ways a lit­tle un­pre­dictable. I’m also not that re­li­able of an in­ter­viewer. [laughs] I’m never quite sure what I’m go­ing to say. I al­ways write ques­tions, but they don’t al­ways come out. LB: When you’re get­ting pal­pa­bly bull­shit­ted with po­lit­i­cal mes­sag­ing, how do you man­age your frus­tra­tion? RM: I’m not a nat­u­ral in­ter­rupter. [MSNBC host] Chris Matthews is fa­mous as an in­ter­rupt­ing in­ter­viewer, and it’s not be­cause he’s rude. It’s that he has such a feel for the back and forth of con­ver­sa­tion that he knows when you’re not go­ing to an­swer the ques­tion or when it’s go­ing to be bor­ing. He can see it com­ing, and be­fore you start to turn that steer­ing wheel, he has redi­rected the car. That’s a tal­ent I so wish I had. I’d be a bet­ter in­ter­viewer if I were more com­fort­able in­ter­ject­ing. I try to work around my own weak­nesses. But I also try to in­sist on can­di­dates be­ing here in per­son, be­cause then I can do a magic juju thing. LB: Is there some­one who’s eluded you? RM: Pres­i­dent Barack Obama. I in­ter­viewed him as a can­di­date, but the en­tire eight years that he was pres­i­dent, he never did an­other in­ter­view with me. LB: Any the­ory as to why? RM: I don’t know. There were a bunch of times we thought it was go­ing to hap­pen. We did get close to­ward the end of his presidency, but the in­ter­view was can­celed. I couldn’t travel be­cause of a hur­ri­cane. Can’t blame him for that. LB: Have you been in a room with Trump in the past? RM: I’ve told this story be­fore, but I tried to in­ter­view him when he was a can­di­date. [Trump’s then–cam­paign man­ager] Kellyanne Con­way kept say­ing, “I’m go­ing to get him for you.” And I was like, “I’m to­tally ready. I’ll go any­where. I’ll do any­thing.” Even­tu­ally, the cam­paign came through and said, “Mr. Trump is will­ing to have a phone con­ver­sa­tion with you, but he wants to do that be­fore any in­ter­view. Ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in this con­ver­sa­tion, and the ex­is­tence of the con­ver­sa­tion it­self, is off the record.” OK, fine. So I’m on the phone with him lob­by­ing for the in­ter­view— this is as he’s wrap­ping up the nom­i­na­tion—and we’re talk­ing about what the pri­mary’s been like and the nu­ances of the polling. He says he likes how I show the polling—at that point, I’d have a bar graph show­ing the polling re­sult, and I’d put a lit­tle head­shot of the can­di­date on top. He said he liked the way his head looked on

the graphs. I said some­thing to the ef­fect of, “Lis­ten, Mr. Trump, I know you’ve got as much cov­er­age as you want from all these news out­lets, but you’re not get­ting in front of my au­di­ence, which is a siz­able au­di­ence in ca­ble news. If you want to try to pitch your cam­paign in terms of what you’ve been de­scrib­ing to me—want­ing to reach in­de­pen­dents, dis­af­fected Democrats, and Democrats who don’t like Hil­lary Clin­ton—i think you should come on. It’s not go­ing to be easy, but it’ll be dif­fer­ent.” And he says, “Well , this has been re­ally good. You can use this.” And I was like, “What do you mean, ‘I can use this’?” And he said, “Was this on TV?” “No, this is not on TV.” “Well, you can put this on TV.” For more than a week we’ve been ne­go­ti­at­ing that this is com­pletely off the record, no record­ing. So I’ve just had this con­ver­sa­tion with him, and he now thinks he’s done an in­ter­view with me. I’m like, “You re­ally think my in­ter­view with you would be chat­ting about your polls and [Repub­li­can pri­mary op­po­nent] Jeb Bush?” He changed his mind about the off-the-record na­ture of the con­ver­sa­tion and said I could use it. That’s why I can de­scribe to you that this hap­pened. LB: If you were to be in a room with him any­time soon, where would you start the con­ver­sa­tion? RM: What would you want [to know] from him? If you could ask him a ques­tion, what would you ask him? LB: What do you care about? When you see a cry­ing child who’s been taken away from her mother on the bor­der and you know that that’s be­cause of you…? Nice ice­breaker. RM: He’d def­i­nitely give you a great an­swer to that. “Fake news. Obama’s the one who…” I hope I get to in­ter­view him. I ex­pect at some point I will. But there’s an un­usual chal­lenge with this pres­i­dent. He is com­pletely dis­lo­cated from the truth. He’s an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor for his own mind. When he stands up there at the G7 [sum­mit] and says, “The First Lady has got­ten to know Kim Jong Un.” First of all, you weren’t asked about Kim Jong Un. Sec­ond of all, whether or not you think the dic­ta­tor of North Korea is a good per­son doesn’t mat­ter. But why bring your wife into this? Your wife has not met Kim Jong Un. LB: There are clear in­stances where Kim Jong Un meet­ings have oc­curred, and Me­la­nia Trump has not been there. RM: Never. The White House it­self had to clar­ify that she has not met him. So when it comes to in­ter­view­ing a pres­i­dent who has that kind of re­la­tion­ship to the truth, you have to ask ques­tions that are de­signed to elicit some­thing else—be­cause you’re not go­ing to get the truth from him. You have to ask ques­tions that il­lu­mi­nate some­thing about his own process or habits that he doesn’t re­al­ize he should lie about. You have to back­foot him a bit. LB: What makes you an­gry about what’s hap­pen­ing now? RM: I’m not that an­gry of a per­son. I get frus­trated. I get sad. I’m an easy crier. I am emo­tion­ally af­fected by the wan­ton in­flic­tion of cru­elty on peo­ple who have done noth­ing wrong and don’t de­serve it. It doesn’t change the way I do stuff. Some­times I think ahead about lit­tle tricks and tech­niques to not cry on air when I’m talk­ing about some­thing un­be­liev­ably ter­ri­ble. LB: Like what? RM: Pinch your­self right here [pinches her hand be­tween her thumb and in­dex fin­ger]. Just re­ally wrench it. It causes a nerve pain re­sponse. Some­times I cry on TV. That hap­pens. I’d rather it not. LB: Why? I feel like peo­ple—es­pe­cially in pol­i­tics—be­come cyn­i­cal about cry­ing. It’s not a de­vice. It’s be­cause you’re feel­ing some­thing. RM: I ex­pect the au­di­ence will feel things when we’re re­port­ing on poignant or dif­fi­cult sto­ries, but for me to dis­play emo­tion, I don’t think that’s help­ful to any­body. It’s a dis­trac­tion. If you’re hav­ing an emo­tional reaction to the news, I want to re­spect that and not tram­ple on it. LB: What do you feel most op­ti­mistic about now? RM: I wrote this oil-and-gas book, Blowout. It’s about the end of the world, but the place where I ended up ac­tu­ally made me op­ti­mistic. The ba­sic the­sis of the book is that democ­racy—small d democ­racy, gov­er­nance—is threat­ened. The cure to that is more democ­racy. Democ­racy is the best sys­tem of gov­ern­ment on earth— it’s the only thing that works—and it’s in de­cline all over the world. It’s scary to see au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism rear its head and ap­pear to take hold in places where you’d think there wouldn’t be par­tic­u­larly fer­tile soil. But I feel con­fi­dent that, ul­ti­mately, demo­cratic power will win. We know what the so­lu­tion is: peo­ple ex­press­ing them­selves in an un­tram­meled way, be­ing lis­tened to, and hav­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment that does what they want. That’s still the best idea, and I don’t think it’s a goo­gly-eyed ide­al­is­tic thing. LB: I love ask­ing about per­sonal am­bi­tion and pride be­cause some women are like, “Oh, I don’t want to say I’m proud.” In my opin­ion, that’s BS. So what are you proud of? RM: I am proud of the work that we do on the show ev­ery day. We don’t al­ways do ev­ery­thing right, but when we get stuff wrong, we cor­rect it. I’ve got a record I can stand on in terms of what we put out there and the sto­ries we’ve ad­vanced. In this busi­ness, be­ing on the air this long in it­self is kind of a ma­jor achieve­ment. We grow peo­ple on our staff, and they don’t get abused or treated poorly. It’s a very knock­about in­dus­try in terms of turnover, but we’ve tried to be more con­struc­tive and sus­tain­able. I have not found it to be sus­tain­able in terms of my own body and my own health. LB: How is your health? Aside from the ob­vi­ous. RM: I’ve got seven screwed-up disks and steno­sis in my neck and three torn lig­a­ments and an avul­sion frac­ture. I’m just a mess. LB: Is it from sit­ting and read­ing a lot? RM: The back and neck stuff is. Ten-plus hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, 11 years— LB: Fifty a year? You only take two weeks off? RM: About, yeah. And it’s fine to do that for one year, but when you do it for 11 years, you fall apart. LB: What ex­er­cise do you do? RM: Right now I don’t do any­thing. It’s a disas­ter. I hurt my back in the spring of 2017, and since then I’ve been do­ing old-peo­ple ex­er­cise. LB: We’re all get­ting there. Just be avant-garde about it. RM: My fa­ther-in-law, Susan’s dearly de­parted dad, used to say, “Get­ting old is not for sissies.” And I’m like, “Well…” [laughs] My mis­sion for the next cou­ple of years is to get my body back in or­der so I can do the kind of move­ment I need to keep myself sane. I like to fish, I like to hike, I like to be out­doors. I can’t do any of that right now. LB: What’s a great day like when you’re not work­ing? RM: I’ve got a com­pletely work­ing body—all my limbs! I don’t have three torn lig­a­ments and an avul­sion frac­ture. I wake up in Mas­sachusetts—i go home to western Mass. on Fri­day nights. Susan and I have break­fast. We walk the dog, she goes for a 25-mile bike ride, I go fish­ing, and I ac­tu­ally catch a fish. For all the fish­ing I do, I’m ter­ri­ble. I haven’t got­ten bet­ter over time. But I will fish any way—in the sea, in a lake, in a river, in a bath­tub. Then we come home and play darts. She cooks; I make cock­tails. It’s early to bed, early to rise. If I could have that day 10,000 days in a row, I would be happy. LB: How great is it to just stand in a river and space out? RM: That’s ex­actly what fish­ing is for me. I’m crap at it. I only know three knots, and when I’m ty­ing one of those knots, I need com­plete still­ness and fo­cus. Ev­ery­body thinks of fish­ing as a thing you do with beer, but no. I love drinking; I’m, like, semipro. I also love fish­ing. I would never do them to­gether. You need both hands. LB: You make the cock­tails at home, though. RM: Yes, but I made a rule about nine years ago: no spir­its on school nights. So if I’m mak­ing cock­tails, it’s a week­end. I find that if I have a cock­tail or a glass of Scotch, I can­not be counted on to not have an­other one. It re­duces your in­hi­bi­tions and there­fore re­duces your abil­ity to be like, “I’m just [hav­ing one],” whereas if I’m go­ing to have a glass of wine, I can have one glass. I’m com­pletely re­li­gious about it. Even if I’m at din­ner and ev­ery­body’s hav­ing a mar­tini, nope. It’s a school night. But peo­ple know I’m a good drinker. When­ever some­one comes back from va­ca­tion, they bring me hooch. I have Scotch, rye, bour­bon, Ir­ish pot-stilled whiskey, mez­cal. In case of the apocalypse, you should come to my of­fice. LB: What do you do after the show on school nights? RM: I chat with the floor crew, take out my con­tact lenses, and take off my makeup. I put my black blazer back on the rack and my black camisole back in the pa­per bag and then do some work in the of­fice. LB: What do you buy, cloth­ing-wise? RM: I’m not a shop­per, re­ally. I know this is off-brand for In­style. I’m su­per into hand­ker­chiefs. Susan buys me cute vin­tage han­kies. I get su­per­sti­tious about their luck value. I have all these lit­tle rules about how they can’t be moved from one pocket to an­other pocket, and if you ac­ci­den­tally laun­der your trousers with a hand­ker­chief in the pocket, that has a spe­cific luck quo­tient. LB: I bet you have your own spread­sheet in your head. Who do you think has great style? RM: I’ve been psyched to see the women’s na­tional soc­cer team go so ag­gro on style and just be like a) We are go­ing to sur­prise you, b) We’re all go­ing to be com­pletely dif­fer­ent, and c) We’re not go­ing to be any­thing like any­body else in this field. LB: Do you re­mem­ber a look you had when you were younger when you thought, “I’ve nailed this”? RM: I was re­ally into my first-ever sports uni­form when I played on a mixed boys-and-girls un­der-6 basketball team at the YMCA. I re­mem­ber the out­fit: a black Tshirt with yel­low writ­ing and black gym shorts. This was, like, 1979. I think I kept the out­fit for a long time. My par­ents—bless them—prob­a­bly still have it. Poor things, they can never clean up their house. I’m like, “No, I def­i­nitely need that!” They’re like, “You’re 46! We’ve held on to this for 40 years!” LB: What about when you were a teen? RM: I was a tomboy, and I got to play sports. But I came out to myself when I was 16 and then came out to ev­ery­body else when I was 17. Get­ting there and re­al­iz­ing that you’re queer and you need to get out of your con­ser­va­tive town, there was never a mo­ment of, like, phys­i­cal self­sat­is­fac­tion. I’m still work­ing on that. LB: Yeah. So after the show you put the blazer back on the rack. What time do you fi­nally get home? RM: I’m usu­ally home by 11ish. I walk the dog. Susan stays up for me valiantly. We have a mid­night sup­per. I’m up un­til 2 or 2:30, and then in the morn­ing I’m ready to start again. LB: And so it goes. RM: I have a great life—a great job, the world’s great­est re­la­tion­ship, an awe­some dog. My fam­ily’s awe­some. My staff’s amaz­ing. This is the great­est city in the world, and I leave on the week­ends and go to the great­est place in the world. I’m do­ing great. The ques­tion is how long I can do it for, but I wouldn’t trade any of this for any­thing in the world. LB: OK, then. I’m go­ing to call this “Por­trait of Misery.” RM: Just call it “Rest, Ice, Com­pres­sion, El­e­va­tion: Tues­days with Rachel Mad­dow.”

Makeup: Alisa Gurnari.

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