Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

Overview

From the acclaimed bestselling author of The Conquerors

Michael Beschloss has brought us a brilliantly readable and inspiring saga about crucial times in America's history when a courageous President dramatically changed the future of the United States.

With surprising new sources and a dazzling command of history and human character, Beschloss brings to life these flawed, complex men — and their wives, families, friends and foes. Never have we...

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Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

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Overview

From the acclaimed bestselling author of The Conquerors

Michael Beschloss has brought us a brilliantly readable and inspiring saga about crucial times in America's history when a courageous President dramatically changed the future of the United States.

With surprising new sources and a dazzling command of history and human character, Beschloss brings to life these flawed, complex men — and their wives, families, friends and foes. Never have we had a more intimate, behind-the-scenes view of Presidents coping with the supreme dilemmas of their lives.

You will be in the room with the private George Washington, braving threats of impeachment and assassination to make peace with England. John Adams, incurring his party's "unrelenting hatred" by refusing to fight France and warning his enemies, "Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war." Andrew Jackson, in a death struggle against the corrupt Bank of the United States. Abraham Lincoln, risking his Presidency to insist that slaves be freed.

Beschloss also shows us Theodore Roosevelt, taunting J. P. Morgan and the Wall Street leaders who dominated his party. Franklin Roosevelt, defying the isolationists — and maybe the law — to stop Adolf Hitler. Harry Truman, risking a walkout by top officials to recognize a Jewish state. John Kennedy, the belated champion of civil rights, complaining that he has cost himself a second term. And finally, two hundred years after Washington, Ronald Reagan, irking some of his oldest backers to seek an end to the Cold War.

As Beschloss shows in this gripping and important book, none of these Presidents was eager to incur ridicule, vilification or threats of political destruction and even assassination. But in the end, bolstered by friends and family, hidden private beliefs and, sometimes, religious faith, each ultimately proved himself to be, in Andrew Jackson's words, "born for the storm."

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
With books like The Conquerors and Taking Charge, NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss has established himself as one of the premier authorities on Oval Office leadership. This major study focuses on the attribute that Beschloss calls "presidential courage": "the willingness to confront, sometimes even to challenge big issues and the daring, sometimes the eagerness, to make the big decisions that change and alter American destiny." To crystallize his points, he describes how great U.S. leaders faced moments of crises in their administrations. His examples include both early presidents (Washington, John Adams, Jackson, Lincoln) and 20th-century chief executives, including FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan.
Publishers Weekly

Don't be afraid!" was George Washington's near-to-last utterance, to the worried doctor at his bedside. The essential founding father's counsel is understood by well-known historian Beschloss (The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany) to set an example for future presidents. Beschloss outlines how several occupants of the Oval Office—including Jackson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, FDR, Truman, Kennedy and Reagan—combined courage with wisdom to change the future of the country, notwithstanding the slings and arrows they earned. Despite its unpopularity at the time, for instance, Reagan's "strong beliefs combined with his optimism" led him to pursue the policy to abolish nuclear weapons, which helped bring down the Soviet empire peacefully. None of the author's heroes were saints, but rather flawed men sustained by friends, families, conviction and religious faith. With contenders for 2008 already lining up, this well-timed book might, the author hopes, persuade some to take the kinds of "wise political risks that Presidents once did."Perhaps. But knowledgeable readers should look elsewhere for genuine historical insight. The author's broad brushstrokes necessarily restrict him to painting nuanced individuals and complex times in only basic primary colors, and there is little that has not been said before—in some cases, many times. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
The high-profile Beschloss pays a visit to all 43 Presidents, considering how they faced their biggest challenges. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Historian Beschloss (The Conquerors, 2002, etc.) pens a vivid account of how nine U.S. presidents withstood political firestorms. Inevitably, his lively narrative will be compared to John F. Kennedy's homage to Senate bravery, Profiles in Courage. But Beschloss views his subjects not as saints but as "worried, self-protective politicians" not above vacillation, arrogance and evasion as they steered between national and electoral interests. Recent presidents have not been the only ones who required sentence-parsing. FDR justified breaking his promise, "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," by claiming a loophole: It did not apply in case of attack. A few of these figures relished political combat; Theodore Roosevelt aptly styled himself a "rough-and-tumble man." Most, however, abhorred their struggles. Convinced that he would lose his bid for a second term, Abraham Lincoln wrote a private memo pledging cooperation with opponent George McClellan to save the Union between the election and the next inauguration. All of the chief executives profiled here subscribed to John Adams's belief that a president must incur "people's displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run." Some found strength in the examples of heroic predecessors, others in their wives, all in some manner of religious belief. Beschloss recognizes that even the best policy choices come freighted with mixed motives and adverse consequences. In particular, he appraises Andrew Jackson with exquisite balance, noting that Old Hickory's assault on the Second National Bank destroyed a corrupting political influence but also "peddled the dubious notion that America did not need a centralbank," leaving Americans to suffer 80 years of boom-and-bust before the Federal Reserve was established. Readers might question some episodes chosen, but it's impossible to fault Beschloss's engrossing characterizations, marvelous scene-setting and judicious assessments. History written with subtlety, verve and an almost novelistic appreciation for the complexities of human nature and presidential politics.
From the Publisher
"Michael Beschloss...is clearly the most widely recognized Presidential historian in the nation.... Most Presidential historians...content themselves with writing biographies of individual Presidents.... And Beschloss has done that too.... But if any book can be said to epitomize the genre of Presidential history, Presidential Courage does." — Mary Beth Norton, The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743561785
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 5/8/2007
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Abridged, 5 CDs, 6 hours
  • Sales rank: 1,375,634
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 5.60 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael R. Beschloss

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.

Michael Beschloss has been called "the nation's leading Presidential historian" by Newsweek. He has written eight books on American Presidents and is NBC News Presidential Historian, as well as contributor to PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.

Biography

It's not for nothing that Newsweek has called Michael Beschloss "the nation's leading Presidential historian." As a political science major at Williams College, he wrote his honors thesis on the ambivalent relationship between FDR and Joseph P. Kennedy. Reworked and expanded to book length, the material was published in 1980 under the title Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance. Although the book was met with subtle condescension from the notoriously snarky academic community, mainstream critics were quick to lavish praise on Beschloss for his meticulous research and reader-friendly prose style. Encouraged by his publisher, he followed up his debut with another historical narrative, Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair (1986). Reviewed by Paul A. Kreisberg in Foreign Affairs magazine, the book was described as "popular history at its best: accessible and fascinating reading for those who know little about the subject; containing enough new material and insight to command the attention of serious scholars."

Since then, the high-profile author has carved a lucrative career out of the American Presidency, penning several bestselling biographies and political histories, including The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945, and Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989. In addition, he has edited Lyndon Johnson's White House tapes into a critically acclaimed trilogy and is in demand both as a lecturer and television commentator.

Good To Know

From 1982 until 1986, Beschloss served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution.

From 1985 until 1987, he was a senior associate member at St. Antony's College, in the University of Oxford, England.

From 1987 until 1996, he was a senior fellow of the Annenberg Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Michael Beschloss
    2. Hometown:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Education:
      Williams College, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Speedy Death to General Washington!

In August 1795, at Mount Vernon, drenched by what he called a "violent Rain," George Washington nervously paced down a garden path, elegantly covered by crushed oyster shells.

He was desperate to return to the national capital of Philadelphia, but the biblical torrents had washed out roads and bridges. Adding to his frustration, his mail had been cut off.

Back inside, as the rains pelted his red shingle roof, spinning the dove-of-peace weathervane, the President bent over his candlelit desk, dipped a quill in black ink and tensely scratched out letter after letter. He was feeling "serious anxiety" in a time of "trouble and perplexities."

For twenty years, since the start of the Revolution, he had taken as his due the bands playing "The Hero Comes!" and the lightstruck Americans cheering "the man who unites all hearts." His anointment as President by the Electoral College in 1788 and 1792 had been unanimous.

But now the national adoration for Washington was fading. Americans had learned that a secret treaty negotiated by his envoy John Jay made demands that many found humiliating. One member of Congress said the fury against "that damned treaty" was moving "like an electric velocity to every state in the Union."

As the public tempest had swelled, some wanted Washington impeached. Cartoons showed the President being marched to a guillotine. Even in the President's beloved Virginia, Revolutionary veterans raised glasses and cried, "A speedy Death to General Washington!"

With the national surge of anger toward Washington, some Americans complained that he was living as luxuriously as George III, the monarch they had fought a revolution to escape. Using old forgeries, several columnists insisted that Washington had been secretly bribed during the war by British agents.

Still others charged that the President stole military credit from soldiers who had bled and died: "With what justice do you monopolize the glories of the American Revolution?"

Reeling from the blows, the sixty-three-year-old Washington wrote that the "infamous scribblers" were calling him "a common pickpocket" in "such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero."

One still-friendly gazette moaned, "Washington has been classed with tyrants, and calumniated as the enemy of his country. Weep for the national character of America, for, in ingratitude to her Washington, it is sullied and debased throughout the globe!"

President Washington had brought the national furor upon himself by trying to avert a new war with Great Britain that threatened to strangle his infant nation in its cradle.

In the spring of 1794, the British were arming Indians and spurring them to attack Americans trying to settle the new frontier lands that would one day include Ohio and Michigan. London was reneging on its pledge, made in the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, to vacate royal forts in the trans-Appalachian West — Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac.

Since Britain was at war with France, British captains seized U.S. ships trading with the French West Indies. Renouncing the agreed-upon border between the U.S. and Canada, Britain's governor in Quebec predicted a new Anglo-American war "within a year."

Former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who hated England and adored France, demanded retaliation against the British. But Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton warned the President not to plunge into a war that America could not win.

The religious Martha Washington could not abide Hamilton's Byzantine intrigues or his infidelities to his wife, Elizabeth. When Martha adopted a tomcat, she named it "Hamilton."

But for the President, who knew his own shortcomings, Hamilton was an endless fount of provocative ideas, tactics and language.

During his first term, Washington had told Hamilton and Jefferson that their gladiatorial clashes over foreign policy, economics and personalities were "tearing our vitals" and had to stop.

Instead, Jefferson quit in 1793 and organized an opposition. The new political chasm between Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans killed Washington's old dream of eternal national unity with no need for political parties.

Retaining the President's ear, Hamilton urged him to send an "envoy extraordinary" to London. A new Anglo-American treaty could secure U.S. trade on the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, giving their country time to build its economy and defenses and settle its frontier. Then if America one day had to fight off Britain, it would be far better prepared.

Washington agreed, but he knew Hamilton must not be the envoy. That would inflame the Jeffersonians. Instead, at Hamilton's suggestion, he chose the aristocratic Chief Justice, John Jay of New York.

Privately Jay warned his wife that America might well have to battle England. But in May 1794, before sailing from lower Manhattan to London, he promised a cheering crowd he would do "everything" to "secure the blessings of peace." Soon after Jay's departure, the British reclaimed and fortified one of their old posts on American territory near Detroit.

Having jeopardized his prestige to talk with Britain, Washington was furious. He wrote Jay it was "the most open and daring act of British agents in America." Every "well informed" American knew that the British were instigating "all the difficulties that we encounter with the Indians...the murders of helpless women and innocent children."

He noted that some wished him to turn the other cheek: "I answer NO!...It will be impossible to keep this country in a state of amity with G. Britain long if the Posts are not surrendered."

Jay got the British to forgo such aggravations while they bargained. He assured Washington that Britain felt it was having a "family quarrel" with America, "and that it is Time it should be made up."

Jay reported that, excepting the King, the British respected no one more than George Washington. With such "perfect and universal Confidence" in Washington's "personal character," they had taken Jay's presence in London "as a strong Proof of your Desire to preserve Peace."

By the start of 1795, Washington heard rumors that Jay had managed to broker a treaty, but the expected dispatch case never arrived.

As it turned out, after making a deal in November, Jay had sent the President two copies of the treaty documents by a British ship that was seized by the French on the Atlantic. British sailors had thrown the papers overboard to keep them from French hands.

That spring, another ship brought duplicates to Norfolk, Virginia. By stagecoach and horseback, a mud-caked, frostbitten messenger rushed them to Philadelphia, where Washington received them at the President's House at 190 High Street.

In 1790, when Washington and his government moved from New York City to the temporary capital of Philadelphia, there was no official mansion for the President.

Thus the great man paid three thousand dollars a year to rent the four-story red-brick house owned by Robert Morris, financier of the Revolution and Senator from Pennsylvania.* Morris graciously moved next door to accommodate his old friend.

Washington found it "the best Single house in the City" but still "inadequate" for him. For instance, there were "good stables, but for twelve horses only."

During renovations, which Washington financed, a house painter allegedly attacked one of the President's housemaids, who shrieked. Face daubed with shaving cream, the half-dressed Washington was said to have kicked the painter down the stairs, crying, "I will have no woman insulted in my house!"

The President's servants included eight black slaves selected from the almost three hundred who lived at Mount Vernon. Knowing that Pennsylvania law freed any slave residing there for six months or more, Washington and Martha made sure that each of their slaves was quietly sent home to Virginia every five months or so.

"I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that I may deceive both them and the Public," the General wrote a trusted aide, insisting that the ruse "be known to none but yourself and Mrs. Washington."

Upstairs at his mansion, Washington frowned at Jay's "Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation." He knew that if he approved it, Americans would excoriate him for truckling to their old oppressor across the sea.

Most inflammatory was Article Twelve: America could trade with the West Indies, but not with large vessels. Nor could the U.S. export any products natural to those islands.

Jay's deal would also cosset the lucrative British fur trade in the American Northwest. The U.S. would pledge never to seize British assets in America, surrendering an important potential weapon for America's defense.

The treaty would also allow the British to keep on halting U.S. exports to France — and to escape paying reparations for American slaves they had carried off during the Revolutionary War.

To keep public indignation from building against the treaty before he sent it to the Senate, Washington ordered Secretary of State Edmund Randolph to keep its contents "rigidly" secret "from every person on earth" — even the rest of his Cabinet.

Unlike his successors, Washington took literally the Constitution's demand that a President ask the Senate's "advice and consent" on treaties. He would not finally decide whether to approve Jay's Treaty until the Senate voted.

Vice President John Adams feared the pact would be political trouble. "A Battle Royal I expect at its Ratification, and snarling enough afterwards," he wrote his wife, Abigail. "I am very much afraid of this Treaty!...Be very carefull, my dearest Friend, of what you say....The Times are perilous."

On Monday morning, June 8, 1795, two dozen U.S. Senators in powdered wigs and ruffled shirts sat down in Philadelphia's Congress Hall for a special closed-door session on Jay's Treaty.

Washington had insisted that the men in the emerald green Senate chamber discuss the treaty in absolute secrecy.

The Aurora, published in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin Bache, the Francophile, anti-Washington grandson of the famous Founder, howled that "the secrecy of the Senate" was an insult to "THE SOVEREIGNTY of the people."

With no desire to pay for Bache's "daily outrages" against decency, the President had long ago canceled his Aurora subscription.

During two weeks of debate, Republican Aaron Burr of New York tried to pit Southern Senators against Jay's Treaty by demanding that Britain pay up for the "Negroes and other property" it had stolen — mainly from the American South.

But Southerners were far more aggrieved by Article Twelve's threat to their exports. Alexander Hamilton, by now a private citizen in New York City, advised Washington to scrap the article in order to save the treaty in the Senate.

The President did so, and by a bare two-thirds vote along party lines, the Senate sent Jay's Treaty to the President's House for Washington to sign.

To Washington's exasperation, the treaty's contents were no longer secret. A Virginia Republican Senator who reviled it passed a copy to the French minister in Philadelphia, who gave it to Ben Bache.

Flamboyantly, the Aurora ripped the veil off what it called Jay's "illegitimately begotten" treaty, that "imp of darkness" approved by a "secret lodge" of Senators.

Bache published the entire text in a pamphlet, which he sold up and down the Eastern Seaboard for twenty-five cents. His wife, Peggy, had no opinion about Jay's Treaty. She simply hoped the proceeds would buy her family a new house.

Fulminating that Jay's Treaty had "made its public entry into the Gazettes," Washington knew that Bache's attacks were just the start of a national onslaught.

At midnight of Independence Day 1795, a Philadelphia throng burned a copy of the treaty and an effigy of John Jay.

Crowds in other cities followed suit. Jay mordantly joked that soon he could walk through all of the fifteen United States by night, illuminated only by the glow of all of his effigies burning.

Bitter doggerel described the President's envoy crawling on his belly to King George:

May it please your Highness, I, John Jay

Have traveled all this mighty way....

To show all others I surpass

In love, by kissing of your.

Girding himself for battle from his home seat of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson found Jay's Treaty an "execrable...infamous act" by the "Anglomen of this country." He warned, "Acquiescence under insult is not the way to escape war."

With steam rising from Philadelphia's gravel streets, Washington pondered whether to sign the treaty.

From New York, Hamilton wrote the President that his decision should be "simple and plain." Except for Article Twelve, Jay's pact was "in no way inconsistent with national honor" and would avert a ruinous war.

Then in early July, a new British insult — a "Provision Order" that U.S. grain ships sailing toward France be stopped, their cargo confiscated.

Edmund Randolph advised the President not to sign the treaty until Britain canceled the Provision Order. Washington asked him to so inform the British minister, George Hammond.

Hammond asked Randolph whether Britain could suspend the order long enough to relieve the President's political problems in signing the treaty, then reinstate it. Randolph gave him no answer.

When the Secretary of State reported the conversation, Washington sharply told him that he should have told Hammond that the President would "never" sign the treaty unless the Provision Order was permanently revoked.

The protest was spreading. When Hamilton defended Jay's Treaty in front of New York's City Hall, people threw rocks, leaving his face bloody. Someone joked that the crowd had "tried to knock out Hamilton's brains to reduce him to equality with themselves."

In Boston Harbor, mobs set a British ship aflame. In Philadelphia, they cried, "Kick this damned treaty to hell!"

Spearing a copy of Jay's pact with a sharp pole, the revelers marched it to Minister Hammond's house, burned it on his doorstep and broke his windows, with Hammond and his family cowering inside.

Thomas Jefferson had not seen the American "public pulse beat so full" on "any subject since the Declaration of Independence."

The new Treasury Secretary, Oliver Wolcott, feared the demonstrations might signal the British that Americans sought war. He wrote his mentor Hamilton, "The country rising into flame, their Minister's house insulted by a Mob — their flag dragged through the Streets...& burnt....Can they believe that we desire peace?"

Washington found it "extremely embarrassing" for the British to "see the people of this country divided," with such "violent opposition" to "their own government."

He told John Adams he suspected the demonstrations had been inspired by some sinister "pre-concerted plan" to ignite an "explosion in all parts" of the fifteen states.

As the man who had sent Jay to London, the President knew that he could be immolated by the firestorm.

One Federalist gazette mourned that "to follow Washington is now to be a Tory, and to deserve tar and feathers."

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Beschloss

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface

Chapter One

a speedy death to general washington!

Chapter Two

kick this treaty to hell!

Chapter Three

the damnedest liar

Chapter Four

he may retire with undiminish'd glory

Chapter Five

rivalries irritated to madness

Chapter Six

oh, that i was a soldier!

Chapter Seven

rocks and quicksands on all sides

Chapter Eight

the most splendid diamond in my crown

Chapter Nine

i will kill it!

Chapter Ten

not a man to be forced

Chapter Eleven

i was born for the storm

Chapter Twelve

who would have had the courage?

Chapter Thirteen

i am going to be beaten

Chapter Fourteen

too angelic for this devilish rebellion

Chapter Fifteen

a well-meaning baboon

Chapter Sixteen

the country will be saved

Chapter Seventeen

i see dynamite

Chapter Eighteen

black storm

Chapter Nineteen

a rough-and-tumble man

Chapter Twenty

i upset them all

Chapter Twenty-one

we must protect the chief!

Chapter Twenty-two

gloom personified

Chapter Twenty-three

salute your caesar?

Chapter Twenty-four

we have avoided a putsch

Chapter Twenty-five

no people except the hebrews

Chapter Twenty-six

the right place at the right time

Chapter Twenty-seven

how could this have happened?

Chapter Twenty-eight

i am cyrus!

Chapter Twenty-nine

they never show their passion

Chapter Thirty

go get him, johnny boy!

Chapter Thirty-one

it's going to be a civil war

Chapter Thirty-two

a man has to take a stand

Chapter Thirty-three

we win and they lose!

Chapter Thirty-four

it left me greatly depressed

Chapter Thirty-five

don't worry that i've lost my bearings

Chapter Thirty-six

a miracle has taken place

Epilogue presidential courage

Notes

Sources

Acknowledgments

Index

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 8 of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2009

    Loved this book

    This is by far one of the easiest history books that you can find, yet it is very detailed in the events that it describes and lays them out logically. While entire books could be devoted to any one of the events that Beschloss describes, he does a great job in explaining the essentials of the most important events that shaped our nation.<BR/>One of the most balanced history books that I have read in some time.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2010

    Not a lot that you can't find in other books

    This book started off a little slow for me, because I had just recently read books about John Adams, Andrew Jackson vs. Nicholas Biddle, Lincoln,... So I already knew some of the stories at the beginning of the book (although there were a few interesting tidbits here and there that added some spice to the stories).

    The parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the parts about Harry Truman and Israel, JFK and Civil Rights, and Reagan and the Soviets. These are much more recent in history (some of it I even grew up through), but it's stuff that I knew a lot less about. One of the things that really struck me was how different things were back in the days of FDR, Truman, and JFK in terms of the blatant racism and anti-Semetism (even from the Presidents and their families themselves). We really have come a long way in a short amount of time.

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  • Posted September 19, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent

    Excellent

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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