Truth, the Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth? Syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson weighs in on the art of honesty — when it's a good idea to tell the truth and when it's better to fudge the details. Also, a radical truth teller explains why honesty isn't the best policy — it's the only policy.
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Truth, the Whole Truth, Nothing But the Truth?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

It's Super Tuesday, but to be honest with you, we don't want to talk about politics. We'd rather leave all those campaign promises behind and talk about the truth.

A lot of us get through life telling little white lies. Admit it - you know you do. We rationalize by saying we don't want to hurt people's feelings or we don't think our loved ones can handle the truth. But let's face it, lying is just easier; honesty is hard. And there are those who are argue that honesty is not just the best policy, it should be the only policy. So on this day, when voters will be facing their own moment of truth at the polling station, we're going to have an honest discussion about honesty. Can you handle it?

Later in the hour, Diablo Cody, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter behind "Juno" takes your calls. But first, should we always tell the truth? Was there ever a time when that was hard to do, and do you want to know the truth, really?

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is, and you can also comment on our blog, it's at

And we begin with Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune, and she joins us now from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Hi Amy. Good to have you with us.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Advice Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi Lynn. Listen, I have a question. Do these pants make me look fat? Go ahead, you can tell me.

NEARY: No. Not at all. Honest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, this is such a great topic because as an advice columnist, obviously, I am often asked to weigh in on whether or not somebody should tell the unvarnished truth, the varnished truth, a version of the truth or what, so it's a great human topic. All of us have dealt with it.

NEARY: And what's your take on it? Should we always tell the truth?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, if you've ever had a relationship with someone who is both respectful and loving to you, and truthful. You know, it can be done. What I don't like is the brutal truth. I think we can tell the truth to one another without being brutally honest.

NEARY: Now, do you practice what you preach? Do you always tell the truth? Are you really always honest?

Ms. DICKINSON: Actually, it's been a challenge for me. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to tell the truth about how you feel because we're all very vulnerable when we admit to our own feelings, so I'm working on it. But yeah, I actually, try to be truthful and honest to the people, and certainly, as a parent, I think it's absolutely vital.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, as you said, you get a lot of letters on this kind of thing, how truthful should I be in a certain situation. What are some examples that might recur or a really good example you've come across where somebody might have written to you and was really struggling with this issue of telling somebody the truth?


NEARY: And it's (unintelligible)…

Ms. DICKINSON: This is a classic.

NEARY: Go ahead.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. This is a classic from the Amy files…

NEARY: Okay.

Ms. DICKINSON: …and this - it's both a classic issue and a perennial issue that has wide-ranging implications. Okay, here's the situation. I work in an office, a colleague of mine is having an affair. I'm certain of it. I know it. His wife is a wonderful woman. I feel terrible for her. I am inclined to want to let her know. Should I? Now, isn't that a great question because, you know, it's really very, very, very challenging to answer.

Now, the answer to this question has changed over the years, in that, kind of, in the old days, it was like, yeah, mind your own business, don't interfere. And I have from time to time, reminded people that we don't always know what somebody else's marriage is like and maybe it's best not to interfere. However, whenever I've made that suggestion in the column, readers write in and they tell me, these days, anybody having an extramarital affair is placing their partner at risk for STDs and various other - their health implications to this.

So a lot of people kind of used that as a reason to justify telling. But that is a very, very, very challenging situation and I don't - I actually don't know if there's any one right answer.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, let me just tell you this one question before we bring another guest in, and that is, if you're going to speak the truth, the real, honest-to-God truth, how do you do it? What's the best way to do it? You were saying, you believe in speaking the truth but it's how you approach it that you would have some - there are nuances to that.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Okay, here's what I've learned as a parent. Sometimes, it's best to speak the truth by asking questions. Sometimes, the best statements are made by asking questions. For instance, if your - if you want to tell your son or daughter that you're disappointed in their grades - let's just use that as an example - you say, I'm surprised at how you did this semester. How do you feel about it? And it's - you start a conversation where you are expressing your point of view but you are not shutting them down by being disrespectful and attacking. So I think we can tell the truth in lots of ways, and one way is to ask a thoughtful question.

NEARY: All right.

Let's see if we can get a caller in here before we go to our next guest. This is Chris(ph) from Cleveland, Ohio.

Hi Chris.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm good. How are you?

CHRIS: Good.

I had a situation, I guess, about a year and a half back. I had cheated on my girlfriend a few times and I asked her a lot of suppressing that truth, I finally came out with it. And then a series of (unintelligible) thought, you know, I'm certainly glad I did it - it got a great weight off of my chest, and our relationship is better than I ever could have imagined, but there is - you know, I had a great internal struggle with the decision of whether or not to tell her.

NEARY: What finally made you decide that was the thing you had to do?

CHRIS: Well, that I wanted to, you know, work on our relationship. I wanted it to work out, and there was - that was just wouldn't be realistic if I was harboring this secret.

NEARY: So, clearly, she appreciated your honesty in this particular case?

CHRIS: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, she was quite livid at first, but yeah, after all, she's very grateful that I did tell her.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Chris.

CHRIS: Thank you.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wow. I love this call from Chris because this is also an issue I get a lot in my column. And recently, I took - I ran a letter from a woman who said she had a one-time only thing several months ago. It was over. It would always be over and that she knew if she told her husband, he - it would destroy what was becoming a wonderful relationship. And should she tell him? And I said, no.

NEARY: You said no?

Ms. DICKINSON: I did. I said don't tell him.


Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I know. And I heard from a lot of people who told me…

NEARY: Who disagreed.

Ms. DICKINSON: …that the only way to be intimate is to be honest. Now, she had said, without question, this will destroy our marriage, and I love this marriage, I love this man, I'm working on this marriage. And I said, if it's going to destroy your marriage, then don't do it. I have been the recipient, myself, of knowledge I wish I did not have.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. All right. Well, let's bring our next guest in now. This is a good moment I think. Joining us is Brad Blanton. He's a psychotherapist and founder of a movement known as Radical Honesty. He joins us from the studios of WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Good to have you on the program, Brad.

Doctor BRAD BLANTON (Psychotherapist; Founder, Radical Honesty): Hi Lynn. Good to be here.

NEARY: What exactly is radical honesty?

Dr. BLANTON: I was a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. for about 30 years. And probably that's the best place in the world to study lying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BLANTON: And so I agree, basically, what I discovered in my practice as well as in my personal life was that the primary cause of most human suffering, the primary cause of most depression, the primary cause of most anxiety, the primary cause of most conflict between couples, most problems within groups, and most problems in your national relations is being trapped in a jail of our minds; being trapped in our minds thinking that being right and not being wrong is the most important thing in the world. It's more important than even being alive itself.

And it comes - that's not our - that's the identity we learn. We learn in school that who we are is our grades, and who we are is what the teacher thinks of us, and what our peers think of us. And we go on in life that the status we have or our reputation is our identity. And I think we lie so much, which keeps us trapped in jail of our minds. Lying is what keeps us trapped in the jail of our minds more than anything else. And what keeps us there is this case of mistaken identity we all suffer from.

We think that who we are is our story rather than present tense and noticing beings like right now, I'm in a studio talking to a microphone and you're in a studio and Amy is in a studio, and we're - that's who we are. We're these people sitting in the studios talking, and my primary identity is that. And when I consider that to be my primary identity, I don't have to lie so much to constantly manage my identity in the eyes of other people because…

NEARY: Well, let me ask you this. Are you saying that you need to be honest about every single little thing, I mean, you know, Amy and I were joking earlier, she said, you know, do I look fat in these pants. Obviously, I can't even see her, but I mean, in real life, you know…

Dr. BLANTON: It's really important to say yes, I think, you look fat or why are you asking me this question, if…

NEARY: Even if…

Dr. BLANTON: …the question is not really a question.

NEARY: …it's going to hurt somebody's feelings. Even if it's going to hurt them?

Dr. BLANTON: Yes. The thing is about hurting feelings, if you're stick with people, the thing is you're going to hurt people's feelings and you're going to get - you're going to offend people and you're going to get your feelings hurt and you're going to get offended. What counts is you're sticking with each other until you get over being hurt, or until you get over being angry.

Chris's example is just perfect. He understood what Amy's readers have been telling her that there is no intimacy without honesty. Without honesty, you can't have a powerful intimate relationship.

We have in this country 53 percent divorce rate but that's not the tragedy. The tragedy is that 47 percent of the marriages that stay together, most of those relationships suck. That's the - basically, their hostile (unintelligible) where people are more afraid of being alone than they are of being with the devil they know.

Just because people stay together doesn't mean they have a wonderful relationship. Intimate, powerful relationships depend on honesty where you tell the truth about what you think, what you feel, and what you've done. And you engage each other with commitment so that you stay with each other through the hurt feelings. If you really think about it, your real friends are people that you've had fights before. You hurt each other's feeling before but you stuck with each other, you got over it and you forgave each other. On the other side of that forgiveness was a deeper relationship.

NEARY: All right, hold on there for a moment, Brad Blanton and Amy Dickinson. We're going to come back in a moment. We're going to continue our discussion about whether or not you should always tell the truth.

And if you really want to hear the truth, be honest now, give us a call, 800-989-8255, or send us an e-mail at

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Diablo Cody, the first-time screenwriter behind the movie "Juno" will be here a bit later to talk about her Oscar nomination and to take your calls.

Right now, though, should you always tell the truth? Mark Twain had his own take on this, truth is the most valuable thing we have, he said, let us economize it.

What about you? Should we always tell the truth? Do you really want to hear it? Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send us an e-mail to

Amy Dickinson is with us, she writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune, and Brad Blanton is a psychotherapist based in Virginia, and he's a founder of the self-improvement program known as Radical Honesty.

We're going to take a call now from Jamie(ph) who is calling from Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Hi Jamie.

JAMIE (Caller): Hello there. Hello Brad and Amy.


JAMIE: More than anything - especially with Brad - some of the things you said I would - a year ago - agree with absolutely everything you said about honesty and absolutely always telling the truth. I was brought up that way and my parents were pretty strict about that. My dad was 30 years in military and he was really strong and I believe him always telling the truth. And he was 80 years old; he passed away last year. And my mother has about half way into the Alzheimer's and so she's in a memory care-giving assistance living, so I end up taking their dog.

As with a lot of older people, they have a dog that meant the world to them. And the dog died about three months or four months after I had it. And my sister and I decided there's absolutely no point whatsoever in telling my mother that the dog died. It would absolutely do no good, only harm. And now when I visit my mother, she frequently asks me about her and I tell her that my other daughter is taking care of her. I absolutely, absolutely hate lying to her doing this because it's not the way I was brought up and I just feel actually horrible when I do it, but I know in my heart it's a right thing to do.

NEARY: I'm just curious to hear what Brad Blanton, what your reaction to that because you've been strongly making the point that he always have to be honest. What about in a case like this, someone has Alzheimer's, somebody's very old?

Dr. BLANTON: Yes, that's really tough. I think probably it depends on the degree of capability you have of being in a relationship with your mother. If you can go ahead and grieve through it with her, it would probably better. But if she is just asking over and over again because she can't remember what you told her anyway, I'd say it's your call.

JAMIE: Yeah.

Dr. BLANTON: I would say that there are plans when there's - there are exceptions. The thing is that when I exit, I would like to have an honest, powerful relationship with the people I leave behind. And I'd rather have to be that way and I'd rather have you be open in relating to me, so I would slightly prefer, but I realize, it's a really tough choice. And by the way…

JAMIE: And I'm worried…


JAMIE: …that (unintelligible) honest I am. I am extremely 100 percent honest, too much, you know, almost at times, and that's exactly right. We do go over my father's death when I visit her. We go over it several times. It's been a year at the end of this month. And she, again, she has some lucid moments but we grieved - she's grieved probably over my father over 5,000 times, remembering, did my - did dad really die, and so we probably go through the same thing with her dog again. And again, as much as I hate lying to her face, I feel (unintelligible) to do.

NEARY: All right.

Dr. BLANTON: Yeah. Okay.

NEARY: Thanks so much for calling in, Jamie.

JAMIE: You're welcome.

Dr. BLANTON: Yeah. Okay.

NEARY: And Brad Blanton, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Dr. BLANTON: I wanted to say one more thing.

NEARY: Okay.

Dr. BLANTON: And I don't advocate that you absolutely tell the truth in all situations. If you have Anne Frank in the attic and a Nazi knocks on the doors and says are there any Jews in this house, you should lie.

NEARY: Yeah.

Dr. BLANTON: You know, in the criminal justice systems in the United States, in the system, you should probably lie or a lawyer that's what they're for. But in terms of personal relationships, you have to be impeccably honest in order to have a powerful sharing, loving, intimate relationship based on forgiveness. You can't do it otherwise.

NEARY: All right. Brad Blanton, thanks so much for joining us.

Dr. BLANTON: Thank you.

NEARY: Brad Blanton is a clinical psychologist based in Virginia; founder of the self-improvement program known as Radical Honesty. His book is called "Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth," and he joins us from the studios of WMRA in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

And of course, Amy Dickinson is still with us.

Amy, let's take a call. We're going to go Eric(ph) in Portland, Oregon.

Hi Eric.

ERIC (Caller): Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

ERIC: Well, this topic really caught my attention. It's been my practice for a little more than a year right now to practice rigid honesty. And I think that the comments that I've heard about brutal honesty are true but I think there is a way that one can be honest and still loving and kind and sensitive to others.

My experience was borne out of drug addiction that I was bogged down in and ultimately hurt my family deeply, ended my marriage, and I saw - I was able to see that my inability to be honest to what was going on with my life was hugely detrimental to those relationships.

And so I resolved, as a result, that I would no longer be dishonest, and the place to start for me was in the little daily, small things. A little white lie as you mentioned at the top of your show about how easy it is for us to because we feel that our friends, ourselves can't handle the truth, we tend to take the easy way out. And when I found is that by avoiding those kinds of little lies that the bigger honesty, the things that really count in relationships are - flow a lot easier.

NEARY: Interesting. Thanks so much, Eric.

Ms. DICKINSON: I love what Eric is saying because I'm sure, you know, through his addiction, there were probably moments when his family was also lying about what was going on with him. And this is something I see a lot in the work I do is these secrets kind of take hold and they trap people in this sort of stasis where nobody is being truthful brutally, you know, lovingly honest. And this is something that a good intervention can do, it's when everybody sits down and they finally tell the truth. They're finally confronting the reality of what's going on.

NEARY: Yeah. Eric, thanks so much for your call.

ERIC: Thank you.

NEARY: Okay. We're going to be joined now by Robert Feldman, and he is a psychologist and professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. And he joins us now from the member station there WFCR.

Good to have you with us, Dr. Feldman.

Doctor ROBERT FELDMAN (Psychologist; Professor, Social Psychology, University of Massachusetts): Hi Lynn. Nice to be here.

NEARY: You know, I'm wondering, doesn't it backfire sometimes when you tell the truth? Can it backfire sometimes? I mean, can you be dealing with a family member or whether it's your spouse or a child or a - any family member, and they really can't handle the truth and it really backfires in some very negative way? Can that happen?

Dr. FELDMAN: Oh, absolutely, the truth can be as destructive as a lie. And one of the difficult decisions that we have to make is we go through our daily lives deciding at what point do we want to be honest and at what point do we want to be - perhaps color the truth a little bit. It's very, very difficult and most of us struggle with this issue.

But I think that if you look at daily life, most of the time, we are engaged in what you might call white lies and they have very little negative effect. And if we don't engage in those lies, we may damage one relationship after another.

I certainly believe it's important to be honest in a deep relationship. But when you talk about our everyday relationships as we go through life and we talk to the grocer or we talk to someone we're passing in the hall or waiting in line at Starbucks, very often, you don't want to get into every detail of your life.

NEARY: Right.

Dr. FELDMAN: If someone asks you how you're feeling, they most often really don't want to know how you're feeling. So they're perfectly willing and in fact, will be very happy if you just say to them I'm doing fine.

NEARY: You know, on the other hand, we just had a caller, I think you've probably heard that call where he was saying that he was - had an addiction problem and that the way for him to deal with the dishonesty that was inherent in that addiction problem, was to begin by not telling the little white lies, by being honest in everything.

Dr. FELDMAN: And I think that in some extraordinary circumstances like that, that's like his situation, that's absolutely correct and that's the right path to follow. But I also think that for most of us as we go through our daily lives, we will lie over and over again without even being aware of it and ultimately it has very little effect. In fact, we spend some time teaching our kids to be effective liars. We tell them grandma's coming over, she's going to bring you a gift you're not going to like it very much but pretend that you like it. It's going to make grandma feeling better.

NEARY: That's called good manners, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. FELDMAN: It is called good manners but if you analyze it, it really is a lie and it really - and when you tell your child that, you're teaching your child to lie.

NEARY: Can I ask Amy to just weigh in on that.

I'm just curious what you think about that, Amy, before we go to another call.

Ms. DICKINSON: I'm all about it. I'm all about teaching your kids to be polite little liars. That's for sure when it comes to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay. And just to remind our listeners, we're talking about truth telling here on TALK OF THE NATION. We're trying to be honest about honesty. If you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call, the number is 989-8255, that's 800-989-8255. And we're going to take a call now from Justin(ph). And Justin is calling from Keene, New Hampshire.

Hi Justin. Hello. Are you there?

JUSTIN (Caller): Hi. I'm looking to pose the question about lying to ourselves and denial, and I'd like to start by giving you a story about something that happened to me. I fell in love with this girl about a year ago. And it was (unintelligible) feelings her issues, the most amazing person, I got closer to her, become a friend, and finally asked her out and she kind of looked at me and smiled for a minute, and then I figured things were okay. And then, like a couple of days later, she stopped talking to me and she wouldn't say anything to me and she look away when I go near her and I just kind of fell apart. And just wouldn't tell myself that it was over. I kept trying to be close to her and I just didn't want to accept that I had lost her. So I wonder if I could talk - your guest could talk about this idea of we lie to ourselves (unintelligible)…

NEARY: Lying to ourselves. Mm-hmm. Interesting. Dr. Feldman.

Dr. FELDMAN: Yeah. You know, that's absolutely true. I mean, one of the difficulties we have in terms of deciding whether the degree of honesty we want to live our lives with is very often we don't even know what the truth is. We lie to ourselves. We tell ourselves that someone is deeply in love with us. We fool ourselves and we act towards that person as if they were still madly in love with us, and it makes it quite difficult to navigate our lives. And perhaps the first thing one needs to do is to try and be as honest with oneself to see what the truth is about a given situation.

NEARY: Yeah.

JUSTIN: Right. I guess it can hurt so much for so many people.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call.

JUSTIN: Thank you for having me.

NEARY: What about, Amy Dickinson, what about something like a medical situation where for whatever reason, a doctor may convey some information to you that's really difficult, that you're not sure whether you want to convey to…


NEARY: …another person, something like that. I mean, where do you go…

Ms. DICKINSON: Do you remember in the old days - remember in the old days when your - doctors were very patrician or - and they would say, for instance, well, your mother has cancer but we're not going to tell her…

NEARY: Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: …I mean, this was commonly done. I am, you know - that's devastating. I think that we all have the right to know the truth about our own bodies and our own story.

I hear a lot about a family secrets in my column and I just think they're very, very destructive. If a - but this is a situation you have to gauge. If you have a relative who you know very intimately, who you know who has conveyed to you that they do not want to know the specifics, then you should respect it. But I think there's a way of saying, you know, the news isn't great, let's stay hopeful, you know, without giving somebody information that would devastate them. I think there's a way to talk about it.

NEARY: All right. Amy Dickinson writes a syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to take a call now. We're going to Bob(ph). He's calling from Sacramento, California.

Hi Bob.

BOB (Caller): Hi there. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Thanks. How are you?

BOB: Oh, not too bad.

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

BOB: I really love this topic on personal and professional reasons. In my personal life, I have tried to be very honest but what I have come to understand is that honesty without some discretion is brutality. And the other thing is - is I probably have a reputation for being honest - I tried to be diplomatic but I don't typically sugarcoat things either.

In my personal life, what I've come to discover is, boy, it's - for somebody who really is - shall we say adept at playing games with somebody's emotions or feelings or has their own agenda - they can see a lot of lie, what, just to see the truth, you know? It can be partially true.

NEARY: Yeah:

BOB: And that really can - that can bring somebody like me down because I, basically, I'm an open book. And some times what I've learned to do is I'm still truthful but I hold back a little bit, you know?

NEARY: Well, you probably learned over the years I bet you've stood out in meetings and spoken the truth and people have come up and pat you on the back and said, Bob, that was great. And then you thought, maybe I shouldn't have said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOB: Well, you know, and the funny thing is, too, is no, I really - there have been times where I think, you know, what, I should have bit my tongue.

NEARY: Right.

BOB: But…

NEARY: Okay.

BOB: But, in a sense, on a professional level, there - I've experienced numerous times where managers - people who often has said in the business world are more politician than they are skilled.

NEARY: As - good point, Bob.

BOB: And the problem is if you tell them the truth, it can sometimes be - at a boy - we got this fixed, whatever, but then the other shoe falls.

NEARY: All right, Bob, I'm going to ask our guest because we only have a couple of minute left so I want our guest to respond to what you're saying as I think you're making some interesting points. So thanks so much.

BOB: Sure.

NEARY: Thanks so much for calling in.

Amy and Robert Feldman, just respond to that because he's talking about the workplace, too, here like…


NEARY: …you know, and he's an honest guy and he's found out over the years -maybe I shouldn't have been so honest, maybe it (unintelligible)…

Dr. FELDMAN: Well…

Ms. DICKINSON: You sort of say to Bob, your reward will be in heaven, my friend…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: …because the fact is over time, I think, especially if you are diplomatic and you are competent and skilled, your colleagues, without question learn to value that you are always telling the truth about your position. I think that's a very valuable thing.

NEARY: What's your take on that, Dr. Feldman?

Dr. FELDMAN: But I also think that he's making a distinction between the workplace and personal relationships. And in many ways, I think it's much easier to be honest in workplace situations because the relationships are transient. There are often status differences. It gets much harder when you're talking about personal relationships.

And I think very often on a personal - if he want a sustained relationship with someone, you can't always be 100 percent honest with them because the consequences of constantly telling them yes, in fact, you are gaining weight, yes, that dress looks terrible. Saying those kinds of things over and over no matter how nicely phrased they are, are going to be somewhat destructive.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks to both of you for being with us today. We're going to go forth and be honest from here, I think.

Amy Dickinson writes a syndicated column for Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune. And Robert Feldman is a professor of social psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

And coming up, the hit movie "Juno" was her first shot at screenwriting. Now, she's up for an Oscar. Diablo Cody joins us next, takes your calls at 800-989-8255.

Stay with us. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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