SAM SANDERS, HOST:
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Hello, Sam.
SANDERS: How are you, Ron?
ELVING: I'm reasonably good. I'm among the healthy and lucky.
SANDERS: Good. Good. Long time, no talk - I miss you, friend.
ELVING: I miss you, too. You are one of the reasons I wish I were still going places.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hello, hello.
SANDERS: Aw (ph). Is that Mara I hear? Hi.
LIASSON: Yes. So let me just - wait. Let me get a pillow to put behind the mic. Hold on. So I'm so happy to be doing something with Ron. Normally, they won't let us be on together. They distribute the old people around the shows.
ELVING: I resist - you know, I resist that characterization.
ELVING: But it's undeniable. I keep trying...
LIASSON: Like, I - you me and Domenico will never be together...
ELVING: Yeah. Well, there's some function of distribution. But it's - I can't help but kind of feel that it's demographic a little bit. And I don't know what other demographics we share, so that's got to be it.
ELVING: People who remember Jimmy Carter - how about that as a category?
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SANDERS: Hey, y'all. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And for this episode, I invited two dear friends of mine from my days on NPR's Politics Desk - NPR's Ron Elving and Mara Liasson. The election is just a week away, and all the anxiety and worry about early voting and mail-in voting and counting the votes and how long the election will take - it's stressful, huh (ph)? You know, 2020 is unprecedented for so many reasons. But I have not been able to shake this idea that we've actually been here before, or at least kind of been here before 20 years ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is an ABC News special - the 2000 vote.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Election Day - the day to choose a new president for a new century.
SANDERS: The year was 2000. In one corner, Vice President Al Gore and his running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman; in the other, Texas Governor George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Might be hard to believe now, but before that fateful election night, it had been a fairly boring campaign season, especially by today's standards. You could even call it quaint. But, of course, that changed pretty quickly. Ron Elving was actually in the NPR newsroom that night.
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ELVING: I remember being at a decision desk, as we called it, where we were handling 50 cards for the 50 states and checking them off as they came in. And, of course, before we got started, we could check off quite a number of states we thought were pretty obvious and still are in today's politics. But we checked off a lot of states, and then we were also going to be checking the Senate and checking gubernatorial cases and all the rest of it and the House seats. So we had tons of all this stuff ready to do the reporting. And we knew which states we were interested in. We were interested in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. Those were the three. And very early on in the evening, there were some good indications for Gore from Pennsylvania and Michigan, which eventually he did carry.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: You can see the results there - Al Gore, 52%; George W. Bush, 45.
ELVING: But the real fascinating thing was that the exit polls were showing Florida going for Gore. Now, if you give Gore Florida and those other two states - Pennsylvania and Michigan - it's going to be tough for him to lose, and he wouldn't have. But that was the early indication. And sure enough, right after 8 o'clock when most of the polls in Florida had closed but not the panhandle - you know, that's in the Central Time Zone...
ELVING: ...A lot of the television networks started saying, we project Al Gore the winner in Florida.
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PETER JENNINGS: ABC News projects that Al Gore wins the state of Florida and its 25 electoral votes.
ELVING: And knowing everything else we knew, that was making it kind of look like a big sweep for Al Gore that night. And for our part at NPR, we were listening to a guy, the late Andy Kohut from Pew Research, who was...
ELVING: ...Our guru. And he was shaking his head and looking at the internals of the exit polls and saying they've got way too many women and way too many people of color and way too many younger people. This is not a representative sample, and we can't...
ELVING: ...Put our weight down on it.
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DAN RATHER: Florida goes for Al Gore. Now, folks, the equation changes. CBS News estimates when all the votes are in and counted, the Sunshine State will have plenty of sunshine for Al Gore.
ELVING: Now, I don't remember exactly who claimed to have been first, and it doesn't really matter because what happened was Karl Rove, who was the campaign manager for George W. Bush, called the people at Fox. And he had some contacts there. And he said, we don't think you can call Florida. And he had a lot of good reasons to say so.
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RATHER: There are many people who leave and would tell you that Al Gore, in order to be viable in this presidential race, needed to win Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
ELVING: And they got Fox to reconsider. And as the numbers started coming in and there were reasons to doubt the initial call in Florida and the panhandle came in, it was increasingly clear that you couldn't call Florida.
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BERNARD SHAW: Stand by. CNN right now is moving our earlier declaration of Florida back to the too-close-to-call column.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh.
SHAW: George Bush, governor of Texas, will become the 43rd president of the United States at 18 minutes past...
TOM BROKAW: Claire Shipman, have they accepted the fact that they've lost the presidency tonight?
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: Tom, they have. In fact, I just talked to Gore's campaign chairman Bill Daley. He said that Gore has, in fact, called President-elect Bush. No word on what was said...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: I've been told a little bit more about this telephone call, this second phone call from the vice president to the governor. We know that what the governor said in response to what this retraction was was, do what you have to do. That's what he told the vice president.
BROKAW: This has been one long, bizarre, exciting, frustrating, anxious-driven night of American presidential politics. It is not over, ladies and gentlemen.
SANDERS: I remember being a junior in high school. The next day I go to class, I remember my AP English teacher rolls out the TV and just makes us watch CNN for the whole class 'cause she's like, this is much more important than diagramming sentences. It's hard to overstate the weird period of limbo that night thrust the country into. It was 36 days of not knowing who won. What do you recall that month being like? What did it feel like? What was going on then?
LIASSON: It was like being in limbo, you know, for a month - like, just not knowing what was going on, not understanding what was going on. You know, you had, like the Brooks Brothers riot, you know...
LIASSON: ...The young Republican operatives - the group of operatives that tried to disrupt the counting of the hanging chads. I remember the...
LIASSON: ...Images of Florida poll workers with big magnifying glasses, you know, peering at paper ballots and trying to figure out if the hole had...
LIASSON: ...Been punched. It was just bizarre.
ELVING: It truly was. And one of the people who marched into one of the counting rooms and shouted, I'm from the Bush campaign, and I am here to tell you to stop - and everybody looked up from...
ELVING: ...What they were doing and said, who is that guy? He's got a big, white mustache, and he looks like some kind of lawyer. What is - and it was John Bolton.
SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.
ELVING: John Bolton, who would later be named the United Nations representative for the United States by George W. Bush and then later be the national security adviser for Donald Trump, who has now written a tell-all book excoriating Donald Trump. So he was a major figure at one juncture, storming around the state, announcing that he represented the Bush campaign - which I think, in some respect, he did - and that as a lawyer, he could tell people what they were doing was illegal and stop. So there was...
ELVING: There was a lot of random - that's the only word you can use - random activity.
SANDERS: It was a circus. Yeah. And if there's any place that makes for a good political circus, it sure is Florida. I mean, I just remember the visuals. It was insane. What was the big dispute between the campaigns? So the Gore campaign was asking for a recount but only a certain type of recount. What was the Bush campaign asking for, and how did they differ? And what was that conflict?
LIASSON: The Bush campaign wanted to freeze the count 'cause they were ahead. And in the end, they won by 537 votes, I think.
LIASSON: Is that right?
ELVING: Yeah. You got it right.
LIASSON: Five hundred and thirty-seven?
SANDERS: Five-thirty-seven, yeah.
ELVING: Yeah. Well, there was this woman named Katherine Harris, and - boy, this really brings back memories. She was the secretary of state, and she was in charge of the count - the secretary of state of Florida. She also had a sort of, you know, official, not really important job with the Bush campaign in Florida. And she was an appointee to that job and a political ally of the governor of Florida, whose name was Jeb Bush and was, in fact, George W. Bush's brother. So for the Florida state officials to be in charge of this count struck a lot of people as a little bit on the biased side, but that's their job. It was their job.
And when they had completed the count they thought they could call plausible and stand behind, they declared W. the winner. And on the basis of that thereafter, the legal onus was on Gore to say, what's wrong with the official count? Why should we not be taking the word of the secretary of state and the governor and the various local officials who have certified these votes? What's wrong here, and why shouldn't we just declare the man the winner?
SANDERS: All right. Coming up, how that election night turned into election month and why Al Gore should have actually won.
And so then the Gore campaign - what do they start to ask for, and how does it change over the course of that month? And how did we get into the situation where we're all having to have a national conversation about dimpled chads and butterfly ballots?
ELVING: Well, the challenge was to the accuracy of the count and particularly in certain counties where the vote looked a little wonky. Now, there was one in particular where it wasn't hanging chads. It was the actual layout of the ballot, which had apparently induced - and there's every reason to think that this happened because so many people were shocked to see the ballot later and realize that they thought they had voted for Gore but had, in fact...
ELVING: ...Voted for a third-party candidate of...
SANDERS: Oh, my God.
ELVING: ...The Reform Party named Pat Buchanan, who...
ELVING: You know, he's been a guy who, his whole life, argued that the United States fought on the wrong side in World War II, at least in the European theater. And so for a county with a disproportionate number of Jewish residents to have an extraordinary spike of support for Patrick Buchanan really raised people's eyebrows, but it appeared that that was an absolutely inadvertent kind of bad-looking ballot. It just was - it was done by a person who was actually a Democrat. And there did not seem to be any kind of skullduggery or conspiracy. It was just a ballot that could easily be misread.
SANDERS: Just a bad ballot.
ELVING: And if you've ever voted...
ELVING: ...On one of those machines, you know how easy that is to do.
LIASSON: So Americans got a crash course in ballots and how they're designed. They got a crash course in what the hell is the Electoral College since...
LIASSON: ...It never mattered until it differed from the popular vote. And, you know, American elections haven't been the same since.
SANDERS: Yeah. For me, it was just this big-ish (ph) reminder about how decentralized elections really are.
SANDERS: You know, from county to county in a place like Florida, some ballots look like this. Some ballots look like that. Some ballots you have to push a thing through a hole. Some ballots you write in. Like, it's all so diffuse, you know? And so they're going through the motions, trying to figure out what to recount and how the recounts work over the course of these 36 days. As this is going on, what do the American people think about all of it? What do they want? Was there any polling saying that they were favoring Bush or Gore in this fight?
ELVING: You know, I don't have a definitive answer on that. I think the polling pretty much reflected the way people had voted. In other words, it was pretty much 50/50. And you had a certain number of people who were perhaps Bush voters but disturbed to see how random it looked down in Florida and disturbed that the overall popular vote had gone against their candidate and who had some problems with it. And there may have been some Gore people who, particularly as time went on, shrugged their shoulders and said, well, I was a Gore voter, but this just can't go on like this. We should just be done with it. Let's get it resolved. But by and large, people took partisan positions. There were crowds of people outside, for example, the vice president's residence, which is the Naval Observatory grounds...
ELVING: ...In Washington, D.C. And people had signs that said Sore Loserman, which was...
ELVING: ...Obviously a riff on Gore-Lieberman.
ELVING: But they were down there chanting away outside his house, get out of Cheney's house, meaning Dick Cheney.
LIASSON: Like, get out of Cheney's house.
ELVING: Yeah. He was the running mate for George W. Bush...
ELVING: ...And then, of course, would be vice president and have that as official residence for the next eight years.
LIASSON: And there's no doubt that the Gore campaign, the Democrats in general in this contested part of the election were way outmatched. Just every step of the way, the Democrats were outplayed. And, you know, when you think about what this election meant, the consequences - I mean, the Bush presidency and especially the aftermath of 9/11, which we...
LIASSON: ...Have to assume Al Gore would have handled very differently - he might have gone...
LIASSON: ...Into Afghanistan, but he would have not...
SANDERS: Would've Iraq happened? Yeah.
LIASSON: ...Started a second war with Iraq.
LIASSON: And, you know, George W. Bush, for everything you might feel about him now in retrospect, took the lid off the Middle East. And it's, you know, never been the same...
SANDERS: Never been the same.
LIASSON: ...For a generation.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, I want to talk more about what you alluded to, Mara - this infrastructure that was built up very quickly to deal with the aftermath of that election night in 2000. Watching these campaigns have to pivot from, get out the vote, to, how do we count the votes for the next month - why did team Bush just have the better ground game in that regard? And what did it look like to see both campaigns have to build up an infrastructure that perhaps didn't exist before?
LIASSON: Well, they were just tougher. They were more aggressive. You know, they had a plan, which is don't concede and, you know, try to freeze the election in place. And Al Gore, to my memory - Ron can correct me - never settled on a count-every-vote strategy. Now, you fast forward to today, and both sides have thousands of lawyers lined up to deal with election challenges all over the country.
SANDERS: Is that an outgrowth of 2000?
LIASSON: An outgrowth - I would say certainly...
LIASSON: ...An outgrowth of 2000...
LIASSON: ...Because in 2020, the fear is that you might have six Floridas or seven Floridas.
SANDERS: Oh, my God. Don't say that, Mara. Don't say that.
ELVING: It's an articulated strategy now. It was an emergency strategy...
LIASSON: Right. Right.
ELVING: ...In 2020. It was run by James A. Baker III, and he was an extraordinarily competent manager of, among other things, other lawyers. He is considered one of the most skillful orchestrators and, if you will - and to use a more negative word - puppet masters we have seen in American political life in the last half-century. He was very - he got to Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. He said, this is where it's ultimately going to go down. And here's how we're going to organize our arguments, and here's how we're going to get everybody on the same page when there are news conferences. And we're not going to make this about George W. Bush. We're going to make it about Florida. And it all worked beautifully.
And then, of course, in the end - and this is critical because the Florida state Supreme Court pretty much was siding with the Democrats and saying, we got to do a lot of counting here before we call a winner. You had the state legislature, which is in Republican hands, saying, we'll decide. We're the state legislature. We'll just choose the electors who go off to the Electoral College in December. But the courts intervened. The state Supreme Court of Florida made a pretty clear ruling that they needed to count as many votes as needed to be counted to be sure. Democrats were real happy with that. But on the federal level, there was this Bush v. Gore case going forward. And that's where they had put their chips because they knew if they got to the Supreme Court in the federal system, it would overrule - or could overrule the Florida state Supreme Court. And that is exactly what happened on a 5-4 decision.
SANDERS: Well, this is what is really underscored by retelling the story of 2000. The big thesis statement about American elections is that, in fact, no one person or entity is actually in charge. There are so many different institutions that govern the ways that we vote from place to place. No one's really in charge of it. We just hope that this really big spider web of voting stuff works together.
LIASSON: Well, there's no one person. And it's not that no one's in charge. It's that no one is in charge.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
LIASSON: And that's really a big distinction. And I'll tell you something - as crazy as it sounds, it has a silver lining. It's really hard to hack an American election because you have to do it state by state.
SANDERS: Yeah, county by county.
LIASSON: Because we elect our presidents on a winner-take-all, state-by-state system, not...
LIASSON: ...On a national popular vote system. So...
LIASSON: ...It's hard.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: All right. Stay with us. We go back to the future and talk about how 2000 might really just be a giant playbook for 2020. God help us.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")
SANDERS: So then, in spite of all of that, this case still ends up at the Supreme Court - a Supreme Court that skews a bit conservative in that day. And the central question was, did the Florida Supreme Court violate Article 2, Section 1, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution by making new election law? And also, to this other question - did the different standards for recounts from county to county violate the equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution? What is their big argument in their ruling?
ELVING: The big argument in the ruling - and here, again, I mean, there are others who have really made career-long studies of this. But let me just shorthand it by saying they didn't think that you could overrule the ruling of the state authorities - that is to say, the secretary of state, the governor and so forth, the people who had decided the W. Bush had won. You couldn't overrule that with a court decision because there was no way to recount the state with a common standard - that because there were so many differences and because there was no common standard for determining what was a properly cast ballot, that it would take forever. And you can't wait until forever to know who the president of the United States is.
LIASSON: Yeah. And you know, what's so interesting is, if I remember correctly, they also, as part of their ruling, said this should not be considered a precedent.
ELVING: Yes, that's right. That's right.
LIASSON: This is a one time only thing. We're just helping our friend here, the Republican candidate.
LIASSON: But this shouldn't be applied equally to others.
SANDERS: Isn't the whole point of every SCOTUS ruling...
LIASSON: Yes, isn't the whole...
SANDERS: ...That it sets the precedent?
LIASSON: ...Point of Supreme Court decisions to set precedents?
LIASSON: Yeah. And I don't know what - how you would measure this. But there's no doubt that on the long march of the Supreme Court to being seen as a partisan institution that's just an arm of the party that nominated the majority of its members, this was definitely a step along the way.
ELVING: ...It was a long step.
ELVING: And I would say that anybody introducing that argument or anybody introducing that discussion would always start with Bush v. Gore.
ELVING: I mean, it was so clearly - it was a partisan split, a 5-4. We have the recollections of some justices who have left the court since talking about how very divisive it was within the court...
ELVING: ...Talking about how, first of all, even just the question of whether or not they were going to hear the case was highly divisive and how it's really strained friendships on the court and really made it hard for people to feel the same way about their colleagues on the court and deeply aggrieved...
ELVING: ...By the way it went down and what it was going to cost the institution in the long run in terms...
ELVING: ...Of its prestige.
LIASSON: And not to mention that it installed, you know, a president who had...
SANDERS: Fewer votes.
LIASSON: ...Gotten fewer votes. And this is a thing - most people never thought about the Electoral College because the Electoral College so very, very rarely diverged from the...
LIASSON: ...National popular vote. But it did that time. And it's - the Electoral College is something that strikes the majority of Americans as inherently unfair. It just seems unfair that the guy who wins the most votes should not become the president. Like, why is that?
SANDERS: And yet - and yet...
LIASSON: And yet...
SANDERS: ...And yet.
LIASSON: ...It's happened now twice. And I think kind of a thought experiment is, how many more times can this happen before large numbers of people give up on the system, think it's so inherently unfair that it destabilizes the system? I don't know. I don't know how - I don't think we can have any more of these split decisions.
SANDERS: Wow, yeah.
As two political journalists, how did you y'all feel when the Bush v. Gore ruling was issued? What was your first take?
SANDERS: OK. You were surprised by it.
ELVING: I was, too.
LIASSON: Yeah, I was surprised. I mean, I was surprised because Al Gore had won the popular vote, and the vote in Florida was contested, and the Supreme Court is not supposed to choose presidents.
ELVING: I was, I think, probably less surprised that they had a 5-4 in Bush's favor than I was surprised that they couldn't pull over even one vote to make it look a little more bipartisan. That chilled me because it really did foreshadow, in many ways, the polarization that we have seen ever since and that is worse now than it was then.
ELVING: Also, you know, there was an exhaustion factor. And I think this could be quite real in the weeks ahead. After we get past November 3, which isn't when the election happens, it's when the election stops, and we get into some of these same kinds of disputes - and the president's made it quite clear he's not going without a fight...
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.
ELVING: ...So all of these things that we're talking about now may seem a bit tame.
I have a question about the way the media covers elections. And it felt like there were a lot of lessons that the news industry, particularly cable news, could have learned from that wacky night of Florida. And I think a lot of those lessons haven't been applied yet. You know, when you think about the way in which the big networks called Florida for Gore before all the polls were closed and with - relying on exit polls perhaps too much. (Unintelligible)...
LIASSON: That's not going to happen - that - they...
SANDERS: ...Now in 2020?
LIASSON: I would say that's a lesson the press has learned. That's not going...
SANDERS: But we still use exit polls.
LIASSON: ...To happen this time.
LIASSON: No, but that's...
SANDERS: ...There's still this desire to know the results, like, the night of. Why do we still...
LIASSON: Yes. But don't you think that this year - I mean, Ron can - see what - I want to see what Ron thinks. But a lot of networks and news organizations are educating their listeners and - that election night is not the end of the count, that they're not going to declare a winner...
SANDERS: I'm wary, though, Mara.
LIASSON: ...Until we know.
SANDERS: I'm wary, though, because I think what also could happen is as soon as one candidate, night of the election, says, I want to declare that I've won, they'll go and speak. And everyone will run that live, and that sets the tone.
SANDERS: You know, I...
LIASSON: ...I think that this is what media organizations are talking about right now. So when - so the scenario is that if there is this phenomenon called the red mirage, where Trump seems to be winning on election night but actually as the votes come in over time, it turns to a blue shift, just like we saw in 2018 where the Democrats had picked up - I don't know - 20-odd seats in the House on election night. They got the majority, but it turned - we had to wait a couple of weeks for California to count their votes to find out that they'd actually picked up 40 and it was a real blue wave.
But I think that the networks - I don't know about every one of them, but they're not going to say, oh, Trump has declared victory. They're going to say the counting isn't done yet. Yes, the president says he's won, but he hasn't. We don't know who's won yet. We're going to wait. Ron, I mean, don't you think that that's kind of what mainstream news organizations are getting ready to do?
ELVING: I do. And I think it's going to be a good deal more possible for them to do it than it's ever been before because the competition to be first has been so intense because people flip channels. People say, oh, they're not calling it here. But over there, on this other channel...
LIASSON: Well, but also, that...
ELVING: ...They already know who won. There's where I should be.
LIASSON: Yeah, except for - do you want to be the channel...
ELVING: I'm going to watch them. Hmm?
LIASSON: Do you want to be the channel that calls it wrong?
ELVING: Well, except that - what was the penalty for channels that called it wrong in 2000? Everybody pretty much went back and forth and called it wrong. There was a loss of respect for what we do. I understand that. But it wasn't all on one network. It wasn't like the Chicago Tribune in 1948 printing a headline that says "Dewey Defeats Truman," you know? But we didn't have that. We had all the electronic media basically stampeding to the call in 20 - in 2000.
This time, I think that there's going to be more of a premium on being cautious. I think we're better prepared, just as I think that state officials and county officials are better prepared than they were in 2000.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, when I think of, like, what got us to this moment, this 2020 moment in our politics, where everyone seems mad at everybody, everyone is partisan and divided, and there are more questions than ever about how the election will work, it seems as if there's no bigger moment that kind of can explain it all than Election 2000. Is there any other moment that, you know, better sets the table for what we're dealing with now? I mean, I can think of maybe, like, the rise of Newt Gingrich. But like, are we really just living the legacy of 2000 right now?
LIASSON: In a lot of ways, we are.
ELVING: Yeah. From Florida, it's a template. Florida is the template. And those who don't have memories of it need to go back and take a look and see what happened, see what the issues were and think about how that would play out in a 2020 context.
SANDERS: Yeah. What is the biggest lesson the American people should take from the 2000 recount as we prepare for election results this year?
LIASSON: Count every vote, and wait until they're counted to declare a winner.
SANDERS: There you go, yeah. I like that.
ELVING: Be diligent. Be diligent about voting, and be patient about finding out who won.
SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. I can't tell you how happy I was to have this chat with you both. It takes me back to my NPR Politics days. And I just love learning from the two of you and absorbing some of that wisdom. And I miss you both very much.
LIASSON: Well, me, too.
ELVING: We miss you, too, Sam. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SANDERS: Thanks again to NPR's Ron Elving and Mara Liasson. You can catch more of them whenever you want on the NPR Politics Podcast.
All right, listeners, don't forget we're back in your feeds this Friday with another episode. And on most Friday episodes, we hear from you. Record the sound of your voice sharing the best thing that happened to you all week. Email that file to email@example.com - firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be on the show. You could be on this show. All right, till Friday, thank y'all for listening. Stay safe. Be good to yourselves. I'm Sam Sanders. We will talk soon.
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