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E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out – Part 7

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HH: As promised, this is the conclusion of my many weeks long series of conversations with Washington Post columnist and author, E.J. Dionne, Jr. His brand new book, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith And Politics After The Religious Right, at bookstores everywhere, at I’ve linked it again at All of our previous conversations have been transcribed, the audio is up. E.J., welcome back, it’s good to have you. At the conclusion, as we start the concluding hour here, we’ve been taking whacks at this tree, sawing it down for many weeks now. I just wanted to start by saying as you come to this, is there anything you haven’t had a chance yet to say in full? I want to make sure you get the full opportunity to say look, we’ve really been dancing around my central point.

EJD: No, I think we’ve gotten to the central point. I think that you know, one of the sections of the book that I sort of enjoyed thinking about the most was at the end of the book, where I offered what is in a way a paradoxical argument, that religion’s purpose is to promote doubt. Now I obviously am talking about a certain kind of doubt, the doubt, as my friend, Doug Austin says, that questions our own motivations and pretensions to special virtue. And one of the reasons I like Reinhold Niebuhr so much, and there are lots of kinds of people, liberal, conservative, moderate, who like Reinhold Neibuhr, is that he reminds us of the necessity to be very careful, especially in politics, not to think that our own intentions or our own perception of our own virtue are enough to get us through, that even people with very good intentions have a tendency toward seeking power. It’s the original sin concept. If I can just do one quick thing, which is read what I think is one of the greatest statements about religion and politics in our history…

HH: Sure.

EJD: …and that’s from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. And here is Lincoln, who I think would have a fair claim if he had wanted to make it, that he was on God’s side in our Civil War. He had, he was trying to end slavery, even though that wasn’t the original purpose of the Civil War. Here is what he said instead of claiming that he was on God’s side. He said both sides read the same Bible, and pray to the same God. And each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered, that of neither has been answered fully. And I think that is the kind of humility that doesn’t mean you don’t take strong stands, it doesn’t mean you don’t act out of conviction, but you act in an awareness of, if you will, your own sinfulness.

HH: Now E.J., that’s…I’m glad you brought that up. It’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, misusing Lincoln. I spent a lot of time reading Lincoln as well, and I noted that in the second inaugural, he also makes the vow, that if he has to continue this war until every ounce of blood taken in slavery’s toll is repaid from modern man, he will. In other words, he doesn’t doubt at all the righteousness of his cause, or the necessity of pursuing it even at the cost of great carnage. And so while you point out that there’s some doubt as to theology here, he acts with a complete certainty with regards to the cause that he is pursuing, and the idea that justice is on his side. And to a certain extent, I walked away from the last chapter of Souled Out saying you know, let’s not devalue Lincoln’s commitment to what he understood to be true, because clearly, it cost 600,000 American lives to pursue what he thought was true.

EJD: No, I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t think my assertion is that Lincoln had doubts about the course he took. But he first of all did not claim divine sanction for what he did. I quote Congressman David Price, very, very interesting on these subjects. He’s a theologically-educated member of Congress, and he said, and I quote Price, Lincoln expresses the moral commitment against slavery in uncompromising terms, along with the determination to finish the work we are in, your point. But there follows the religious reservation, the recognition that ultimate judgment belongs to God alone, the refusal even in this extreme instance, to presume an absolute identification between his own cause and God’s will. And I think that was the point that I thought was important there. Of course Lincoln believed in that cause. He wouldn’t have done what he did if he hadn’t.

HH: That’s because…and that’s what I was driving at, is that that language that he used was as to theological debates. But as to political action, he was completely convinced once he became convinced of the moral nature of his action. He was not for compromising. He was…obviously, the abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, until it became politically viable. But he never, ever, from the Cooper’s Union speech forward, was other than decidedly absolute in his condemnation of slavery. And therefore, I come back and suggest, when you argue for the theology of doubt, you may be empowering people to walk away from the absolute necessity of making important moral judgments. You can’t afford doubt on first principles, can you?

EJD: No, you cannot afford arrogance. In other words, what I…I couldn’t agree more that you can’t act in politics entirely out of fear, and you can’t act in politics by sort of refusing to act. You have to take bold action at many moments. But you shouldn’t take bold action in an arrogant way. You shouldn’t take bold action with absolute certainty that you’re doing God’s will, and you need to question your own purposes, your own motivations, and also how you are going about doing what you’re doing. I think that’s the power of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a very strong anti-communist, anti-totalitarian. He broke with his Christian pacifist friends in the 1940’s, because he felt it was important and right for us to fight Hitler. And he was right about that. But he did not pretend that in acting as we did, being on the right side of history, the United States was a perfect nation. He didn’t pretend that we didn’t have our own interests to defend, and he urged us always, when we are acting in the world, to make sure that we kept straight what we were doing for right and moral reasons, and what we were doing that was in our own interest, and that you know, you don’t want to confuse those two motivations.

HH: I couldn’t agree more, but I do think you give people a trap door out of the necessity of deciding what is and is not good, and what is and is not evil, by saying don’t worry, if you want to excuse yourself from making these kinds of choices, you can always just wrap the comfortable theology of doubt around your shoulders, and leave the stage, because…

EJD: But you know, what, if that were the argument of the book, there would have been very little point of writing that book. If that’s what I actually believed, I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to persuade you and other people of a certain point of view. Even if I will probably not get too far with you, I might get there with other people. So I couldn’t agree more. You’ve got to have conviction, but you have to have this, I think, this sense of doubt that preserves you from arrogance. And arrogance is something that I think is one of the most dangerous sins.

HH: I agree about that, but it doesn’t still…you know, I always want to have someone whispering over my shoulder, you could be very wrong.

EJD: Right.

HH: …and have been very wrong. That’s very important. But on the day to day choices in front of us, you can’t say I can’t possibly be right, therefore I will not choose. Do we agree on that?

EJD: Well, yeah, of course we do. We wouldn’t both have strong views as we do if we didn’t agree on that.

HH: Because I put down this chapter, and do you remember the opening paragraph to the joint opinion in Casey, where Justice O’Connor and Justice Kennedy and Justice Souter write that liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt. And it seems to me that E.J. Dionne, at the end, is arguing for not…a jurisprudence of certainty and a theology of doubt, whereas Hugh Hewitt’s going to probably argue for a theology of doubt, excuse me, a jurisprudence of doubt and a theology of certainty. I want to know for sure that what I believe in is really what I believe in, but I don’t want courts to dictate what I have to believe in.

EJD: You know, again, the last line of the book is we must realize that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness, and that hope is the virtue on which faith and love depend. And you know, my views about self-righteousness, interestingly, were formed by an essay written by somebody we’ve cited before, and somebody we both like in different ways, Mike Novak, and that self-righteousness blinds you to seeing what you’re doing sometimes. It blinds you to the truth that your adversary might be telling you. And I think it’s very different to be against self-righteousness. That’s different from opposing or of not being willing to take righteous action.

HH: Well, self-righteousness…was Lincoln self-righteous?

EJD: No.

HH: No, but he was never not acting with certainty.

EJD: Right. He was not self-righteous. He was righteous. And I think it’s very important for us always to keep those two in mind. And incidentally, I don’t pretend that self-righteousness is a peculiar sin of conservatives. I think liberals are quite capable of it, too.

HH: Sure, but I’m trying to get an actual sort of how do you live with this approach that E.J. Dionne wants. If you see absolute evil, and we’ll come back to abortion after the break, E.J., because it does seem to me that throughout your book, abortion’s at the center of it, isn’t it?

EJD: I think not, but you can read it that way if you want.

HH: Well, I view it as the expression of a committed…

EJD: I don’t want to be self-righteous about that, Hugh.

HH: …a committed, convicted Catholic, trying as hard as you can, to get away from the recognition you can’t be a Democrat if you’re going to take seriously the Church’s teachings on abortion.

EJD: I’d love to take you up on that.

– – – –

HH: Welcome back, America. To the tune of We Just Disagree by Dave Mason, it’s Hugh Hewitt with E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

EJD: (laughing)

HH: You’re chuckling, E.J. He’s after your time. You were long gone by…

EJD: No, I liked Dave Mason, actually.

HH: Oh, no kidding.

EJD: I in fact once owned that very odd Dave Mason album that was not printed on black, do you remember?

HH: No.

EJD: It was printed on this odd, I’m trying to remember, it looked almost like a paisley record.

HH: I’ll have to go back and look.

EJD: It was his very first record, so yes, I was a Dave Mason fan.

HH: Well, there we go. We just disagree, E.J. It’s so interesting to me that you concluded on Lincoln, because it seems to me that Lincoln’s lifelong conversation with the American people about slavery, and the Supreme Court’s resistance of that as expressed in Dred Scott, has its perfect parallel today with religious right’s, as you call them, lifelong or long term conversation with the American public about abortion, and Roe V. Wade is the Dred Scott of the day. And you just don’t want to go there. I think every fiber of your liberalness says oh, let me talk about anything but abortion, because I really don’t want to talk about abortion. So your response?

EJD: Well, first of all, on Lincoln, it’s very important to look at how Lincoln proceeded on, even the issue of slavery, where his initial stance, and the Cooper Union speech itself, is about the spread of slavery. And he comes down to the idea that slavery should and will be gradually abolished. But there were many Republicans, and certainly a lot of abolitionists at the time who believed that Lincoln himself didn’t go far enough. So there was a kind of prudential quality to Lincoln’s politics, even on an issue like slavery, which we sort of look back on and say why in the world was Lincoln a gradualist on that? And the Cooper Union speech is just a fascinating…I share your fascination with that. There was a great book on it written some years ago by Harold Holzer that really talks about this as the most important speech of Lincoln’s lifetime. But just to go to abortion, I recently had the good fortune of running across a piece in a magazine which you might read, but does not run across my desk often. It’s called The Tomist, and it’s a magazine devoted to the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas.

HH: Can’t say it’s on my desk, either, but go ahead.

EJD: Yes, there is a professor who is herself a strong pro-life called Kathleen Caveny, who argues that in Tomistic terms, we should be using the law to instruct on abortion, and to try to eliminate abortion. But she also argues that if you go to Aquinas, he very much believed that there were limits to law’s capacity to end sin, and that if you pass laws in a situation where there was not moral consensus, you’re going to actually set back your own cause, and not use the law in the way you would like to push in a certain moral direction. Her argument, and it’s much more complicated than I’m making it, so I hope I am not doing her a disservice, is that there is so little law consensus over abortion, when life begins, in the first trimester of pregnancy, that she thinks it would be impossible and wrong in Tomistic terms to outlaw abortion in the first trimester. And she’d do all kinds of things after that. There are all kinds of things you can do with the law to show that the law leans strongly, pushes strongly, on the side of life. I think that is a reasonable position for a Catholic, which she very much is. And as I say, she is a right to lifer. Ideally, she would like there to be not a single abortion in the United States or the world. But I think that’s a plausible view of law, and I think it’s very much rooted, you can’t get more Catholic than rooting something in Tomas thought.

HH: Oh, yes you can. You can get much more Catholic by agreeing to be led by the Magisterium, and the authority of the Church.

EJD: Well, but the authority of the Church is to say that the Church is right about the life issue, which I believe it is. And then the question of how do we embody that in the laws of our country is a political and a prudential decision. And I think it will be very…first of all, as a practical matter, the reason I push hard in the book for an approach that would try radically to reduce the number of abortions in the country. There are a group of right to lifers in Congress who introduced the 95/10 initiative, to try to cut the abortion rate 95% in ten years. I think that is going to be much more effective than trying to ban it, because I don’t think you will get a legal ban on abortion any time in the foreseeable future, particularly in the first trimester, even if Roe V. Wade falls.

HH: Now here’s the difference between Lincoln and E.J. Dionne.

EJD: There are a lot of differences between Lincoln and me. I’m humble about that one, I’ll tell you.

HH: …(laughing) is that Lincoln was prudential in the way you’ve just framed a prudential approach towards abortion reduction, as he was prudential about the extinction of slavery on its ultimate course to extinction. But he was never other than absolutely candid and concise in arguing that slavery was a moral sin, that it was abhorrent. Despite the magazine article you referenced, the Church is not other than certain in that life begins at conception, as…

EJD: No, and this article makes that point. I mean, this article does not in any way break with the Church’s teaching. The issue about abortion in politics is about what should the law do? And again, we’re not arguing about Roe. I think Roe was a mistake. I think we’re arguing about what should abortion law in the United States be, and I think that 35 years after Roe, if one really wants to save fetal life, it one wants to push in the direction, in a right to life direction, I really believe that my approach is more promising than to bark up the same tree over and over again, and say we will abolish this some day by law, because the other point, and you know this, is we talk a lot about how many millions of abortions have been performed since Roe. We don’t talk about how many abortions were performed when abortion was illegal. And the fact is that making abortion illegal would in no way eliminate abortion.

HH: Now again, that’s all very interesting. I don’t think you can begin to…

EJD: But it’s true.

HH: I don’t think you should…

EJD: Is it true or not?

HH: It’s not the question you should ask until you are clear about the most important question, is whether or not life begins at conception, and has full human dignity at conception. The Church says yes. Do you agree, E.J.?

EJD: Yes, I have three children. I mean, anybody, I think that people’s views on this, even if they remain pro-choice, cannot but be transformed if you have had the joy of having kids. And from the moment that you know that, if you’re a man, you’re wife is pregnant, or if you’re a woman, that you are pregnant, there’s a kind of magic there. And you’re very aware of it. I think I said in the course of these shows that the best right to life argument I have every run across is a totally intuitive one. It’s not an airtight one. It’s how does someone refer to a fetus when they want the baby? They immediately say I’m carrying a baby. And I think that speaks to a moral intuition people have. Now we can then move to the philosophical, and obviously…

HH: The prudential conversation.

EJD: …philosophers smarter than I have argued about when life begins. But I think that’s a moral intuition that even pro-choice people have.

HH: And so once we agree that life begins at conception, and we also acknowledge that the Church and most other Evangelical groups believe that, it becomes a prudential conversation about how as to save as many lives as possible, which we’ll come back to right after the break.

– – – –

HH: E.J., are you looking forward to the arrival of Benedict in the United States?

EJD: I am. I am very much.

HH: And he’s going to say again that life begins at conception, and the family must be preserved.

EJD: Let me just tell you, let me just interrupt here for a moment if I could.

HH: Please.

EJD: …which is to say one of the problems with the conversation we have been having in the last what, ten, fifteen minutes, it does go to a very important point in my book, which is I really believe that if we reduce the Gospel’s impact on politics to this single question of abortion, and that’s where this conversation has gone, I think we are missing so many of the insights that the Gospel has to offer on a whole series of questions. And again, just in keeping with the idea of humility, you and I could argue about where those insights lead in terms of particular programs. But I think that the Gospel offers, and the Old Testament offer, insights on a much broader range of questions, and that my conservative friends often want to limit the discussion of religion and politics to a couple of issues, including abortion and gay marriage, and the whole thrust of my book is not to evade the issue of abortion, but to put it in the context of this larger discussion. It’s one of the reasons I admire someone like Cardinal Bernardin back in the 80’s, because I think he was a very strong right to lifer who also had a great concern with social justice, with the poor, with the death penalty, and with war and peace. And honestly, I believe that the most convincing and persuasive right to lifers that I know are people who put this in the larger context, who care about the life, not only in the womb, but after birth.

HH: And you know, E.J., my biggest argument with your book is on Page 197, because I think it’s a straw man that you just sort of limbed out there, when you said, “Jesus commanded us to lift up the poor. We’ve got to suggest that family break up is not the fault of gays. We’ve got to always…,” you know, the agenda. And my experience for the last twenty years after leaving Washington, D.C., is that Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, day in and day out, do exactly that. They journey to Mexico and build houses. They go to Africa and they dig wells. They give generously, a great, great, greatly greater proportions than their non-believing or their liberal friends. They go into the inner city, and they serve at soup kitchens. They collect clothes, they run fundraising drives, that in fact the straw man at the heart of your argument is that the Evangelical religious right doesn’t do this, when in fact they do it, and they do it more than any other element in the United States, and not just more of it, vastly more of it, as private individuals. They might resist progressive taxation rates at 70%, but they are individually and deeply involved in the remediation of suffering in the world in a way that I don’t think you recognize or fairly understand when you dismiss their politics, because it’s inconvenient for your argument, that they are more generous…

EJD: I am very, very explicit in the book, and I wish I could find the page now. I think we have even talked abot this, it may even be on our transcripts, that indeed, Evangelical Christian conservatives and conservative Catholics are extremely generous in their personal giving in much of their personal behavior. I absolutely make that point. And I made it partly because I hate it when liberals do the thing you’re accusing me of doing, which I very much don’t do. And I argue in the book that there is a kind of unexplored schism among Christians in their attitude toward government. And that’s where the argument is. But I won’t pretend…the last thing I want to assert is that all these folks who do all these things in their own personal lives are anything but generous. I believe they are, and indeed, the reason why I think there’s a shot at the sort of politics I’m talking about is their very instinct toward generosity, because where do liberals come from? A lot of people, if you look at the progressive era, a lot of the people who became progressives were people who went into poor neighborhoods for Christian religious reasons, trying to lift up the poor individually, and say wait a minute, this is good work, but there are structural issues here we have to deal with. The two are not incompatible.

HH: But let me go to Page 197. I’ll read it slowly so people can understand.

EJD: (laughing) So I can understand it.

HH: “It was right,” you write this, “It was right to remind,” you’re talking about the Christian right, “the Christian right was right to remind us of the importance of family life, but was wrong to suggest that family breakdown was the fault of gays and not the primary responsibility of married heterosexuals. It was right to tell us that intact families promoted social justice, but wrong to forget that social justice and a degree of economic security are necessary for healthy family lives. It was right for Christian conservatives to worry about the dysfunction of popular culture, but wrong to ignore the extent to which this culture is rooted in the very materialism that many of their political allies celebrate.” First of all, we never, ever, ever, I can’t find a single, single person that said materialism is good. I can’t find anyone that doesn’t believe that economic security is necessary for a healthy family life, and I don’t believe there’s ever been a high profile Evangelical leader who said that the family breakdown was the result of gays. But I’ll let you come up with some footnotes when we come back.

– – – –

HH: “The Christian right had reason to rebel against marginalization of religion’s public role, but it was wrong to identify faith with an agenda so narrow that Jesus’ commands to lift up the poor were lost in polemics against permissiveness in the liberals.” E.J, that’s, I guess, the line I really dislike in…I love a lot about the book. I think it’s so well written and elegantly argued at some points. But I do think that that line and others that I quoted in the last segment are just unfair to people of the religious right, whether Catholic or Protestant.

EJD: You know, it’s funny, just before the break, you said that no one argues that the breakdown of the family is the result of homosexuality. I just happened to Google on this, and found an article by Chuck Colson, who, by the way, is someone who’s done excellent work with folks in prison. But the subhead on the piece is “Legalizing gay marriage will lead to more family breakdown and crime.” Now putting aside whether he’s right or wrong, I do think that there are many people on the right who have preferred to talk about gays and lesbians, than to talk about our own responsibility as heterosexuals. In the course of the book, I cite a study that David Bose over at the Cato Institute did, where many conservative think tanks had much more material on gays and lesbians than they did on divorce. So that’s my only point. I’m not…

HH: You Crimson guys are really good. You’re really good. But I’ve got to point out a couple of things. One, you used a headline and not an actual article, number two, he didn’t argue that it came from gays, he argued that it came from homosexual marriage, and number three, he didn’t argue that that which has gone before has come from it, he said more family breakdown. Now I don’t have it in front of me, I just heard that. But that was like a triple play of obfuscation, E.J. That was really good.

EJD: Well, that was the first thing I could find in the break.

HH: (laughing)

EJD: I did family breakdown/gay marriage. I can tell you my Google search has produced lots of items. I just picked the first one, so I don’t think…I think I could provide ample support for that sentence.

HH: I don’t think you can. I honestly believe, if you go and look and see, if you Google family breakdown and leave gays out of it, if you put Christians and family breakdown, you’re going to find not going to Church enough, not spending enough time with your wife, not paying attention to your kids, working too hard, drinking too much, running after skirts.

EJD: I’m sure you’ll find all of that, too.

HH: You’re not going to find gays. You’re going to find a lot of people saying homosexual acts are sinful, but you’re going to find a lot, I mean a great deal, of wonderful, caring people who have gays and lesbians in their own family, who don’t give a, who would never make that argument, ever. I mean, homosexual marriage is different. That’s very different from what you said, condemnation of gays. That’s where I get uneasy with your book, E.J. You’re in a hurry to put us in a box that says we believe A, B, and C.

EJD: No, but you know what? I really think that that very section you read, if read in a slightly different tone of voice, although I’ll use some of those statements against you in a Republican primary as if you agreed with them, you could get killed on a negative ad by reading me on the air. But you know, I think some of those statements actually give the religious right a lot more credit than you would expect somebody like me to do. And for example, to say that they were right to remind us of the importance of family life, and that intact families promote social justice, I believe that. And you know, people on the religious right believe that. I think there is so much focus on sort of moral issues alone, that we don’t look at the morality of economic circumstances. You and I would probably differ in our view of what government roles should be about family leave policy. We would probably disagree on a greater degree of progressive taxation, particularly on behalf of people raising kids. I think better family leave policies and making sure that people who work have a better break for raising kids would be actually pro-family policies.

HH: Let me go to Page 202. “Millions of committed Christians,” you write, “who may well have responded to the appeals of a political movement at a particular moment, are rethinking not so much their politics as the public implications of their faith. They are growing impatient with narrow agendas as they reach out to the poor in Africa, and in their own communities.” Now that seems to imply they haven’t been reaching out to the poor in Africa, or in their own communities, until very recently. I guess that’s what…you know, E.J…

EJD: Well, if you read that sentence alone, that certainly implies that. But in the context of what else I’ve said in the book, I think it’s quite clear that that’s not what I’m saying. I mean, one of the reasons Rick Warren is such an interesting figure, and I don’t claim him, by the way, as a liberal. I know he’s not a liberal. But I think that Rick Warren is a very interesting figure, because this is someone whose approach to politics has altered over time, the more work he’s done among the poor. And he’s got a whole mission to Africa on AIDS, and that’s been a very important part of his mission work.

HH: I know, and he’s a great guy. He’s a friend of mine. I was his lawyer, in fact, in building Saddleback Valley Community Church.

EJD: That’s impressive.

HH: But the key is eighteen years ago, he started Saddleback. For 180 years before that, there was a Christian Church at work, and for the 25 years coincident with the rise of the religious right, they were working in Africa. World Vision was all over the world. I tend to think that because for a period…

EJD: No, no, but I’m using Rick Warren in a particular way. I’m only making the point that as Christian who, conservative Christians who do care about the poor, do this work in the world. Many of them are moved to a somewhat different view of politics as a result of the work they are doing out of the love of their hearts.

HH: And my point is a lot of people who came into politics had already been doing that very work out of the love of their heart, and saw that the extension of that Christian love was to do advocacy for the unborn, to do advocacy for the lost and the least, to prevent stem cell research on embryos that are in fact completely suffuse with the dignity of the human spirit, and that you can read it the other way, that their political activism grew out of their understanding of the Gospel, not was an abandonment. And that seems to be the point of view, E.J., to which you’re almost entirely closed.

EJD: No, I’m not. I’m definitely not closed to that. Indeed, in that same section, one of the reasons I’m fascinated by my friend Mike Sandel, the philosopher’s work on issues related to the new technologies in genetics, is that I do believe we need to draw moral lines, and that liberals should be for drawing those moral lines no less than conservatives should be, and that it’s not anti-science to believe that those lines need to be drawn. And I make that argument very, very explicitly. I’d like to ask you a question…

HH: Sure.

EJD: …in terms of stem cell research, which is it seems to me to be morally consistent, if you oppose stem cell research on frozen embryos that have been, excess embryos created from in vitro fertilization, you actually have to be in favor of banning in vitro fertilization. Where is the logical flaw in my thinking there?

HH: You must not know about snowflake babies. I’ll come back from the break. Babies ome from embryos, and they can for a long period of time.

– – – –

HH: E.J. Dionne, it’s been great having you here. I’m going to jam a lot into our final three minutes.

EJD: (laughing)


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