HH: From John Burns of the New York Times to Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner, author of four previous books about George W. Bush, and the brand new best-selling, The Evangelical President: George Bush’s Struggle To Spread A Moral Democracy Throughout The World. Bill, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, always a pleasure.
BS: Well, thanks for having me back, Hugh.
HH: You made a lot of headlines this weekend when Drudge got hold of your, some book excerpts detailing what the President had to say about Hillary and the campaign ahead. Give people a sense of that last conversation you had with him about the next thirteen months in American politics.
BS: Well, he has often said that he will not, he will resist the temptation to play pundit in chief, but I got him to sort of suspend that rule during our interview, and he predicted pretty flatly that Hillary Clinton will beat Barack Obama in the primaries. Now I guess that doesn’t sound like a huge revelation to you or I, or a lot of people have been saying that for a long time. But for the President to say it, it’s sort of news. The other thing…of course, he went on to say that she would be defeated in the general by whoever the Republican nominee is. But the other thing that was really striking that was contained in an article that has actually gotten a little bit overlooked, although there’s some movement on it, is the White House characterizing Barack Obama as lazy.
BS: And you know, it’s interesting, we all heard Fred Thompson get labeled lazy a couple of months ago, and nobody really thought anything of it. But…and I knew this was going to happen. As soon as this story hit, I’m starting to see blogs and some press accounts saying wait a minute, isn’t that racist to call a black man lazy? It’s just like you used to be able to call people, you used to be able to call them articulate. To this day, you can call a white guy articulate, and that’s a compliment. If you call a black guy articulate, you’re somehow being racist, because you’re suggesting that perhaps this person is the exception to the rule, and that all people, all black people are inarticulate. So it’s starting, the lazy comment is starting to attract some attention.
HH: You also disclose in this book that the White House has offered the sort of briefings to the serious candidates usually reserved for about this time next year, Bill Sammon. That makes some news, too.
BS: Yeah, and it’s funny, you’re actually the first to pick up on that. That’s going to be coming out shortly. The President and I talked about this quite a bit, and I talked with Josh Bolton and Karl Rove and some others in the administration about this. Basically, what’s happening is the Bush administration is quietly providing back channel advice to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, et cetera, in the…so that they will be able to carry on his, or at least not abruptly reverse his Iraq policy should a Democrat win the presidency. So he’s sort of on the one hand saying yeah, we’re going to win the White House, but on the other hand, he’s hedging his bets and saying in case a Democrat gets in there, we need to get these people in here and make sure that they maintain enough wiggle room in their anti-war rhetoric so that if they do get in, they can fudge it and say well, we still need some troops there, or we need some troops just outside, depending on which candidate gets in. Hillary has obviously already said she wants to leave some troops inside Iraq. John Edwards, by contrast, has said that he would station a sort of ready reaction force just outside Iraq, not that John Edwards is going to be the next president. But this is the, these are the kinds of conversations that are taking place. And as you point our correctly, that normally would take place next year when we got very close to figuring out who the next president’s going to be. But Bush is already talking to these folks.
HH: Yeah, on Page 204 of the book, “No matter who the president is, no matter what the party, when they sit here in the Oval Office and seriously consider the effect of a vacuum being created in the Middle East, particularly one trying to be created by al Qaeda, then they will begin to understand the need to continue to support the young democracy. The person sitting here will look at the intelligence about potential homeland scenarios and recognize that what happens overseas will matter to his or her ability to protect the country.” That may be the most significant line in the book, Bill Sammon. What he’s saying there is that I know things you don’t know, and can’t know, and we will not tell you, because of the nature of intelligence and of security. But the next president’s going to feel obliged to continue his policy.
BS: First of all, you’re astute as usual by saying that that is perhaps the most significant line in the book. It is. Again, that hasn’t sort of hit the news yet, so you’re way ahead of the pack. Secondly, particularly in addition to those comments from Bush, if you look at Josh Bolton, his chief of staff, he was even more candid with me, and said look, the President wants to not just leave this in a situation where his successor, especially if it’s a Democrat, can continue the Iraq policy, but rather will be obliged to continue the Iraq policy. And Bush gave me a great example of how he is trying to institutionalize his policies, even on some of these controversial anti-terrorism programs like the detainee program, for example, which allows him to keep detainees in Guantanamo Bay indefinitely while they await adjudication. It’s been endlessly criticized, but what Bush told me is look, I wanted to do as much as the heavy lifting while I’m in office, and get this thing institutionalized, get it into law, so that whoever comes in after me, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, doesn’t have to sort of deal with it on a political level. It’s already there, and they can just sort of move on from there. It’s interesting that he’s doing that not just with that program, but with a host of other programs as well.
HH: Now backing up a little bit to the political side, did you get any predictions out of the Vice President with whom you spent quite a lot of time as well?
BS: Well, I did…I didn’t get anything really specific, but it was kind of telling, because he was a lot more cagy than Bush about this business about…I asked specifically to Cheney whether the Republicans would hold the White House, and he said it’s really going to be close. It could go either way. And he talked about this close divide we’re at in the American electorate right now. And you know, he was almost sort of stoic about it, because I said well, aren’t you worried about a Democrat coming in and undoing all of what you obviously view as your hard-earned gains for eight years in terms of the democratization agenda, in terms of liberating 50 million Muslims, et cetera et cetera? And he said you know, Bill, you get two terms.
HH: You get eight years. I love that quote.
BS: Yeah, and then you’ve got to turn it over to the next guy, and you’ve got to sort of leave it in their hands. So I was amazed by the candor from Dick Cheney.
HH: From an unnamed senior White House official comes one of the funniest lines in the book, on Page 208-209, talking about Hillary Clinton and the long campaign. “‘This process is not going to serve her well,’ a senior White House official told me. ‘Think about it. She’s going to be essentially saying elected me president after I’ve spent the last sixteen years in your face, and you don’t like me much when I was here last, give me eight more years so I can be a presence in your life for 24 years, and Bill will be back in. So no, I think that’s not a helpful process for her.'” First question, is that senior White House aide still in the White House?
BS: I’m going to leave that just exactly how I characterized it…
BS: …because I don’t want to narrow it one way or the other. But I was also struck by how funny that was, and also that it had the ring of truth…
HH: Yes, it does.
BS: …because you think about it, familiarity breeds contempt, and we all have shortened attention spans. And when you really start thinking about a quarter of a century of Hillary Clinton in your face, and especially when you consider that her negatives are higher than any of the other candidates by far, we’re talking about 50% unfavorability ratings at this early stage before they’ve really softened her up, that may be the one hope that Republicans have is that no matter who they nominate on the Republican side, and maybe they won’t be that enthusiastic about this nominee, that the hope is that there will be a big gut check moment by the American public, and they will say do we really want to go down this road again in getting not only her, but Bill back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for four or eight more years.
HH: I’m talking with Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner. He’s an analyst on Fox News. You see him all the time. His new book, The Evangelical President: George Bush’s Struggle To Spread A Moral Democracy Throughout The World is linked at Hughhewitt.com, it’s on Amazon.com, bookstores everywhere. Let me ask you, did you get any hints, they’re not in the book at least when I read it, about who Bush and Cheney favor, lean to, wish would be the nominee from among the Republican contenders?
BS: Well, there’s a piece today, and I don’t know if it was in the Washington Post or somewhere, but they’re talking about how Bush was telling some people off the record, which just goes to prove that nothing is off the record in Washington, that he was surprised that Rudy was sort of defying political gravity and had thought that he was going to be drawn down. So I’m getting mixed messages. I heard from somebody last night who told me with certainty that Bush wanted Rudy to win. I got the sense from Bush and from some of the people around him, though they’re non-committal, that they were kind of looking at Romney. In fact, I talked a little bit to Bush about Romney, because one of the themes of the book is religion, and I wondered if Bush had any advice for a guy, from one president who’s taken a lot of grief over his religion to another candidate who’s already taken a lot of grief over his religion. Of course, you know more about that than just about anybody, Hugh, from your excellent book.
HH: But any overt, you know, I think this one measures up best against Hillary?
BS: No, they’re just being, especially the President, is just being…he knows that that will be interpreted as an overt I want this guy, and it’s just unhelpful from his perspective until the Republican Party sorts itself out, figures out a nominee. Then, Bush will throw his weight squarely behind that person, and I think will enthusiastically support whoever that person is, even if they’re not up to snuff on several issues, because if the alternative is Hillary, and it looks like it’s going to be Hillary, everybody’s going to vote for that Republican.
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HH: Bill, this is your fifth book in whole or part about George W. Bush, and I know it can be said everyone quotes Sophocles. You don’t know how good the day has been until the evening comes. There’s one more in this sequence, isn’t there?
BS: I hope so, I hope so. I’ve always planned to do a five volume series of books on this historic presidency, because I’ve always felt that love this guy or hate him, it’s a consequential presidency. I mean, you’ve got to concede much, that big stuff is happening on George Bush’s watch, and more often than not, it’s him initiating that big stuff. So I think it’s not one of these sort of small bore initiative presidencies like the old Clinton with the school uniforms and that kind of thing. I thought let’s get this stuff down on paper in black and white, while the people are still in office, while the memories are fresh, before the memories get fuzzy and everybody scatters to the four winds. And if it’s too much, and I’m sure when you get done twenty years from now, and you look back on these five volumes, if there’s two and a half volumes that’s really good stuff that holds up to the test of time, then I think we’re fine.
HH: Now you’ve done so many one on ones with him, and covered him so closely. Has he, in your estimate, changed over the years?
BS: Well, that’s interesting. You know, one of the things I asked him specifically this time was whether his faith had deepened. And he said it had during his presidency. Of course, he’s been an Evangelical Christian for what, since age 40, and now he’s 61, or whatever it is. And so but yet, he said that the presidency itself has caused his faith to deepen, and I asked him why, and he talked about obviously, the 9/11 thing. But one of the things that sort of surprised me was that he said that the biggest single factor in changing his faith and making it more profound was meeting with the families of fallen soldiers. And he said that you know, he often times prayed with them, and he went…he meets with…not a week goes by that he doesn’t meet with a family of a fallen soldier, even though the press never really points it out. But he goes in there and he says he tries to be the consoler in chief kind of a thing, and he inevitably comes out being consoled by people who lost their son, are trying to buck up the President as saying Mr. President, stay the course, or keep doing what we’re doing. He said however, some of these families have actually said to him that their loss has caused them to question their faith in God. And so, it led to some interesting religious conversations where the President was saying that he would pray that they would be able to maintain their faith, and so on and so forth. And so yeah, I think he has changed, certainly in a religious sense, although on the other hand, he said to me, he’s still seeking redemption, and he talks about there are, and he used the present tense, there are moments in my life when I turn my back on prayer, and turn my back on the idea that there’s something bigger than myself that I have to rely on, and I’m still seeking redemption for that. So it’s a walk. It’s not an accomplishment.
HH: And I understand that. I found that was very fascinating, and have heard him as well talk about the impact of the families on him. But in terms of what he believes, and how he acts, and his personality, obviously, 9/11 changes the world around them, but has Bush changed in these years that you’ve been in and out of the Oval Office watching it?
BS: Well, I’ve asked him specifically, including right after 9/11, whether it had changed him. And I pressed him and pressed him and pressed him on it down at his ranch, and he was very evasive because he said you know, don’t put me on the couch, and he doesn’t like to do this naval gazing, introspective stuff. And he finally sort of said okay, look, I liked coming down to my ranch before 9/11, I like coming down to my ranch after 9/11. And I think…and he went on to say basically, yes, of course he changed by 9/11. Everybody in America was changed in some way by 9/11, but that doesn’t mean he’s not fundamentally the same person. You cannot achieve, and suddenly grow leadership overnight. You either have those qualities to begin with, or you don’t. And I think what happened with 9/11, in addition to him being changed somewhat, was that we saw the characteristics of a George W. Bush that we hadn’t seen before, because circumstances had changed, and we needed somebody to step up and lead this country. And I think in that sense, our perception of him changed, in addition to him changing as well.
HH: Let me ask you about physically. There’s a great section about riding bicycles with the Denmark president here, and the fact that at 60, he’s probably the most physically fit president we’ve had since Washington, because Washington was also this amazingly robust physical president. What about, though, the wear on Bush over the years? Obviously, people can see it in the pictures. What do you think about on him physically?
BS: You know, that’s a good question. I have always been struck by how the office takes its toll physically on a president. You know, Jimmy Carter, I remember he was doing that run, and he looked like he was about to collapse. Others, you know, you look at Bill Clinton and the bags under his eyes. I think Bush, while he has aged, and you certainly can’t spend seven years in that pressure cooker and not age, I think Bush is still remarkably fit. I do believe, as you do, that he is one of the most fit presidents ever, and if you look at the guy at 61 years old, I mean, I’m telling you, Hugh, I took a hike with him on his ranch down in Crawford, like a three hour hike, and I’m 6’7″, so you know how big I am, people are always telling me I walk too fast, I could barely keep up with this guy. He’s very high energy, and it’s a character trait of him, a character trait, it’s discipline. Not only is he disciplined in his policy, in the execution of those policies, where he doesn’t waver, no matter what the political cost, he’s disciplined in his physical regimen as well. He leaves literally, I’ve heard stories of Secret Service guys, before he switched to biking from running, would drop in the Texas heat during these 100 degree plus runs with these 20 or 30 year old Secret Service agents, and Bush would literally leave them in the dust.
HH: Now what about the Vice President with all of his heart attacks, all of his recoveries. You’ve also had access to the Vice President all these years. Any changes, both ideological or physical in him that you see?
BS: Well first of all, physically, I had to chuckle a little bit, because I’m sitting in his West Wing office, and he’s kicking back, and he’s telling me these stories about the hunting accident and all this other stuff that I talked to him about for this book, and all of a sudden, he stands up behind his desk, doesn’t break his sentence, you know, he just keeps talking, and he leans down and he starts like massaging his thigh. It was sort of a, kind of a semi-grimace on his face, and I said Mr. Vice President, are you okay? And he said oh, yeah. I got this…and I said is it that deep vein thrombosis? Because like the week before, he had gone to the hospital for that deep vein thrombosis in his leg, and he goes yeah, yeah, he just kind of waives me off, and he keep talking about it. But he had to stand there for three or four minutes, and it was kind of awkward while we continued the interview, and he eventually sat down. So yeah, the guys’ still, he’s got a lot more physical problems obviously than President Bush.
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HH: Bill, is the President still calling you Super Stretch?
BS: Yes, he is. In fact, that or Big Stretch. He called me Big Stretch the other day at that press conference, and I got the last question, I asked him about the MoveOn ad. By the way, I got pummeled by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, and that great paragon of objectivity in journalism, Keith Olbermann for allegedly asking a softball question. I’ll tell you, every single presidential candidate on both sides of the aisle, and every major lawmaker leader up on Capitol Hill was asked at some point, most times repeatedly, in most cases, what’s your reaction to the MoveOn ad. Now no one ever asked President Bush that, and I thought it was perfectly legitimate to ask him that question. And of course, he launched when I asked him. And so instead of sort of dealing with his answer, the typical liberal reaction is to shoot the messenger.
HH: You know, I just had John Burns of the New York Times on, Bill, in the hour before you, inveighing against those people who would question General Petraeus’ credibility. And real journalists don’t have trouble getting around facts. Keith is not a real journalist. He is an idiot. But that’s why I think your new nickname might be Black Eye Bill, because you gave a couple to Bill Maher and David Gregory and Bill Keller in this book. I’m not sure you’re going to be invited back to the press club after they read The Evangelical President.
BS: Well, you know, Bill Maher, I’ll tell you, I had the misfortune of going on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, and I’d never seen the show. In fact, we, my wife had to order HBO the day that I went out to L.A. to do the show, because we didn’t have HBO. And it was Fellini-esque. I mean, I was on a panel with Ben Affleck, Joe Biden and Bill Maher, and we’re talking about religion, and Affleck is talking about well, Bush could be shot for treason, I mean, just nutty stuff is coming out of their mouths, and I literally, Hugh, I looked down the panel at one point, and I had the conscious thought I’m not on Brit Hume’s all-star panel anymore.
BS: I’ve stepped through the looking glass, and it’s just…the world is upside down. I mean, it was nuts, so I figured I might as well make some fodder out of that, and I use it as my prologue.
HH: I do like the way that you handled his questions, but I like to argue that there’s a difference between rotten and wrong, and that Maher is both of them, and that a lot of lefties are not. Some of them are just wrong. But it occurs to me, I’m ambivalent about David Gregory after reading this, because he’s such a child. Is he a friend of yours?
BS: No, but he certainly is sort of given special treatment, and he’s certainly given extra coverage in my chapter on the shooting accident, for example, because he led the pack.
HH: Well, he’s such a…but it was such a whiny, childish thing, and they were so unaware of how they…that comes through in your chapter. It came as a surprise to them that most of America watched this and thought them bullying and silly and self-absorbed, and in the end, irresponsible.
BS: I put it in there, and not that we don’t all know about the hunting accident, but I wanted to put it in perspective for posterity’s sake, get all the transcripts in there, and get all the best one-liners back and forth, and remind people that in the end, when this was over, when this excessive feeding frenzy, this unseemly spectacle was over, that David Gregory and all the rest of the mainstream media admitted, admitted publicly that they had gone over the top, that they had gone crazy on Cheney. David Gregory basically apologized on Meet The Press, all these guys, Bill Plante and Dana Milbank and all these guys went over on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources, and all said yeah, we ended up looking bad. We ended up looking worse than the Vice President. And polls showed that as well. The polls showed that most Americans thought it was just one of those dumb, crazy, weird things that happens, that was an accident. And they also showed that most Americans thought that the press went way overboard in covering it, and I put that in there as sort of a textbook case of the liberal media going nuts on a Republican administration.
HH: There’s some other textbook cases that I appreciate being here, Bill. Quoting Bill Keller, the editor of the New York Times, as calling Bush’s faith sort of a red state version of psychotherapy, your wonderful coverage of Sandy Berger, which overwhelmingly ignored by the mainstream media, and his pilfering, his rummaging through national security secrets, and his looting of them not well told anywhere else, and of course, Rick Moran with Dick Cheney just not getting it, representing the American media at its worst, just not getting it.
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HH: Bill, I don’t know if you intentionally did this, but your continuing contrast between the cluelessness of MSM figures like the New York Times’ Bill Keller not understanding what faith is all about, or ABC News’ Rick Moran talking with Cheney and just not getting it, compared to, say, Cheney’s matter of factly pointing out to you they get an intelligence briefing six days a week, and they understand the world as it is. It’s devastating for these MSMers who come, who have walk-on roles here. They just emerge as clueless.
BS: They do, and they look really like buffoons when you talk about Bill Keller, who had such…I mean, the condescension with such that he was basically a caricature of the elite liberal intelligentsia where he was talking about, as you said, Bush’s evangelical conversion to religion was sort of the red state version of psychotherapy, and talked about, he just talked about it in the most contemptuous terms. And I also threw in the old line from the Washington Post, and I’ll probably get it wrong, but he talked about Evangelical Christians are uneducated something and easy to lead. I forget the whole trifecta on that. But I mean, this is how the media looks at people who are religious. I mean, it is just, you can’t hide it. And so sometimes, the mask slips a bit, and they’re not subtle about their derision, and you really see them for what they are.
HH: Let me ask you a little bit about the seriousness of the stakes, though. When you’re talking with Cheney on Air Force Two, he points out he’s just been to the first freely elected parliament swearing in, in the history of Afghanistan’s 5,000. It goes unreported. And yet, they don’t seem to get angry with the media, either Bush or Cheney in their conversations with you, but to accept matter of factly that they’re dealing with people of limited intelligence, experience and insight.
BS: I’ll tell you, what…a lot of times, I’ll talk to Republican, very high level Republican politicians, including some of the presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, for example, and the really successful ones say you know what? Yeah, the media’s against us, yeah, the media’s hopelessly biased and clueless. But if you’re a Republican, you sort of bake that into the cake of your expectations, and you proceed accordingly. You just have to be that much better. You’re not going to get like the press going in the tank for you like they’re going in the tank for the Clintons. So you just have to be more careful, you have to make sure you don’t make any gaffes, you have to not give them an inch to run with. And Bush and Cheney are the same way. I mean, they have largely written off, and they did this a long time ago, they knew they were never ever going to get a fair shake from the press. And to some extent, they have marginalized the mainstream media. I think when we get some distance from this presidency, we will look back on it and be able to analyze the fact that they just said you know what? Yeah, you’re going to probably beat our brains in every day, but we’re just not going to play with you. And therefore, we’re going to diminish you to some extent. And I think they have diminished the press, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen the blogs and everything else, the alternative press or whatever you want to call it, become so dramatically larger and more influential during Bush’s time in office. It’s not a coincidence. I mean, part of it is, but there is a correlation between the time when Bush took office, ending the Clinton era of leaks, and all of this press nonsense, to now where you have this discipline, where they don’t leak, where they don’t feed the Washington Post to sort of get different factions in the White House, get their point of view out there. And so they’ve stiff-armed the press. They still get beat up by the press, but I think they’ve taken a few of their teeth out of the media.
HH: I think that is hugely important, and very, very accurate. And I think part of that has been the media’s own doing, Bill, as you chronicle in this book, is that they’ve so often gone a bridge too far, or three or four or five, and that watching Tony Snow let Helen Thomas go on and on, or watching David Gregory just melt down in public so often has led inescapably to the conclusion that these guys really don’t know a lot, that they’re just not that bright. Now I don’t expect you to characterize them that way, you have to work with them every day. But it’s inescapable from reading this that they’re just not very smart.
BS: Well, you know what it is, and that’s an interesting question, because they are smart in a sort of a textbook kind of a way, you know, school smarts and that kind of thing.
HH: I beg to differ, but go ahead.
BS: But they have…I mean, they’re educated, is I guess what I’m saying, but they don’t have a lot of common sense.
HH: Bill, I’ll bet you if I could ever get one of these…they just don’t know anything. I don’t think they read anything. I’ll bet you not one of them has read The Looming Tower or Tim Weiner’s new book, Legacy of Ashes, or the kind…the White House Press Corps strikes me as generally, and I’m excepting you from this, and there are a couple of others, but generally speaking, selected for their telegenic capabilities and not for any ability that they bring to analysis.
BS: Well, you know, and while you and I are reading books like the ones you just cited, you’ll sit there…I’ll go on Air Force One or on the trips with the President, or on the press charter, and you’ll see David Gregory kicked back, and he’s got the big…he makes a big show of he’s got the latest Bob Woodward book, big 500 pound tome, he’s making a show of reading it. And they all do it, and they’ve got the New Yorker out, which I just can’t stand, and they think that when they come up with a story idea, or when they frame a story and present a story, that they are sort of representing, you know, middle America, because their sensibilities much reflect middle America. And that’s where the disconnect comes in, because their sensibilities are completely at odds with Main Street America, and that’s why so often you see these crazy stories that come out that just don’t make any sense. I’ll tell you, I have kids in Ohio going to school there, and of course, I spent 35 years in Ohio. That’s where I’m from. And you know, I’ve never described myself as an intellectual, but I do have a modicum of common sense, and it’s amazing how far that goes in a place like Washington, because there’s such a dearth of it, especially in places like the White House Press Corps.
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HH: I want to conclude, Bill Sammon, by saying my compliments to you. My very favorite essayist, the man I think most accomplished with the English written word these days is Joseph Epstein. He’s also incredibly perceptive in his analysis of presidencies. And you quote him extensively, summing up that George Bush isn’t so much a politician as a believer, a believer in great big things and great big truths. And like any other great president, only believers get to be great presidents. It was a good selection on your part, and I’m surprised that you’re an Epstein fan.
BS: Well, I just was blown away when I read the essay, and you’re right. Of all the things I quote in the book, I probably went on quite a bit on that one, just because there was so much good stuff in there. I mean, he not only applies that analysis to the current president, but to the last dozen or so presidents, and he says things like President Bush’s father was not a believer. He was a guy who had the perfect resume who just had one blank spot on the resume, and that was sort of to be president so he could have the windbreaker and go golfing in Golf Cart One, and that kind of thing, and that didn’t really particularly believe in anything. He said some guys are believers, some presidents are believers, and then there are presidents who are managers or guys who just wanted the job, or sort of caretakers, that kind of thing. And you know, the interesting thing about that analysis is that not all believer presidents were good, and not all non-believer presidents were bad. And he goes through them, and I won’t go through them all here. But certainly, in President George W. Bush’s case, he is clearly a guy who has sort of a political religion. He believed in democratization of the Middle East.