The Speechwriter – The Atlantic


One summer morning, seven months after he had turned 80, my husband, Dick Goodwin, came down the stairs, clumps of shaving cream on his earlobes, singing, “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye,” from the musical Oklahoma!

“Why so chipper?” I asked.

“I had a flash,” he said, looking over the headlines of the three newspapers I had laid out for him on the breakfast table in our home in Concord, Massachusetts. Putting them aside, he started writing down numbers. “Three times eight is 24. Three times 80 is 240.”

“Is that your revelation?” I asked.

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“Look, my 80-year life span occupies more than a third of our republic’s history. That means that our democracy is merely three ‘Goodwins’ long.”

I tried to suppress a smile.

“Doris, one Goodwin ago, when I was born, we were in the midst of the Great Depression. Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, 1941, my 10th birthday. It ruined my whole party! If we go back two Goodwins, we find our Concord Village roiled in furor over the Fugitive Slave Act. A third Goodwin will bring us back to the point that, if we went out our front door, took a left, and walked down the road, we might just see those embattled farmers and witness the commencement of the Revolutionary War.”

He glanced at the newspapers and went to his study, on the far side of the house. An hour later, he was back to read aloud a paragraph he had just written:

Three spans of one long life traverse the whole of our short national history. One certain thing that a look backward at the vicissitudes of our country’s story suggests is that massive and sweeping change will come. And it can come swiftly. Whether or not it is healing and inclusive change depends on us. As ever, such change will generally percolate from the ground up, as in the days of the American Revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the progressive movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay-rights movement, the environmental movement. From the long view of my life, I see how history turns and veers. The end of our country has loomed many times before. America is not as fragile as it seems.

“It’s now or never,” he said, announcing that the time had finally come to unpack and examine the 300 boxes of material he had dragged along with us during 40 years of marriage. Dick had saved everything relating to his time in public service in the 1960s as a speechwriter for and adviser to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy: reams of White House memos, diaries, initial drafts of speeches annotated by presidents and presidential hopefuls, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, photographs, menus—a mass that would prove to contain a unique and comprehensive archive of a pivotal era. Dick had been involved in a remarkable number of defining moments.

He was the junior speechwriter, working under Ted Sorensen, during JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign. He was in the room to help the candidate prepare for his first televised debate with Richard Nixon. In the box labeled DEBATE were pages torn from a yellow pad upon which Kennedy had scrawled requests for information or clarification. Dick was in the White House when the president’s coffin returned from Dallas, and he was responsible for making arrangements to install an eternal flame at the grave site. He was at LBJ’s side during the summit of his historic achievements in civil rights and the Great Society. He was in New Hampshire during McCarthy’s crusade against the Vietnam War, and in the hospital room when Robert Kennedy died in Los Angeles. He was a central figure in the debate over the peace plank during the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

For years, however, Dick had resisted opening these boxes. They were from a time he recalled with both elation and a crushing sense of loss. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the war in Vietnam; the riots in the cities; the violence on college campuses—all the turmoil had drawn a dark curtain on the entire decade. He had wanted only to look ahead.

Now he had resolved to go back in time. “I’m an old guy,” he said. “If I have any wisdom to dispense, I’d better start dispensing.” A friend, Deb Colby, became his research assistant, and together they began the slow process of arranging the boxes in chronological order. Once that preliminary task had been completed, Dick was hopeful that there might be something of a book in the material he had uncovered. He wanted me to go back with him to the very first box and work our way through all of them. I was not only his wife but a historian.

“I need your help,” he said. “Jog my memory, ask me questions, see what we can learn.” I joined him in his study, and we started on the first group of boxes. We made a deal to try to spend time on this project every weekend to see what might come of it.

Our last great adventure together was about to begin.

FALL 1960

Some 30 boxes contained materials relating to JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign. From September 4 to November 8, 1960, Dick was a member of the small entourage that flew across the country with Kennedy for more than two months of nonstop campaigning. The first-ever private plane used by a presidential candidate during a campaign, the Caroline (named for Kennedy’s daughter) had been modified into a luxurious executive office. It had plush couches and four chairs that could be converted into small beds—two of them for Dick and Ted Sorensen. Kennedy had his own suite of bedrooms farther aft.

“You were all so young,” I marveled to Dick after looking up the ages of the team. The candidate was 43; Bobby Kennedy, 34; Ted Sorensen, 32. “And you—”

“Twenty-eight,” he interrupted, adding, “Youngest of the lot.”

After midnight on October 14, 1960, the Caroline landed at Willow Run Airport, near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Three weeks remained until Election Day. Everyone was bone-tired as the caravan set out for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan.

As they approached the Michigan campus, there was little to suggest that one of the most enduring moments of the campaign was about to occur. It was nearly 2 a.m. by the time the caravan reached the Michigan Union, where Kennedy was scheduled to catch a few hours of sleep before starting on a whistle-stop tour of the state. No one in the campaign had expected to find as many as 10,000 students waiting in the streets to greet the candidate. Neither Ted nor Dick had prepared remarks for the occasion.

As Kennedy ascended the steps of the union, the crowd chanted his name. He turned around, smiled, and introduced himself as “a graduate of the Michigan of the East—Harvard University.” He then began speaking extemporaneously, falling back on his familiar argument that the 1960 campaign presaged the outcome of the race between communism and the free world. But suddenly, he caught a second wind and swerved from his stock stump speech. He asked the crowd of young people what they might be willing to contribute for the sake of the country.

How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.

What stirred Kennedy to these spontaneous questions is not clear. Weariness, intuition, or—most likely, I suspect—because they had lingered in his mind after the third debate with Nixon, which had taken place only hours before and had been focused on whether America’s prestige in the world was rising or falling relative to that of Communist nations. The concept of students volunteering for public service in Africa and Asia might well bolster goodwill for America in countries wavering (as Kennedy had put it) “on the razor edge of decision” between the free world and the Communist system.

Drawing his impromptu speech to a close, Kennedy confessed that he had come to the union on this cold and early morning simply to go to bed. The words elicited raucous laughter and applause that continued to mount when he threw down a final challenge: “May I just say in conclusion that this university is not maintained by its alumni, by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it.”

Kennedy’s remarks lasted only three minutes—“the longest short speech,” he called it. Yet something extraordinary transpired: The students took up the challenge he posed. Led by two graduate students, Alan and Judith Guskin, they organized, they held meetings, they sent letters and telegrams to the campaign asking Kennedy to develop plans for a corps of American volunteers overseas. Within a week, 1,000 students had signed petitions pledging to give two years of their lives to help people in developing countries.

When Dick and Ted learned of the student petitions, they redrafted an upcoming Kennedy speech on foreign policy to be delivered at the Cow Palace, in San Francisco, working in a formal proposal for “a peace corps of talented young men and women.” We pulled the speech from one of the boxes. Dick’s hand can be readily detected in the closing lines, which used a favorite quote of his from the Greek philosopher Archimedes. “Give me a fulcrum,” Archimedes said, “and I will move the world.” Dick would later invoke the same line in a historic speech by Robert Kennedy in South Africa.

Two days after JFK’s speech at the Cow Palace, the candidate was flying to Toledo, Ohio. He sent word to the Guskins that he would like to meet them and see their petitions, crammed with names. A photo captures the moment when an eager Judy Guskin clutches the petitions before she presents them to the weary-eyed Kennedy, who is reaching out in anticipation.

Later, Dick and Ted had coffee with Judy and Alan. They talked of the Peace Corps and the election, by then only five days away. Nixon had immediately denounced the idea of a Peace Corps—“a Kiddie Corps,” he and others called it—warning that it would become a haven for draft dodgers. But for Judy and Alan, as for nearly a quarter of a million others, the Peace Corps would prove a transformative experience. The Guskins were in the first group to travel to Thailand, where Judy taught English and organized a teacher-training program. Alan set up a program at the same school in psychology and educational research. Returning home, they served as founders of the VISTA program, LBJ’s domestic version of the Peace Corps.

For Dick, the Peace Corps, more than any other venture of the Kennedy years, represented the essence of the administration’s New Frontier vision. After JFK’s inauguration, as a member of the White House staff, Dick joined the task force that formally launched the Peace Corps. He was barely older than the typical volunteer.

SUMMER 1963

Dick and I often talked, half-jokingly, half-seriously, about the various occasions when we were in the same place at the same time before we finally met—in the summer of 1972, when he arrived at the Harvard building where I had my office as an assistant professor. I knew who he was. I had heard that he was brilliant, brash, mercurial, arrogant, a fascinating figure. He was more than a decade older than me. His appearance was intriguing: curly, disheveled black hair; thick, unruly eyebrows; a pockmarked face; and several large cigars in the pocket of his casual shirt. We began a conversation that day about LBJ, literature, philosophy, astronomy, sex, gossip, and the Red Sox that would continue for 46 years.

The first occasion when we could have crossed paths but didn’t was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, on August 28, 1963. It was not surprising that we didn’t meet, given that some 250,000 people had gathered for the event.

I was spending the summer before my senior year at Colby College as an intern at the State Department. All government employees had been given the day off and been cautioned to stay home, warned that it wasn’t safe. I was 20 years old—I had no intention of staying home. But I still remember the nervous excitement I felt that morning as I walked with a group of friends toward the Washington Monument. We had been planning to attend the march for weeks.

A state of emergency had been declared as people descended on the capital from all over the country. Marchers arriving by bus and train on Wednesday morning were encouraged to depart the city proper by that night. Hospitals canceled elective surgery to make space in the event of mass casualties. The Washington Senators baseball game was postponed. Liquor stores and bars were closed. We learned that thousands of National Guardsmen had been mobilized to bolster the D.C. police force. Thousands of additional soldiers stood ready across the Potomac, in Virginia.

I asked Dick if these precautions had seemed a bit much. He explained that Kennedy was worried that if things got out of hand, the civil-rights bill he had introduced in June could unravel, and “take his administration with it.” Though government workers were discouraged from attending the march, Dick grabbed Bill Moyers, the deputy Peace Corps director, and headed toward the National Mall.

So there Dick and I were, unknown to each other, both moving along with what seemed to be all of humanity toward the Reflecting Pool and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where the march would culminate. I carried a poster stapled to a stick: Catholics, Protestants and Jews Unite in the Struggle for Civil Rights. A sense that I was connected to something larger than myself took hold.

It’s easy to cast a cynical eye upon this youthful exultation, to view it in retrospect as sentimental idealism, but the feelings were genuine, and they were profound. At the start of the march, I had wondered what proportion of the vast throng was white (it was later estimated at 25 percent). By the time I returned to my rooming house in Foggy Bottom, I had forgotten all about calculations and proportions. I had set out that morning apprehensive, yet had been lifted up by the most joyful day of public unity and community I had ever experienced.

Facing the Lincoln Memorial, with Martin Luther King’s soaring “I Have a Dream” speech still ahead, we all held hands, our voices rising as we sang “We Shall Overcome”—the hymn that had long instilled purpose and courage in the foot soldiers of the civil-rights movement. That moment made as deep an impression on Dick as it did on me.

SPRING 1964

During our years of archival sifting, Dick and I, like two nosy neighbors on a party line, tracked down transcripts of conversations recorded by Lyndon Johnson’s secret taping system.

“How splendid to be flies on the wall, to eavesdrop across the decades!” That was Dick’s gleeful response after I read him a transcript of a telephone call between the president and Bill Moyers—by then a special assistant to Johnson—on the evening of March 9, 1964. Here Dick and I were, he in his 80s and I in my 70s, finally privy to the very conversation that, previously unbeknownst to Dick, had led him from the nucleus of the Kennedy camp, through a period of confusion and drift in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, to the highest circles of the Johnson administration.

The phone call began with Johnson grousing about the dreary language in the poverty message that he soon planned to deliver to Congress. Passionately invested in the poverty program, he was dissatisfied with the drafts he had seen and was now pressing Moyers to find “whoever’s the best explainer of this that you can get.”

Johnson: Since [Ted] Sorensen left, we’ve got no one that can be phonetic, and get rhythm …

Moyers: The only person I know who can—and I’m reluctant to ask him to get involved in this, because right now it’s in our little circle—is Goodwin.

Johnson: Why not just ask him if he can’t put some sex in it? I’d ask him if he couldn’t put some rhyme in it and some beautiful Churchillian phrases and take it and turn it out for us tomorrow … If he will, then we’ll use it. But ask him if he can do it in confidence. Call him tonight and say, “I want to bring it to you now. I’ve got it ready to go, but he wants you to work on it if you can do it without getting it into a column.”

Moyers: All right, I’ll call him right now.

Johnson: Tell him that I’m pretty impressed with him. He’s working on Latin America already; see how he’s getting along. But can he put the music to it?

As we reached the end of the conversation, Dick swore that he could hear Johnson’s voice clearly in his mind’s ear. “Lyndon’s a kind of poet,” Dick said. “What a unique recipe for high oratory: rhyme, sex, music, phonetics, and beautiful Churchillian phrases.”

We both knew him so well: Dick because he worked with him intimately in the White House and on the 1964 campaign, and I because, after a time as a White House fellow, I’d joined a small team in Texas to help him go through his papers, conduct research, and draft his memoir. From the time Dick and I met, we often referred to the president simply as “Lyndon” when speaking with each other. There are a lot of Johnsons, but there was only one Lyndon.

SPRING 1965

A year and a half after the March on Washington, the memory of its transcendent finale returned to become the heart of the most important speech Dick ever drafted. We pulled a copy of the draft, some notes, the final speech, and newspaper clippings from one of the Johnson boxes.

The moment Dick stepped into the West Wing on the morning of March 15, 1965, he sensed an unusual hubbub and tension. Pacing back and forth in a dither outside Dick’s second-floor office was the White House special assistant Jack Valenti. Normally full of glossy good cheer, Valenti pounced on Dick before he could even open his office door.

The night before, Johnson had decided to give a televised address to a joint session of Congress calling for a voting-rights bill. He believed that the conscience of America had been fired by the events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a week earlier, when peaceful marchers had been attacked by Alabama state troopers wielding clubs, nightsticks, and whips.

“He needs the speech from you right away,” Valenti said.

“From me! Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? I’ve lost the entire night,” Dick responded.

“It was a mistake, my mistake,” Valenti acknowledged. He explained that the first words out of the president’s mouth that morning had been “How is Goodwin doing on the speech?” and Valenti had told him he’d assigned it to another aide, Horace Busby. Johnson had erupted, “The hell you did! Get Dick to do it, and now!”

The presidential aides Richard Goodwin ( left) and Bill Moyers discuss a speech with Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965. (Photograph by Sarah Palmer for The Atlantic. Source: Yoichi Okamoto / Courtesy of LBJ Library)

The speech had to be finished before 6 p.m., Valenti told Dick, in order to be loaded onto the teleprompter. Dick looked at his watch. Nine hours away. Valenti asked Dick if there was anything—anything at all—he could get for him.

“Serenity,” Dick replied, “a globe of serenity. I can’t be disturbed. If you want to know how it’s coming, ask my secretary.”

“I didn’t want to think about time passing,” Dick recalled to me. “I lit a cigar, looked at my watch, took the watch off my wrist, and put it on the desk beside my typewriter. Another puff of my cigar, and I took the watch and put it away in my desk drawer.”

“The pressure would have short-circuited me,” I said. “I never had the makings of a good speechwriter or journalist. History is more patient.”

“Well,” Dick said, laughing, “miss the speech deadline and those pages are only scraps of paper.”

Dick examined the folder of notes Valenti had given him. Johnson wanted no uncertainty about where he stood. To deny fellow Americans the right to vote was simply and unequivocally wrong. He wanted the speech to be affirmative and hopeful. He would be sending a bill to Congress to protect the right to vote for all Americans, and he wanted this speech to speed public sentiment along.

In the year since Dick had started working at the White House, he had listened to Johnson talk for hundreds of hours—on planes and in cars, during meals in the mansion and at his ranch, in the swimming pool and over late-night drinks. He understood Johnson’s deeply held convictions about civil rights, and he had the cadences of his speech in his ear. The speechwriter’s job, Dick knew, was to clarify, heighten, and polish a speaker’s convictions in the speaker’s own language and natural rhythms. Without that authenticity, the emotional current of the speech would never hit home.

I knew that Dick often searched for a short, arresting sentence to begin every speech or article he wrote. On this day, he surely found it:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy …

At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

No sooner would Dick pull a page out of his typewriter and give it to his secretary than Valenti would somehow materialize, a nerve-worn courier, eager to express pages from Dick’s secretary into the president’s anxious hands. Johnson’s edits and penciled notations were incorporated into the text while he awaited the next installment, lashing out at everyone within range—everyone except Dick.

The speech was no lawyer’s brief debating the merits of the bill to be sent to Congress. It was a credo, a declaration of what we are as a nation and who we are as a people—a redefining moment in our history brought forth by the civil-rights movement.

The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation …

He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy?

As the light shifted across his office, Dick became aware that the day suddenly seemed to be rushing by. He opened the desk drawer, peered at the face of his watch, took a deep breath, and slammed the drawer shut. He walked outside to get air and refresh his mind.

In the distance, Dick heard demonstrators demanding that Johnson send federal troops to Selma. Dick hurried back to his office. Something seemed forlorn about the receding voices—such a great contrast to the spirited resolve of the March on Washington. Loud and clear, the words We shall overcome sounded in his head.

It was after the 6-o’clock deadline when the phone in Dick’s office rang for the first time that day. The voice at the other end was so relaxed and soothing that Dick hardly recognized it as the president’s.

“Far and away,” Dick told me, “the gentlest tones I ever heard from Lyndon.”

“You remember, Dick,” Johnson said, “that one of my first jobs after college was teaching young Mexican Americans in Cotulla. I told you about that down at the ranch. I thought you might want to put in a reference to that.” Then he ended the call: “Well, I won’t keep you, Dick. It’s getting late.”

“When I finished the draft,” Dick recalled, “I felt perfectly blank. It was done. It was beyond revision. It was dark outside, and I checked my wrist to see what time it was, remembered I had hidden my watch away from my sight, retrieved it from the drawer, and put it back on.”

There was nothing left to do but shave, grab a sandwich, and stroll over to the mansion. There, greeted by an exorbitantly grateful Valenti, Dick hardly had the energy to talk. Before he knew it, he was sitting with the president in his limousine on the way to the Capitol.

A hush filled the chamber as the president began to speak. Watching from the well of the House, an exhausted Dick marveled at Johnson’s emotional gravity. The president’s somber, urgent, relentlessly driving delivery demonstrated a conviction and exposed a vulnerability that surpassed anything Dick had seen in him before.

There is no constitutional issue here. The command of the Constitution is plain. There is no moral issue. It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. There is no issue of states’ rights or national rights. There is only the struggle for human rights …

This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation or no compromise with our purpose …

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches in every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

Andweshallovercome.

The words came staccato, each hammered and sharply distinct from the others. In Selma, Alabama, Martin Luther King had gathered with friends and colleagues to watch the president’s speech. At this climactic moment when Johnson took up the banner of the civil-rights movement, John Lewis witnessed tears rolling down King’s cheeks.

The time had come for the president to draw on his own experience, to tell the formative story he had mentioned to Dick on the phone.

My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican American school. Few of them could speak English, and I couldn’t speak much Spanish. My students were poor, and they often came to class without breakfast, hungry. And they knew, even in their youth, the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them. But they knew it was so, because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon, after the classes were finished, wishing there was more that I could do …

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it.

The audience stood to deliver perhaps the largest ovation of the night.

I told Dick that I had read an account that when Johnson was later asked who had written the speech, he pulled out a photo of his 20-year-old self surrounded by a cluster of kids, his former students in Cotulla. “They did,” he said, indicating the whole lot of them.

“You know,” Dick said with a smile, “in the deepest sense, that might just be the truth.”

“God, how I loved Lyndon Johnson that night,” Dick remembered. He long treasured a pen that Johnson gave him after signing the Voting Rights Act. “How unimaginable it would have been to think that in two years time I would, like many others who listened that night, go into the streets against him.”

Nor could I have imagined, as I talked excitedly with my graduate-school friends at Harvard after listening to the speech—certain that a new tide was rising in our country—that only a few years later I would work directly for the president who delivered it. Or that 10 years later, I would marry the man who drafted it.

SPRING 2015

One morning, two years into our project, I found Dick mumbling and grumbling as he worked his way along the two-tiered row of archival containers. “Look how many boxes we have left!” he exclaimed. “See Jackie and Bobby here, more Lyndon, riots and protests, McCarthy, anti-war marches, assassinations. Look at them!”

“I guess we better pick up our pace,” I offered.

“You’re a lot younger than me. Shovel more coal into our old train and let’s go.”

This determination to steam ahead had only increased as Dick approached his mid-80s. A pacemaker regulated his heart, he needed a hearing aid, his balance was compromised. One afternoon, he tripped on the way to feeding the fish in our backyard. He sat down on a bench, a pensive expression on his face. I asked if he was okay.

“I heard time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” he said, quoting Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but then added, “Maybe it was only the hiss of my hearing aid.”

“Who would you bet on?” he asked me one night at bedtime. “Who will be finished first—me or the boxes?”

Our work on the boxes kept him anchored with a purpose even after he was diagnosed with the cancer that took his life in 2018.

I realize now that we were both in the grip of an enchanted thought—that so long as we had more boxes to unpack, more work to do, his life, my life, our life together would not be finished. So long as we were learning, laughing, discussing the boxes, we were alive. If a talisman is an object thought to have magical powers and to bring luck, the boxes and the future book they held had become ours.


*Lead image sources (left to right from top): Richard N. Goodwin Papers / Courtesy of Briscoe Center for American History; Cecil Stoughton / Courtesy of LBJ Library; Gibson Moss / Alamy; Associated Press; Yoichi Okamoto / Courtesy of LBJ Library; Marc Peloquin / Courtesy of Doris Kearns Goodwin; Heritage Images / Getty; Bob Parent / Getty; Paul Conklin / Getty; Bettmann / Getty

This essay has been adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s. It appears in the May 2024 print edition with the headline “The Speechwriter.”

An Unfinished Love Story: A Personal History of the 1960s

By Doris Kearns Goodwin


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