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It was a moment unlike any other at General Motors: the top executive stepping — personally and publicly — into the middle of one of the gravest safety problems in the company’s history.

But there was Mary T. Barra on Tuesday, barely two months into her job as chief executive, pledging to fix faulty ignition switches linked to 12 deaths and to explain why the automaker failed for 10 years to correct a problem it knew existed.

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