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This is the Title
August 5, 2003
By Raul Groom

"Sit down, kid. We don't cut no gloves off. This is the Big Apple. This is the title." - Angelo Dundee

I wake up Sunday morning with sore feet and a serious need for something to get intensely, unproductively angry about. Thinking quickly, I switch on NBC and dial up Meet the Press. Russert is there, talking to Tom Ridge. Bingo.

Tom is in the middle of trying to explain to Tim and The American People why exactly his office seems to be staffed mainly by brain-dead howler monkeys. It's a credit to Ridge's loyalty that he doesn't give the obvious explanation - that this policy is a White House hiring guideline that comes straight from the top. Instead he yammers and sweats under Russert's modest onslaught and basically makes it clear that his job which less that two years ago stretched out like a shining path to fame, fortune and a 2008 Presidential nomination has mutated into a nightmarish continuum of fear mongering, blame ducking and union busting.

The Homeland Security head is insulated from the war scandal that's threatening to engulf the White House, since everything his agency does is a Matter of National Security, but the best Tom can hope for now is that the appointment turns out to be a two-way ticket to Nowhere and not the more commonly cited variety.

Unfortunately for me, my principal reaction to this display is not so much anger as a sort of piteous, vicarious shame for this man, who as far as I know was once a nice example of the endangered Not-Completely-Incompetent Republican Governor, and who is now festering in the bureaucratic bowels of an administration that has nowhere to go but down. Bush might optimistically exclaim "Look at the speed we're traveling!" but Ridge is presumably smart enough to get the joke, even if he can't quite bring himself to laugh.

In the end I have to change the channel to get really upset. On Fox, a couple of conservative blowhards are discussing gay marriage. Another switch to another network finds a couple of centrist blowhards discussing gay marriage. No one is making any sense. I am outraged. Mission accomplished. I tear off to the back of the house to report my anger to Sophia.

"I'm tired to hearing about gay marriage!" I bark. "There are more important things to be talking about." It is an insensitive, idiotic thing to say, and I am quite proud of it.

"Okay," she says, and wisely leaves it at that. I switch off the TV and storm out to wander around in the park and think angry thoughts. As I jump across the rocks in the rushing creek, though, my words echo falsely in my ears like a squash ball hitting the tin at a weird angle. My anger isn't holding up under scrutiny, and it pisses me off. The more I think about it, the more gay marriage seems like the seminal political issue of our generation.

It is a shocking conversion, one that suggests an emotional rather than logical investigation of the subject, but I press on anyway. It seems fitting to consider a religious issue in a faith-based frame of mind, and the fact that gay marriage is a fundamental religious freedom issue is what could destroy the Bush Administration's base on this supposed bread-and-butter conservative issue. If the Bush administration has a core competency, it's Keeping Down the Queers, but the holy rollers may find that they've placed themselves in an untenable position on this one.

Consider the wobbly, orcish opening salvo in the mass media mobilization loosed by President Bush just before he high-tailed it off to the ranch to eat pretzels under intense Secret Service supervision and drink, well, drink whatever it is the President drinks these days. Dubya chortled darkly that he has lawyers who are busy deciding how best to make sure that no state in the U.S., no matter what its citizens want or what its local religious standards are, can recognize the union of two members of the same sex as a valid family under the law. It was the sort of mean, softheaded snub of a so-called "special-interest group" that can only be the harbinger of one of Tom DeLay's mad drives to energize his wealthy pack of evangelical attack dogs. We are only a year from a major election, after all, one that could define the direction of the country for decades to come, and Tom is known to catch as many fundraising worms as anyone.

The problem for DeLay and, by extension, for Bush, who will try anything Karl Rove and the Hammer tell him will work, is that the Republican right wing may have miscalculated the lengths to which educated religious bigots such as Justice Scalia will go to make life harder for people who prefer to deal exlusively with one particular set of genitalia. Scalia will tirelessly support state statutes banning men from actually boinking one another, but allowing a federal law codifying what types of marriages a minister may legally sanction may be beyond even Antonin's considerable powers of cognitive contortion. Supreme Court Justices serve for life, and the idea of a complete reversal of his own opinion becoming necessary, in the event that some crazy liberal Congress wants to change the law to read the opposite way sometime down the road, may be a little too much for Scalia to swallow.

The revival leaders might not even be a sure thing. While the masses of the religious right may be placated momentarily by the dogged attempts of their pious legislators, the shrewder evangelicals the ones who tend to have their hands on the money will know a loser when they see one. The last thing Pat Robertson needs is for his followers to see Pat's favorite Supreme Court Justice on board with the folks he's praying will soon keel over and "retire," telling the faithful they just have to accept the idea that there may be guys kissing in a church somewhere on any given Saturday. That's not the sort of raw spiritual power that Robertson wants to be projecting to a flock he's almost bled dry with weird vitamin-supplement schemes and expensive books that make absolutely no sense at all.

Still, though this onslaught could certainly be a failed attempt to knock our troubles in Afghanistan off the front page of the Washington Post, there is every indication that the big boys in the Taliban wing of the GOP are ready to go to war. There will be blood on the floor at the end of this one, and the winner may take it all next November.

All of which makes this an extremely interesting junction in the Democratic primary race. If the Republicans want a fight on gay marriage, the Democrats need a standard-bearer for a more tolerant position, and Howard Dean's "Leave it up to the States" evasion probably isn't a sound basis for serious ass-kicking. Kerry's strength is national security so he'll want to keep things in that arena, and Lieberman is Lieberman and won't want to rock the boat on an issue that isn't a real winner with his upper-middle-class suburban base. There is an opening here for a social liberal to toss his hat in and see how far he can ride the inevitable backlash to the GOP's ugly gay bashing.

In a perfect world, my pick for the part would be Dick Durbin, a genuinely classy and compassionate Senator who is probably too old to have a realistic shot to take the nomination in 2008 and beyond. Unfortunately, Durbin won't even return my emails begging him to run, which probably means he isn't interested, but which also may have something to do with the fact that for a time about a year ago I was given to transmitting wild, unbalanced screeds to his communications director, whose email address I had acquired through a series of strange coincidences. She may still have me on a block list for all I know.

The obvious choice is Gore. The issue is a natural for Big Al, one that would allow him to spotlight the blatant hypocrisy and cynicism of Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism" without bringing up the 2000-lb. gorilla in the kitchen. Of course, he is still saying he isn't running, and he's starting to worry me. I had thought he would be back in by now to restore order to the Universe, as Bill Walton would (and probably has) put it.

You see, Al, we all understand you're fed up, you're frustrated, and you're tired of being thumbed in the eye by a bunch of rich bullies who own every radio station and TV outlet in town. But let me tell you a story.

In 1964, a young boxer named Cassius Clay came back to his corner at the end of the fifth round in a state of visible agitation. "Cut the gloves off," he demanded of his trainer. "I can't see." Clay had fallen victim to an old, dirty trick, and his eyes were burning. Fortunately for boxing history, his trainer was experienced in these sorts of things. He explained that there would be no cutting of the gloves. He shoved his fighter back out into the ring to face the music. The rest is history.

It's about time someone shoved Al back into the ring. Maybe he can't beat Bush. Maybe he can't even beat John Kerry. But it's not right that a guy with such a bright future should throw it all away just because his opponent turned out to be playing dirty pool. Politics is a vicious business, and if Bill Clinton's veep can't face up to that fact and stumble back into the ring to take his lumps, the Democratic party may very well be doomed. Washington is no place for whiners and quitters. You can't roll over and die - you have to make them kill you.

There's a lot more to consider, but I won't be considering it, as I've emerged from the park into a bustling market, and I need to pick up seven or eight peaches to take home and test out the new blender, an early wedding present from some extremely punctual friends. I figure I can hold my train of thought through the operation, but out of the corner of my eye I think catch a glimpse of The Roarer, a friend of mine from about 90 miles down I-95. It isn't him, which is good, because as I look closer at him , his girlfriend seems to think I'm looking at her, and she's acting interested. That's easier to laugh off when it's some stranger's girlfriend who's shamelessly advertising herself in front of a display of day lilies.

The important point, The Story if you will, is that the Democrats have before them a golden opportunity to latch onto an issue where the absolute worst that could happen is that the Republicans will ram through a mean-spirited, unworkable federal law that will immediately be challenged by a half-dozen state legislatures looking to make a statement and will be on a fast track to a Supreme Court showdown besides. On the other hand, there are myriad ways for the Dems to win the fight, and a convincing knockout of the GOP plans will leave the Republicans looking weak and stupid on top of hateful and petty.

The dumbest thing the Democrats could do is shy away from the issue, thinking it's not "a winner" or that they have to keep the focus on Bush's overseas ineptitudes. Bush can blunder away his foreign policy credentials on his own, as he has amply demonstrated. On the domestic front, there will have to be a real battle, and we can't be scared away just because our opponent is a big ugly bear who will do absolutely anything to win.

After all, this is the title.

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