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NOTHING TURNS REPUBLICANS into awkward, tongue-tied bumblers quite the way the issue of homosexuality does. Take President Clinton's appointment of gay activist and philanthropist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hormel's nomination had languished in the Senate for well over a year, blocked by Republicans. When Congress dispersed for Memorial Day weekend, the president made a recess appointment -- typically used in emergencies when the Senate is out of town for more than a week. But this was no emergency; it was a poke in the eye, clearly designed to provoke Hormel's Republican detractors. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma obliged by vowing to put a hold on all other administration nominations needing Senate approval -- both federal judges and executive-branch appointees -- unless Clinton withdraws Hormel's appointment. Majority Leader Trent Lott has (reluctantly) given Inhofe his support.

The Hormel appointment has been a political flashpoint for religious conservatives and gay-rights activists since Clinton first announced it in October 1997. Hormel, heir to the multi-million dollar meatpacking company that bears the family name, is most infamous for seeming to applaud the antics of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of habit-wearing drag queens, during a gay-pride march in San Francisco in 1996.

At a time when Kosovo and budget priorities dominate the political agenda, Hormel's nomination really isn't anyone's most pressing problem. But it injected an issue into the political arena that terrifies most GOP politicians, and it wasn't surprising that virtually none of the Republican presidential candidates was eager to comment on it.

"Governor Bush would make extremely limited use of the recess appointment power," George W. campaign spokesman David Beckwith says, "and never to make political points." Was the president making a political point with Hormel's appointment? "I'll just let it sit at that," Beckwith demurs. The Texas governor has a 16-point lead in the polls, and it is clear his campaign isn't about to make any waves.

Would Bush have appointed Hormel? He would not have, says Beckwith, "because Mr. Hormel does not share his conservative political philosophy or his political agenda." What is Bush's conservative political philosophy and political agenda with respect to homosexuality?

Beckwith referred me to an April 9 New York Times article. "As a general statement," Bush told the paper, "if someone can do a job, and a job that he's qualified for, that person . . . ought to be allowed to do his job."

And gays? What's the governor's stance? "Nobody would be disqualified on the basis of sexual orientation," Beckwith says. But what is Bush's political stance on homosexuality? "He would appoint people who have the same political agenda as he does and not a different one," Beckwith explains. Oh.

Howard Opinsky, campaign spokesman for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, says that while the senator "hasn't given [the Hormel nomination] a whole lot of thought," generally, "elections have consequences, and presidents have the right to choose who they want." Opinski says Hormel "personally assured" McCain that he would "advance the interests of the United States. And the senator takes him at his word."

But of course it's Hormel's words that have conservatives in a tizzy. Andrea Sheldon, who heads the Traditional Values Coalition, calls Hormel a "purveyor of smut." She mentions the James Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, for which the new ambassador contributed $ 500,000 and some of his favorite books. "I've personally been to the Hormel library," says Sheldon. "There's a coloring book with, with female genitalia. It's called the -- well, it starts with a 'C' and it's four letters. It's the 'Blank' Coloring Book."

Sheldon suspects Hormel's appointment was a ploy to rally the sleepy Gore campaign and turn the Republican candidates against each other. "I mean, it wasn't like there was a great need for an ambassador to Luxembourg," says Sheldon. "Al Gore is linked at the hip with Hormel."

"It's kind of similar to appointing Larry Flynt ambassador," says Karen Hickey, campaign spokes-person for Sen. Bob Smith for New Hampshire, adding, "Frankly, the materials [in the Hormel library] are pornographic." Really? How do you mean? "We have a lot of the materials. I can get it for you."

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