Chris Cox

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op frWe called it “in-between weather,” too warm for a coat, too chilly for short sleeves. Back then, just about every boy in town — and many of the girls, too — wore flannel shirts from late September until spring came around again, when mothers would neatly fold a whole slew of them and pack them up in boxes labeled “Winter Clothes” with a black magic marker. It seemed that all I ever wore were flannel shirts or tee shirts, unless I had to go to church or a funeral, or unless I had to dress up for a rare family picture. Mom made us dress up for Easter and Christmas, but we didn’t go to church that often otherwise, so my dress shirt and dark navy pants hung in the back of my closet, segregated from the others, a “uniform for special occasions” that I would outgrow before anyone would be able to tell it had ever been worn at all.

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op frIt is a fine day for a cookout, this Father’s Day. It is hot enough that most of the younger folk are wearing shorts and T-shirts, revealing traces of recent sunburn and the random bruises and scratches of youth. This one has a strawberry from trying to steal third base, that one a burn from a dirt-bike muffler. Most of the boys have brought their girlfriends — some faces are familiar, others fresh and wide-eyed and eager to make a good impression. They pay special attention to the toddlers, trying to make them giggle, making over their tiny sundresses and overalls with grand gestures and exaggerated praise, as if the toddlers had put a lot of thought and care into what they were going to wear today.

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op frThough I will wear one sometimes as a “fashion statement,” on most days I do not wear a watch. I don’t really need to wear one. Everywhere I look, I see the time of day. In fact, no matter where I go or how hard I try, I cannot seem to escape the passage of time. It’s on my cell phone. It’s on the oven AND the microwave in our kitchen. It’s on the dashboard of my car. It’s on my computer screen, lurking down in the right hand corner.

As a teacher, I most assuredly do not need a timepiece. Everyday, the world around us changes so fast it seems we ought to be strapped into something to avoid being flung into orbit. Simple tasks become complicated burdens. I have been known to stare at gas pumps in astonishment, looking at the assortment of options spelled out for me on the pump and the equally astonishing assortment of cards in my wallet, trying to figure it all out as if it were a column in the second round of Jeopardy. Do I want to pay inside? Pay out here with credit? Where is the button for debit? How do I qualify for the three-cent-per gallon discount?

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op frTammy is out in the yard burning the couch. There is no telling where this will end. All by herself, she somehow managed to push and pull an overstuffed sofa out of our guest bedroom, through the downstairs den, and out the backdoor into the yard, where she proceeded to push it end over end from one side of the yard to the other to our burn pile. Then she set it aflame. Perhaps next year, they can add this as an event in the Highland Games along with the caber toss and the Scottish hammer throw — the sofa roll and burn. She is so gratified to see the couch reduced to its blackened metal frame — the charred bones of some prehistoric beast — that she soon adds a faded maroon recliner to the pile.

I have no idea. I’m in the bedroom watching the Panthers playing the Ravens when my son drops in to check the score and watch the game for a series or two.

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op frHer name was Glenda. She was a senior and one of the more popular girls in school, a volleyball star and a member of assorted clubs, the kind of girl who shows up in a lot of photos in the yearbook. Her younger sister, a very sweet and charming girl that everybody just naturally liked, was in my freshman biology class and had, over the summer, undergone a radical bodily transformation that was thrilling and perplexing in equal portions. She wore her flannel shirts looser in a mostly futile attempt to deflect this sudden new attention, but one day she accidentally nudged a pencil off the edge of her desk with the bulky biology text, and when she bent over to pick it up, her loose shirt betrayed her. I knew then my life would never be the same.

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op frSome people complain all the time, about everything. They complain about the weather, the price of gasoline, their neglectful friends, the ratio of cashews in the average can of mixed nuts. Everything is a conspiracy against them. 

Road construction makes them late for work, as do you, if you are driving in front of them and dare to put on your brakes to avoid hitting a stray dog, or maybe a family crossing the street. The president’s State of the Union address is causing them to miss “American Idol,” and tonight’s episode is PIVOTAL!

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op frThe reason that the death of Robin Williams seemed so particularly shocking, so cruel, even so personal, very nearly like a betrayal, is that when we think of him — his body of work, his persona, everything we know about him — our very first thought is of an irrepressible life force the likes of which we have never seen on the stage or screen. It was obvious from the very first minute that he captured America’s imagination as Mork from Ork on the 1970s television sitcom “Happy Days” that Williams was that rarest of birds — a complete original. He would remain so for nearly 40 years, not only continuing to find new ways to make us laugh, but by taking unexpected turns into drama, revealing depths that we hadn’t been able to imagine, perhaps giving us a glimpse of the darkness deep inside that eventually pulled him under.

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I’ve become hooked on Dr. Phil. Don’t ask me how it happened because I don’t know. He caught me unawares, I guess, creeping up on me during my fall break while I was innocently trying to feed my son, Jack, some mashed up fruit out of a tiny jar with a tiny spoon, desperately trying to find something to keep him distracted enough to sit still and actually eat his breakfast. I tried a couple of cartoons but quickly learned that Jack, at the age of nine months, would just as soon watch ESPN Sportscenter, The Price is Right, or The Discovery Channel as any cartoon. He’s pretty much OK with anything as long as there are images moving around on the screen and sound coming out of the television.

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I wasn’t very good at sports when I was a kid. I wanted to be good — the star of the team, the captain, the leading scorer, the clutch player — but I was barely good enough to make the team in football and baseball, and not much better in basketball. I worked hard and attended practice faithfully, and I could execute a bounce pass or finger roll lay-up with considerable verve, but what looks good in practice doesn’t always translate into real games, and I seldom made much of a splash once the buzzer sounded and the fans were seated. I seldom even made a plop. Most of the time, my role was to join the other benchwarmers during timeouts in a huddle around the starters, our arms wrapped supportively around their sweaty torsos, or to yell encouragement from our seats, which were, after all, the best in the house. Once in a while, if our team was up — or down — by 30 or 40 points with a minute or two to play, we were sent in to finish the game, peeling off our warm-ups like banana skins and hustling to the scorer’s table with great earnestness, as if something important were about to happen.

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op frEDISTO ISLAND, S.C. – My daughter has ordered an elaborate omelet, with spinach and cheese and who knows what else, but she seems to have lost all interest in actually eating it. 

Instead, she pokes listlessly at one edge, as if her plate has an invisible fence around it and she is guiding the omelet toward the gate, trying to help it escape. Though we are only a little over two days into our weeklong summer vacation and enjoying our first meal out, she is also dreaming of escape. Her omelet has become a metaphor.

“Daddy,” she says with a laden sigh, “I’m ready to go back to North Carolina.”

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It is now official. I am not young anymore. I guess I should have paid more attention to the signs, and perhaps it wouldn’t come as such a shock, but I didn’t and it does. My youth has expired, gone out of date like a carton of milk forgotten in the back of the fridge. When I reach for my youth to get a refreshing drink of it, the stench is unbearable. I play one game of pick-up basketball with the kids at school — these are college students and here I am calling them “kids” — and the next morning my legs feel like a mob guy tied me to a chair and beat my thighs all night with a laundry bag full of navel oranges until I finally admitted I was middle-aged.

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Mike and I were not exactly a match made in heaven. In fact, I didn’t think we were much of a match at all. At the time we were “introduced,” I lived in a tiny rented house with an equally tiny yard, and I already had one dog, a skittish collie named Russ, who was skeptical of anything new, especially other dogs. I barely had room for Russ, and barely got the bills paid each month. The very last thing I needed or wanted was another dog.

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op frThere are movies that I simply cannot turn off once I stumble into them when I am switching channels, which I do whenever there is a commercial, as men have been hardwired to do since the dawn of the remote control. One of those movies is “Fargo,” by the Coen brothers, which I consider to be one of the five best movies ever made. Another is “Tombstone,” a western that I do not really even consider to be a very good movie, though it does contain an astonishing performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

In fact, it is Kilmer’s Holliday that compels me to keep watching every time I find “Tombstone” on cable. I can tell within five seconds exactly where we are in the movie, what scene featuring Holliday will come up next, and what the dialogue is in that scene, even when Holliday and his nemesis Johnny Ringo are trading ominous bits of Latin in their first encounter in the Oriental Saloon.

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We lost Barney Fife last week. When the news came that Don Knotts had died of pulmonary and respiratory failure in California at the age of 81, those of us who have always counted “The Andy Griffith Show” pretty high on our list of reasons to go on living were hit where it hurts. If Sheriff Andy Taylor is the backbone of the show, Deputy Barney Fife is its flesh. Except for those infrequent occasions when he underestimates either women or his son, Opie — a weakness which is always revealed and corrected by the end of the show — Andy is almost too saintly for us to relate to very much. He’s the fellow we aspire to be, a kind, generous, strong man who faces life with integrity, dignity, courage, and humor. And he can play the guitar and sing, too.

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op coxA few weeks ago, my brother called me to ask if I thought he should apply for the job as president of Wilkes Community College. I have been teaching in the community college system for 23 years and was a dean for several years, so he thought I might have some special insight.

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You have already read or heard about the three guys who were arrested for “operating” — yeah, I guess the pun is intended, although I should probably cut it out (stop it, NOW!) — a sadomasochistic castration dungeon here in Waynesville. How could you not? It is literally all over the media. On the Internet, a quick Google search of “Waynesville castration” turns up more than 10,000 hits.

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San Francisco Giant outfielder Barry Bonds is the greatest baseball player of this era, and one can make a good argument that he is the greatest player in history. Bonds will almost certainly pass the legendary Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list this season, and it is conceivable that he might also break Henry Aaron’s home run record.

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Some people say I can be cheap, or at the very least, my priorities are out of whack. They say, “You’ll spend $30 for a bottle of wine, but won’t spend 30 to get that dent in your car fixed.” That may be true, but that dent in my car doesn’t go nearly as well with a good steak as an excellent bottle of Shiraz does. I figure I will get around to fixing the dent in the car, but that steak has got to be eaten now — there is an expiration date on it. If you ask SOME people, I guess I should just eat it with tap water or cherry Kool Aid.

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Mother’s Day was probably not everything Tammy had hoped for.

She may have had visions of sleeping in until 9 or even 10 a.m., then being served breakfast in bed: cinnamon and apple muffins, a western omelet, a medley of fruit, piping hot coffee, and a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

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A few years ago, I was asked to give the keynote speech for an area high school’s graduation ceremony. At first, I thought one of my so-called friends must be playing a joke on me. Why would anyone want a local newspaper columnist/college English teacher to address a group of graduating high school seniors? What would I be expected to say? “Esteemed graduates, you face many problems and challenges in the world you are about to enter — skyrocketing health care costs, our dependence on foreign oil, the scourge of terrorism — but when all is said and done, if you do not finally get a grip on comma usage, I swear I will track down every last one of you and write nasty little comments with a red pen on everything you ever write from now on. If you do not learn the difference between ‘their’ and ‘there’ I will haunt you from beyond the grave. Now go forward and prosper, but do not let your participles dangle.”

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“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

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Before our son was born almost a year and a half ago, Tammy and I made an important decision. She would stop working and stay home with our two kids until they were both in school. We weighed the advantages and disadvantages, realizing that losing her income would put us in occasional tenuous circumstances financially, but we felt that even if we had to go into the red some months, even if we had to watch our credit card debt crawl (and sometimes leap) upward, it would be worth it for our family.

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In every town I’ve ever lived in — and I have lived in several — I have made a Sports Friend. In case you don’t know what a Sports Friend is, perhaps a brief definition is in order: a Sports Friend is someone with whom you can talk about urgent issues of monumental importance. For example, how will the Charlotte Bobcats’ selection of Adam Morrison help the team’s chances of making the playoffs this season? Do the Carolina Panthers have a chance at winning the Super Bowl? What is wrong with the Atlanta Braves?

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Even though she’s an Indiana girl who had only seen the ocean once before we met, there is something about the beach that feels like home to Tammy. She especially likes Sunset Beach, where we go every summer. When I was a kid, on the rare occasions my family took a vacation, we went to Myrtle Beach, about a half hour south of Sunset Beach, but another world entirely in character.

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Driving down Russ Avenue on yet another scorching day, I saw a couple of girls out in front of the Pizza Hut waving at people as we drove by. Behind them, there was a big sign promoting a sale on pizza. I couldn’t really tell you what the sign said because the look on the girls’ faces was so forlorn, so pathetic that I watched them instead. Their waves were not even half-hearted, arms barely lifted, heavy probably from the exertion and the heat, their motions slow and sodden.

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On July 13, the Buncombe County Republican Action Club posted two billboards in Asheville featuring a photograph of a Mexican flag flying over an American flag, the latter of which was also turned upside down. The accompanying message read, simply, “Had Enough?” I’m not sure, but I believe the original photograph was taken when some high school students in California hoisted the flags in this configuration, a stunt that was quickly shut down, but not before the photograph was taken and transformed into a rallying cry for the Action Club and its supporters. The topic, of course, is illegal immigration, a complex problem that the Action Club would like you to believe is not complex at all, but the result of bleeding heart liberalism, pure and simple.

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Just in the past couple of months, I have been forced to confront a prejudice I didn’t really know I had. For years, as it turns out, I have secretly harbored a suspicion that most people who claim to suffer from debilitating back pain are either hypochondriacs — who complain about everything from chronic migraine headaches to an unbearable sensitivity of the eyelashes — or simply freeloaders looking to get out of work and/or draw disability, the sort of people who show up to court hearings in wheelchairs and neck braces and are seen the next day playing racquetball or doing workout routines on the uneven parallel bars.

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In the five years since the terrorists attacked us on 9/11, it has seemed that President Bush could get away with virtually anything, from falsely connecting the attack on 9/11 to our pre-emptive war on Iraq to completely ignoring the Constitution (which he took an oath to defend) in various and egregious ways, including warrantless wiretapping and the seemingly endless detainment of so-called “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay.

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op frThe kids and I are in this strange new bonding phase of our relationship. For years, they displayed not the slightest interest in my personal history, even shrugging in absolute indifference when relatives pulled out old Polaroids to demonstrate the uncanny resemblance between me and them when I was their age.

Or we might be in the car, and an old song would come on the radio and remind me of a funny college story, which I would immediately begin narrating until it got sucked down and drowned in a vortex of moans and groans from the back seat.

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op frFriday afternoon on the deck. The kids are home from school, and the three of us are enjoying another beautiful spring day, watching the squirrels and chickadees compete for the bird seed strewn all over the deck, thanks to the regular suicide runs the squirrels make for the feeder in spite of the best efforts of our miniature dachshund, who patrols this area with alarming vigor, to deter them. We call him “The Sheriff.”

The kids have bowls of chocolate ice cream with M&Ms, and I am enjoying a rare glass of red wine. In the background, Ryan Adams is singing about trains derailing and love lost and how he wants to be somebody’s firecracker. Jack has a chocolate moustache.

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op shoneysIf someone had told me 30 years ago that someday I’d be sentimental about a Shoney’s restaurant closing down, I would have laughed out loud and accused them of being delusional. I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for their potato soup and hot fudge cakes, which I used to order as a kid when my parents took us there on infrequent trips out of town, but it is nothing I’d ever get misty-eyed over, anymore than I would over a three-piece original recipe chicken plate from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Then again, 30 years ago, I could not have foreseen the unlikely role Shoney’s would wind up playing in my family history. Not just any Shoney’s, but this particular Shoney’s, sitting high on its perch in Waynesville like an enormous neon bird watching over the bustling traffic on U.S. 23-74 while keeping one wary eye on Lowe’s across the way.

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op frWe had talked about going to Disney World for so long that it had become an abstraction, so distant and unreal that we might as well have been talking about taking a trip to Saturn. Still, the notion kept forcing itself upward though our cluttered and chaotic family life and back into our consciousness, like a dandelion that finds a way to grow through a crack in the sidewalk.

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Los Lobos: The Town and the City

Remembered by most as “that band that revived ‘La Bamba’,” this criminally under-appreciated group from east Los Angeles may well be the best rock and roll band of the past quarter century.

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There was so much blood all over the place that her home looked more like a slaughterhouse. That’s what she said. She said that he chased her back into the bathroom and she felt the cold, sharp barrel of a pistol pushed hard against her head, and his threats, always with the threats he came, relentless, unpredictable, set off by anything, set off by nothing at all. How many times had he beaten her bloody, threatened to kill her, lost control utterly? She didn’t say.

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Heath Shuler says he will bring integrity and accountability to Washington? Ha! We have here in our satchel 76 examples of Shuler’s low character and corrupt tendencies. Space and decorum prevent us from elaborating fully on every example, but we here at the Hail Mary Headquarters to Re-elect Charles Taylor felt it was vital to make you, the unsuspecting voter, aware of at least some of Shuler’s transgressions.

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“Excuse me, miss, but did you happen to see a princess and a small cow come through here a minute ago?”

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In the aftermath of last week’s election, we’ve seen a seemingly endless parade of politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle making wild claims about just what it all means, the pasting of the Republicans by the Democrats.

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When tragedy strikes and someone we know is suddenly gone, we are still compelled to go looking for them in some strange, sad way. We find them in memories so bright, vivid, and distinct that it seems we could simply open our eyes and be right there with them again, picking up on the same conversation, putting our hand on their shoulder in a sympathetic gesture, grinning over something silly we both saw on TV last week. I mean, they were RIGHT THERE just a moment ago, so how can we not keep looking for them?

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There was a time, about 18 years and 80 pounds ago, that I actually enjoyed jogging. I was never exactly a marathon man, but I could run six miles without much problem.

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Sometime before daylight on the day before Christmas Eve, Tammy and I were gently nudged out of sleep by a small, familiar voice.

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In putting together my annual list of the year’s best albums, I was reminded of what a terrific year 2006 was — there were at least 25 new albums I actively enjoyed this year, a bumper crop.

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When I saw that I had been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the first thing I felt like doing was calling my high school science teacher, Emmy Lu Godwin. Mrs. Godwin was as small as an action figure and whiter than foot powder, but she was also mean and sharptoothed. Imagine a cross between an albino ferret and a vampire, then add a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and that was Mrs. Godwin.

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“Who is the girl wearing nothing but a smile

And a towel in the picture on the billboard in the field near the big old highway

It’s an old story, the only one worth telling, really, especially here on Valentine’s Day. It’s a love story, the lengths that we will go to, etcetera.

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Jack Cox and Kayden Zollinger (soon to be Cox, pending paperwork) are proud — and relieved — to announce the marriage of their parents, Chris Cox and Tammy Jo Schroth. The two were married without apparent warning in an impossibly small, curiously intimate, and strangely romantic setting — the magistrate’s office in the Haywood County Detention Center, adjacent to the lesser of our three Ingles — on Jan. 26 at approximately 4:38 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

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I don’t wear a watch. Why should I? Everywhere I look, I see the time of day. In fact, no matter where I go or how hard I try, I can’t seem to escape the passage of time. It’s on my cell phone. It’s on the oven AND the microwave in our kitchen. It’s on my computer screen, lurking down in the right hand corner.

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Everywhere I go, I get the same question: “How do you do it? How do you find the time and energy to write a column when you have a full-time job and a family, especially when you’re in charge of the kids, ages 5 and 2, while your wife is working during the weekends?

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Some people complain all the time, about everything. They complain about the weather, the price of gasoline, their neglectful friends, the ratio of cashews in the average can of mixed nuts. Everything is a conspiracy against them.

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The same popular culture that some have alleged to produce yet another mass murderer wasted no time in trying to explain him to us in the hours and days following the massacre at Virginia Tech last week.

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With President Bush’s veto of the Democrats’ bill to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the stage is now set for a showdown. Lacking the votes for an override, will the Democrats now roll over and risk losing the momentum they have been building since before the mid-term elections last year, or will they challenge Bush by threatening to cut off further funding for a war that most Americans — according to the polls — no longer support?

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