Reality: Irrelevant

BOSTON – OK, here's my brilliant Insider Insight du jour: The D's aren't going to get much of a bounce out of this convention because this race is already so tight there just ain't enough swing votes to bounce anywhere.

The popular selection of John Edwards for veep didn't provide much of a bounce, and neither will the Beantown Bash. Aside from that, everyone is having a wonderful time.

Marty Nolan, a scholar of Boston, quotes T.S. Eliot on "Boston doubt," defined as a readiness to yield "to all suggestions which dampen enthusiasm or dispel conviction." That could account for a lot about John Kerry.

President Bush's slightly alarming claim to the Amish on July 9 that God speaks through him – that's what he said, God speaks through him – raises some troubling prospects. First of all, I think God has a better grasp of subject-verb agreement than George W. Bush do. Also, when Bush changes his mind, as he frequently does, do we think God has had to rethink things after the polls have come out?

Nice to see President W. employing the tactic Texans got so familiar with under Governor W. – the "Gee, I'm really for it, but I can't be bothered to expend one iota of political energy trying to help it pass." (He also frequently uses the reverse ploy by announcing he opposes something he can't be bothered to spend an iota of energy on.)

This is the game Bush is playing on the assault weapons ban, which he officially favors renewing (soccer mom vote there), but – surprise! – since he won't do anything to get it renewed it will be allowed to lapse (NRA vote there). Just what we need in this country, more automatic assault rifles.

A more subtle play is the White House decision to oppose a two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts on the grounds that it's not a five-year extension. This dubious ploy, from the right's point of view, sacrifices a tax cut in the hand for a political issue in the bush, as it were. I'm not sure they can run that one: "Those nasty Democrats would only vote for a two-year tax cut instead of a five-year tax cut," he pouted. "See, they just hate tax cuts."

Kind of hard, even in the funhouse mirrors of the campaign, to argue that Democrats in Congress have spent a lot of time successfully thwarting Bush on anything. But R's are much in the habit of seeing themselves as victims, so it will make them happy.

Meantime, those faithful political junkies following the festivities here on C-SPAN may need some reading material to tide them over during the boring speeches, and I have two pips to recommend. Hendrik Hertzberg (his friends call him Rick) has put out a collection called simply, "Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004," that is pure pleasure to read. The New Yorker editor and former editor of The New Republic has such a good mind, such a strong sense of ethics and honor. There is an almost physical pleasure, like having an itch scratched, in watching him come to grips with some of the thorniest, nastiest, most divisive issues of the past 40 years, and slice them cleanly into comprehensible form. Besides, he writes like a dream.

A book that is both more dense and more important is David Cay Johnston's "Perfectly Legal." The obligatory, explanatory subtitle is "The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich – and Cheat Everybody Else." This, too, is like having an itch scratched, in that one keeps saying, "Aha, so that's how they do it." And it is fascinating. And horrifying. The ease with which corporations evade taxes is well known, but finding out just how much money their cute little tricks are worth will curl your hair.

I suppose if one were as rich as Bill Gates, one would be tempted to save a billion or two in taxes, but it seems kind of pointless when one is sitting on that many billions. Seriously, the super rich have been allowed to accumulate so much money that one finally has to ask what they think the point is. Those far more detestable are the congressmen who sneak special tax advantages and exemptions into the law in exchange for campaign contributions and then lecture the rest of us on patriotism.

Government really is about who benefits and who pays. Who gets screwed and who's doing the screwing. And there is no point at which that can be seen more clearly than in our tax system. Johnston, a superb reporter for The New York Times, has broken one story after another about how the system really works, and it's all here.

That so much of what passes for debate about our tax system is gross misinformation is not, unfortunately, the result of accident or ignorance. There are a lot of people blowing smoke in your ear who know much better. They get paid to lie. Happily, Johnston gets paid to find the truth, and he does so in this book with admirable tenacity. This is the real story of what is happening in America.

Too bad we're watching a political campaign in which reality is considered irrelevant. Happy warm and fuzzies.

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