AUSTIN -- Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is a subscriber to the theory that so-called "values politics" and lifestyle issues are just sophisticated versions of that old carnival con the shell game, in which the object is to keep the rube's eye off the shell with the pea under it.

"The trick never ages: The illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. ... Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization."

As a result of this gussied up and newly sophisticated political con job, Franks sees the country as "a panorama of madness and delusion ... of sturdy blue-collar patriots reciting the Pledge while they strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of working-class guys ... delivering up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life and transform their region into a 'rustbelt,' and strike people like them blows from which they will never recover."

So here we are at the ultimate level of the con game -- if you don't support Bush's misbegotten war or you object to how this administration has fouled up in carrying it out, you're unpatriotic.

I'd like to draw your attention to another example of how you're being suckered that's common as dirt these days, but is in the headlines here in Texas because three top fund-raising lieutenants to Rep. Tom DeLay got indicted on Tuesday, along with eight corporations. They are charged on the unlikely grounds of having broken Texas campaign finance law. Actually, we don't have much in the way of campaign finance law in this state -- anybody can give any amount of any money to anybody, except, of course, for corporations and labor unions. Oops.

This was really a beautiful play, kind of a triple bank shot, according to the indictment. Corporate money was passed through DeLay's national political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, back to an affiliate Texans for a Republican Majority, where it was funneled into 17 statehouse races that would give Republicans a majority in the Ledge and allow the election of Tom Craddick as speaker.

Then, Craddick used the new majority to force an unprecedented, out-of-turn redrawing of the Texas congressional districts at the instruction and tutelage of DeLay's aides and DeLay himself. Republicans are predicted to pick up five new seats under the Craddick-DeLay plan, thus helping ensure their party's lock on the U.S. House. Neat, huh?

It's kind of hard to hide all this under one shell, especially since Republicans went around bragging about breaking the law after the 2002 election, but I was interested in the corporate indictments because I found a couple of familiar names there.

Westar Energy of Wichita, Kansas -- imagine that. Two Westar executives are under already under indictment on 40 federal criminal charges NOT including bribery charges stemming from the $60,000 Westar contributed to DeLay and three other players in order, according to company memos, to buy legislation to excuse the company from federal investment regulations.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas introduced the provision that Westar wanted into the energy bill, and DeLay, the majority leader, and Billy Tauzin, on the energy conference committee, both voted for it. The Westar exemption was dropped from the bill only when papers reported a federal investigation of the company.

Another favorite of mine, also named in the Texas indictment, is the Bacardi USA rum company. The company is actually Bacardi Ltd., headquartered in Bermuda, and has been involved for years in a lawsuit with another rum company over a trademark issue. DeLay first tried to change language in the defense appropriations bill in November 2003 to fix a section of the bill to Bacardi's specifications.

Bacardi has contributed tens of thousands not only to DeLay's political action committees but also to DeLay's "charitable causes." DeLay, a born-again Christian, set up a tax-exempt corporation, Celebrations for Children, to solicit "donor packages" of up to $500,000 to pay for Broadway shows, cruises, golf tournaments and private dinners with DeLay and other members of Congress during the Republican Convention. The rest of the money was to go to homes for foster children in his district. After complaints to the IRS, DeLay cancelled the plans.

For more delicious and amazing stories about how DeLay conducts "bidness as usual" while the Republicans get people all worked up over the menace of gay marriage, get the new book "The Hammer" by Lou Dubose and Jan Reid. I'd recommend it even if they weren't friends of mine, which they are.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.