DUBLIN, N.H. -- What a summer for national credulity fitness. My credulity gets a lot of exercise, since I cover Texas politics. Like Alice in Wonderland's White Queen, years of practice have enabled me to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. But here we are with a perfect feast of mind-bogglers, everyone's credulity stretching and straining in a giant national workout session.

            Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. Well, sure, I can handle that one. Manna from heaven for political humorists of all stripes. I'm afraid the joke will begin to wear thin, however. I know we all like to make fun of California as the epicenter of nuttiness, but in fact that big, beautiful state is in terrible trouble. A $36 billion deficit is not amusing. Teachers are being fired, programs to help the most helpless -- the oldest, the youngest, the most frail -- are being cut.

            The state's economy took a terrible blow in the artificially created energy crisis of 2000-2001. Enron and the other corporate thieves -- empowered by years of the Republican mania for deregulation -- drained as much as $45 billion out of the state. It's a mess and, as is often noticed, Gray Davis is so uninspiring he makes wet Kleenex look exciting. But the 200-plus other candidates should realize that no governor can be popular faced with a mess that size.

            Now, the fact that our government was contemplating creating a futures market in terrorism is a bit of a pause-causer. "They're doing WHAT?" we said, in a rare moment of national unity. This bonkola endeavor became more understandable when we learned John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame, was behind it. Poindexter was up to his neck in Iran-Contra, one of the battiest pieces of illegal cloak-and-dagger fruitcakery ever perpetrated by a government infested with wannabe James Bonds.

            You may recall that Adm. Poindexter -- whose streak of insanity is cleverly disguised by a personality that makes Gray Davis look exciting -- was convicted of lying to Congress (his five felony counts were overturned on appeal). He is the player who came up with the idea for the now-defunct TIA program. TIA (Terrorism Information Awareness) was the loony scheme under which our government would collect every scrap of information available on each of us -- financial records, health, library visits, etc. -- in a mind-boggling exercise of government control that would have make the old Soviet Union look like a libertarian paradise.

            That one was scotched by a righteous combination of civil libertarians and libertarians, but it left poor Poindexter with nothing to do but hatch yet another insane scheme, the market in terrorism futures. Traded right up there on the Chicago Board of Trade, right after sowbellies and soybeans.

            It's reassuring to know that after three strikes, you're out of this administration. The question remains -- why in the name of sanity did George W. ever give Poindexter a job in the first place? Iran-Contra wasn't bad enough? Did the R's owe him for keeping his mouth shut about parts of it? And why did they keep him after the TIPS fiasco?

            Next up, we have the one that still leaves me whomper-jawed. In one of those little flurries on the still waters of the Potomac that indicates some very big creatures are under there having a horrible fight, came word that Colin Powell was on his way out. No, not on his way out. Yes, on his way. No, not.

            Covering this administration gets more and more like the Sovietology of old: People actually study group photos to see who is standing where. The possibility of losing Colin Powell, who mostly seems to have his head screwed on straight, is daunting enough. What sent me into the YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!!!!! mode was the word of who is under consideration to replace him. Quick, who would be worse: Paul Wolfowitz or Newt Gingrich? Yep, that's the list, and even your worst nightmares didn't prepare you for that one, did they?

            Wolfowitz, one of the leading neo-con hawks who got us into this horrible mess in Iraq, is such a clumsy diplomat that he not only couldn't get our old ally Turkey to even let us use its bases during the war, he actually implicitly threatened them with a little regime change in their own country by way of a military coup -- all the better to bring democracy to Iraq, of course. One is reduced to whimpering plaintively, "PLEASE give me a break."

            It is truly hard to tell whether Newt Gingrich as secretary of state is a more horrible prospect than even Wolfowitz. That silly, hypocritical blowhard, that ridiculous pseudo-intellectual with a nasty streak a mile wide. You may have forgotten Newt's advice to Republicans before the 1994 congressional elections, but I haven't. That was the infamous memo from his political action committee, GOPAC, saying that the R's should describe their D opponents -- no matter who they were or what their records -- as "sick," "pathetic," "bizarre," "twisted" and "traitor." If you want to know when and why civil political discourse in this country broke down, try that memo.

            Newt Gingrich is the polar opposite of a diplomat. The only instinct he has is for the jugular. The colossal hypocrisy of his performance during Ken Starr's investigations would have made the sanctimonious Uriah Heep blush.

            So here we are with our collective credulity tanned, buff, limber and ready. What the heck do you think they'll do to us next?

            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 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.