Maybe the president was listening to the Pope. But the trial balloon of last week, offering amnesty to three million illegal Mexican immigrants, and the latest version of it (we’re down to two million now), is perhaps the boldest initiative of the Bush administration yet. It’s good policy – since many of these would-be Americans are now living under the penumbra of criminality. And it’s great politics – managing to put the Democrats on the defensive and woo an important voting bloc. Bush and Rove realize that if they win the same share of the minority vote in 2004 as they did in 2000, they’re finished. They need something big like this to make a real impression. I was glad my own magazine, The New Republic, saw this last week – and were non-partisan enough to welcome it. One other small suggestion. Immigration issues could also help woo the gay vote. Most other western countries now allow some means of immigration for foreign same-sex spouses and all of them allow unrestricted immigration for people with HIV. If the Bushies found a way to move immigration law on these matters as well, the impact on another winnable bloc could be enormous.

SO WHO NEEDS A HATE CRIME LAW?: The crazed gunman who killed one person and wounded six after opening fire in a Roanoke, Virginia, gay bar has just received four life-terms for his crime. He was prosecuted in a conservative state under existing laws, just as Matthew Shepard’s murderers were. More evidence of the complete pointlessness of hate crimes laws – except to further balkanize this country.

MURDEROUS LOGIC: Bob Herbert spluttered yesterday in what is, even for him, an unusually elevated spasm of self-righteousness. His target? The evil tobacco companies. They are guilty of “moral treachery” (who are they betraying exactly?). Their product has a “murderous aspect” to it. (Murderous? You mean Philip Morris is forcing people to smoke to death?) After the moralizing, Herbert’s real beef turns out to be a study that Philip Morris sponsored that shows that in the Czech Republic, smoking actually saves the government money, because people die at earlier ages and so do not need the expensive pensions and health-care that cost the state a fortune. Herbert doesn’t actually refute the study – in fact, he suggests it’s true. It may also be true in the United States – especially if we enact the vast drug entitlements that Herbert supports for the elderly. But this debate apparently cannot be held. In classic p.c. fashion, Herbert quotes an anti-smoking lefty to the effect that “Philip Morris’s cynical disregard for the lives of Czech citizens, using an economic argument rejected in the U.S., illustrates the need for global controls.” But who exactly has ‘rejected’ this economic argument? We don’t know. But we do know that one of the arguments used to penalize these companies for selling a legal product is that smoking costs everyone money in health-care costs. So long as this argument is wielded, it’s completely fair for it to be examined empirically. If smoking actually saves the government money, then this is something we should know. And if it’s true, then that’s one less specious argument for the trial lawyers, nanny-statists, and sanctimonious populists who now dominate this debate.

P-TOWN MOMENT: Just got back from ‘Showgirls.’ How to describe this Provincetown phenomenon? I guess at some level it’s best summed up as a pro-am drag variety show. Every Monday night, a sublime, twisted genius called Ryan Landry hosts a contest for the best drag act in town. It started modestly several years ago – I’ve now been a regular for five seasons – and has now become almost the equivalent of the town weekly mass. Everyone shows up – townies, tourists, muscle-boys, geeky young lesbians, aspiring drag queens, and local freaks. Like the Oscars, it goes on for ever, and the most compelling acts are often the worst. Tonight’s show featured Varla Jean Merman, the big-boned love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, singing an operatic version of “Disco Inferno,” and a post-modern Shirley Bassey singing “This is my life,” brandishing a box of Life cereal. Ryan cavorts in one ridiculous outfit after another (my favorites are a Mr. Ed horse’s head and a shapeless white thing supposed to be an egg), and sings song-parodies that take regular digs at local characters and merciless fun of gay culture – all out of love, of course. I try never to miss it. Along with impromptu garden readings and drag queens munching pizza at 1am, it’s what makes this place so captivating, and in all its freakiness, the closest I’ve ever come to feeling home.