Roger’s Rules

Fact or Fiction? A challenge for rhetoric detectives

A friend sent me a painfully funny month-by-month Year in Review by the comedian Dave Barry, available at Mr. Barry’s weblog here. A few tidbits:

* John McCain, still searching for the perfect running mate, tells his top aides in a conference call that he wants ”someone who is capable of filling my shoes.” Unfortunately, he is speaking into the wrong end of his cellular phone, and his aides think he said ”someone who is capable of killing a moose.”

* Barack Obama, in a historic triumph, becomes the nation’s first black president since the second season of 24, setting off an ecstatically joyful and boisterous all-night celebration that at times threatens to spill out of The New York Times newsroom. Obama, following through on his promise to bring change to Washington, quickly begins assembling an administration consisting of a diverse group of renegade outsiders, ranging all the way from lawyers who attended Ivy League schools and then worked in the Clinton administration to lawyers who attended entirely different Ivy league schools and then worked in the Clinton administration.

* [In February,] Congress passes, and President Bush signs, an ”economic stimulus package” under which the federal government will give taxpayers back several hundred dollars apiece of their own money, the idea being that they will use this money to revive the U.S. economy by buying TV sets that were made in China. This will seem much more comical in the fall.

* Within hours of receiving a $5 billion lifeline from the U.S. Treasury on Monday, GMAC — the financing arm of General Motors — slashed its car-loan rates and lowered its lending standards to help GM sell, sell, sell. As of Tuesday, GMAC was offering 0% financing on several models — hey, if 0% is good enough for Ben Bernanke, it’s good enough for you — and said it would extend credit to buyers with credit scores as low as 621 — right on the edge of subprime territory. The median credit rating is 723.

Oh, wait: that last one wasn’t from Dave Barry: it was from The Wall Street Journal.

Dave Barry said this:

[In December,] the CEOs of the Increasingly Small Three auto makers return to Washington to resume pleading for a bailout, this time telling Congress that if they can reach an agreement that day, they will throw in the undercoating, the satellite-radio package AND a set of floor mats. ”We’re actually LOSING MONEY on this deal!” they assure Congress. Finally they reach a $13.4 billion agreement under which the car companies will continue to provide jobs, medical insurance and pension benefits, but will cease producing actual cars. The agreement will be overseen by the federal government, using its legendary ability to keep things on budget.

Hard to tell the difference isn’t it? How about this:

Barack Obama, continuing to shake up the establishment, selects as his running mate Joe Biden, a tireless fighter for change since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1849. The Democratic Party gathers in Denver to formally nominate Obama, who descends from his Fortress of Solitude to mesmerize the adoring crowd with an acceptance speech objectively described by The New York Times as “comparable to the Gettysburg Address, only way better.”

That’s Dave. And this? “The speech, which has gotten wonderful reviews, should be required reading in classrooms across the country — and in as many other venues as possible. With a worldview that embraces both justice and healing, Senator Obama is better on these issues than any American leader since King.” Sounds like Dave, but really it’s Bob Herbert in The New York Times.

Not only is Dave Barry’s Year in Review fun in its own right: it also affords students of contemporary culture and media a chance to hone their skills as rhetoric detectives. One of the things that makes Mr. Barry’s humor troubling as well as funny is it uncanny closeness to the realities it satirizes.