When Chuck D drops a reference to Halliburton in a song about Hurricane Katrina as he did Sunday —

“No answers from disaster/the masters hurtin’/So who the fuck we call — Halliburton?”

— he almost sounds original. Almost. But for most polemicists, especially those working in print who tend to lack the unique verbal style of the former lead vocalist for Public Enemy, scoring an original Halliburton zinger is a tricky, if not impossible, task.

Still, they try.

On Sept. 2, the Houston Chronicle and other news organizations reported that the U.S. Navy had hired Halliburton subsidiary KBR to help clean up and restore electricity to naval bases damaged by Katrina. As the New York Times noted a few days later, KBR has been performing similar duties for more than 15 years, including last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan. But it didn’t take long for rhetorically challenged critics of the Bush Administration to jump on the news as yet another sweetheart deal for Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer. Soon the inevitable Halliburton one-liners began creeping into print, popping up in letters to the editor and op-ed columns. And rarely has the gap between the two sections seemed so small. When it comes to hatin’ on Halliburton, it turns out, disgruntled readers and disgruntled columnists tend to sound a lot alike.

Skeptical? The following four paragraphs include two recent Halliburton references that appeared on the editorial and op-ed pages of major daily papers and two sent in by readers. Can you tell the difference? (Answers below, but no fair peeking ahead of time.)

(A) “The hurricane has revealed what is inside our nation. It has pierced through the veneer of prosperity and equality to expose the frustration and complacency beneath. Can this mean the end of Republican domination, or will it just mean a fat new contract for Halliburton?”

(B) “Later this week (no point rushing things) W. is dispatching Dick Cheney to the rancid lake that was a romantic city. Maybe Mr. Cheney is going down to New Orleans to hunt looters. Or to make sure that Halliburton’s lucrative contract to rebuild the city is watertight.”

(C) “Often, the National Guard is sufficient. But when the Guardsmen’s communities are destroyed or they are deployed half a world away, the standing military must respond. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is restructuring our military, but if the Army cannot deliver significant quantities of food and water on short notice, the Pentagon must cancel those sweetheart Halliburton provisioning contracts and revitalize the Quartermaster Corps.”

(D) “As I watch the victims of Katrina and view the horrible devastation, my heart goes out to everyone affected. At least I can take relief that our country was financially prepared for the inevitable disasters that we can expect every year. At least we still have a good part of the surpluses President Clinton left us — oh, that’s right, President Bush squandered it on tax cuts for the rich and his chosen war with Iraq. Well, at least — of the money spent on his war — we can account for most of the money that was well spent. Oh, that’s right, Bush’s Halliburton, Brown and Root et al. have embezzled billions of that money, too.”

Answers:

(A) Leo Diaz, reader, Rocky Mountain News

(B) Maureen Dowd, columnist, the New York Times

(C) Brad Lyman, professor of sociology at Baltimore City Community College and contributor to the Baltimore Sun

(D) Craig Warren, reader, the San Francisco Chronicle

Felix Gillette

Correction: This post has been changed to correct the name of Halliburton’s subsidiary, KBR.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.