IT'S BEEN A dark week for satire.

Within 48 hours, two of the world's great punch-line generators — Kevin Federline, alias "Mr. Britney Spears," and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — abruptly punched out.

Not since Oct. 10, 1973 — when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned just hours after Elvis and Priscilla Presley unplugged their marriage — has topical humor received such a body blow.

Rumsfeld is the bigger loss. It's hard to imagine his prospective replacement, former CIA chief Robert Gates, ever drifting off in a future Iraq news conference to wax on about the days before air conditioning. It's more likely that Britney's next catch will be as dopey as her last. But the truth is, punch lines just don't grow on trees.

Of course, ex-dentists and off-season lawn-care experts will spend the next 30 years warring over Rumsfeld's rightful Wikipedia entry. Some will say he was to Iraq what former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was to Vietnam. But that won't give him enough credit.

Rumsfeld deserves to be remembered not only as McNamara but as his cultural confrere Merle Haggard, who wrote and sang "Okie From Muskogee." For three troubled years of war, Rumsfeld served as America's go-to guy for colorful, unrepentant sound bites. Every war needs one.

Rumsfeld was the Zen master of Pentagon briefings, capable of levitating the media and TV audiences to another plane of thought. He did this with an improvisational ease that few performers — except game-show hosts — ever achieve.

Asked a question, he'd wince, close his eyes, sigh and then strangle the air in front of him, as if it held the Al Qaeda brass he never did catch. Then he'd sift through selected experiences from his epic 74 years and sculpt an answer. His words were best fathomed after being parsed with a return key and italic type.

For example, consider this self-revelation, spoken May 16, 2001, in an interview with the New York Times:

It's amazing.

Once in a while,

I'm standing here, doing

something.

And I think,

"What in the world am I

doing here?"

It's a big surprise.

In the last few weeks, Rumsfeld found himself doing exactly what he'd always vowed never to do: hawking for a political campaign. Maybe it was the beginning of the end. Speaking with a fawning radio talk-show host from Cincinnati, Rumsfeld managed to utter one meager, yet prophetic, haiku:

There have always been