This is the question I asked myself as, one by one, the pictures of the latest Presidential Medal of Freedom awardees flashed by on my computer screen. First came George Tenet, the former CIA director and the man who had assured President Bush that it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then came L. Paul Bremer, the former viceroy of Iraq, who disbanded the Iraqi army and ousted Baathists from government jobs, therefore contributing mightily to the current chaos in that country. Finally came retired Gen. Tommy Franks, the architect of the plan whereby the United States sent too few troops to Iraq.
One by one these images flicked by me, each man wearing the royal-blue velvet ribbon with the ornate medal -- one failure after another, each now on the lecture circuit, telling insurance agents and other good people what really happened when they were in office, but withholding such wisdom from the American people until, for even more money, their book deals are negotiated. (Franks has already completed this stage of his life. His book, "American Soldier," was a bestseller.)
The White House medal ceremony was really about George W. Bush. It had a slight touch of the absurd to it, as if facts do not matter and failure does not count. The War to Rid Iraq of WMD has now become The War to Bring Democracy to the Middle East. No one is ever held accountable, because the president will not do as much for himself. He admits no mistakes because he is convinced that he has made none. The terrorist attacks themselves, for which Tenet should have been sacked, are no one's fault because they cannot be the president's fault. He was warned. Condi Rice was put on notice. But, still, who could have known?
To make these awards in the face of failure -- the mounting American death toll, the awful suffering of the Iraqis, the looming possibility of civil war, the nose-thumbing of the still-at-large Osama bin Laden and the madness of making war for a nonexistent reason -- has the creepy feel of the old communist states, where incompetents wore medals and harsh facts were denied. For this reason Bernie Kerik -- three months in Iraq building a police force as good as rhetoric can make it -- seemed as likely and appropriate a recipient of a presidential medal as any of the others.
Maybe next year.
Maybe with the price of gold going up as the dollar goes down, that's all the medals they could afford this year. That whole deal is a travesty right up there with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Kissinger and Arafat. Tacky, just like Bush.