Bob Herbert

New York

The White House seems to have slipped the bonds of simple denial and escaped into the disturbing realm of utter delusion. On Tuesday, there was President George W. Bush hanging America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, On George Tenet, the former CIA director who slept through the run-up to Sept. 11 and then did the president and the nation the great disservice of declaring that it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

It was a fatal misjudgment.

Another Medal of Freedom was given to L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the chief civilian administrator of the American occupation, who made the heavily criticized decision to disband the defeated Iraqi Army and presided over an ever-worsening security situation. Thousands upon thousands have died in this unnecessary and incompetently conducted war, yet here was the president handing out medals as if some kind of triumph had been achieved. If these guys could get the highest civilian award, what honor is left for someone who actually does a good job?

A third medal was given to General Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, which Bush, in his peculiar way, has characterized as a "catastrophic success." It's an interesting term. Some people have applied it to the president's run for re-election.

By anyone's standards, terrible things are happening in Iraq, and no amount of self-congratulation in Washington can take the edge off the horror being endured by U.S. troops or the unrelenting agony of the Iraqi people. The disconnect between the White House's fantasyland and the world of war in Iraq could hardly have been illustrated more starkly than by a pair of front-page articles in The New York Times on Dec. 10. The story at the top of the page carried the headline: "It's Inauguration Time Again, and Access Still Has Its Price - $250,000 Buys Lunch With President and More."

The headline on the story beneath it said: "Armor Scarce for Heavy Trucks Transporting U.S. Cargo in Iraq."

This administration has many things on its mind besides the welfare of overstretched, ill-equipped GIs dodging bombers and snipers in Iraq. In addition to the inauguration, which will cost tens of millions of dollars, bush is busy wit his obsessive campaign against "junk and frivolous lawsuits," his effort to further lighten the tax load on the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations, and his campaign to cut the legs from under the proudest achievement of the New Deal, Social Security.

So much for America's wartime priorities.

Even domestic security gets short shrift. During the Republican convention, Bush said, "I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country." Try squaring that with the Bernard Kerik fiasco, in which the administration's background check of its candidate for the nation's ultimate domestic security post was handled with the same calamitous incompetence as the intelligence effort that led to the war in Iraq.

Bush's pick (at Rudy Giuliani's urging) for homeland security secretary turned out to be a slick character who had once ducked a required FBI clearance, had a social relationship with the owner of a company suspected of business ties to organized crime figures and had rented a love nest that overlooked the ruins of the World Trade Center.

"I'm Not Perfect," said a headline next to Kerik's picture in Tuesday's New York Post.

You wonder, with so much at stake, where to look in the Bush constellation for the care and competence that the times call for. Secretary of State Colin Powell is heading toward the exit, to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice, who did her best to petrify the nation with loose talk about mushroom clouds. Dick Cheney would still have Americans believe in a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

The man who took the lead in vetting Kerik, the White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, was also the point person in the administration's bid to duck the constraints of the Geneva Conventions, and even to justify torture.

Gonzales is a favorite of the president, who has nominated him to be attorney general and may someday appoint him to the Supreme Court.

Medals anyone? The president may actually believe that this crowd is the best and brightest America has to offer. Which is disturbing.