AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — It should have been an embarrassing admission for him and a flabbergasting one for us: President Bush told Fox News recently that he only "glanced" at newspaper headlines, rarely reading stories, and that for his real news hits, he relied on briefings from acolytes who, he said flippantly, "probably read the news themselves." He rationalized his indifference by claiming he needed "objective" information. Even allowing for the president's contempt for the press, it was a peculiar comment, and it prompted the New York Times to call him "one of the most incurious men ever to occupy the White House."
But in citing this as a personal deficiency or even as political grandstanding, critics may have missed the larger point. Incuriosity seems characteristic of the entire Bush administration. More, it seems central to its very operation. The administration seems indifferent to data, impervious to competing viewpoints and ideas. Policy is not adjusted to facts; facts are adjusted to policy. The result is what may be the nation's first medieval presidency -- one in which reality is ignored for the administration's own prevailing vision. And just as in medieval days, this willful ignorance can lead to terrible consequences.
At least since the Progressive era, America has been an empire of empiricism, a nation not only of laws but of facts. As heirs of the Enlightenment, the Progressives had an abiding faith in the power of rationality and a belief in the science of governing. Elect officeholders of good intent, arm them with sufficient information and they could guide the government for the public weal. From this seed sprang hundreds of government agencies dedicated to churning out data: statistics on labor, health, education, economics, the environment, you name it. These were digested by bureaucrats and policymakers, then spun into laws and regulations. When the data changed, so presumably would policy. Government went where the facts led it.