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WORLDVIEW

George W. Bush's Medieval Presidency

October 05, 2003|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

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.

Conservatives have often denounced statistics-addicted bureaucrats as social engineers, but they have been no less reliant on data than liberals, because they were no less convinced that government could be rationally conducted. They simply disagreed with liberals on where rationality would take us. President Reagan might dispute economic statistics, and he certainly reinterpreted them to demonstrate how his tax cuts would lead to growth and a balanced budget, as counterintuitive as that seemed. Still, he didn't dispense with facts. He marshaled them to his cause to illustrate that he saw reality more clearly than his antagonists.

The difference between the current administration and its conservative forebears is that facts don't seem to matter at all. They don't even matter enough to reinterpret. Bush doesn't read the papers or watch the news, and Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, reportedly didn't read the National Intelligence Estimate, which is apparently why she missed the remarks casting doubt on claims that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa. (She reportedly read the document later.) And although Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hasn't disavowed reading or watching the news, he has publicly and proudly disavowed paying any attention to it. In this administration, everyone already knows the truth.

A more sinister aspect to this presidency's cavalier attitude toward facts is its effort to bend, twist and distort them when it apparently serves the administration's interests. Intelligence was exaggerated to justify the war in Iraq. Even if there were no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or of ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the CIA was expected to substantiate the accusations. In a similar vein, the New Republic reported that Treasury Department economists had been demoted for providing objective analysis that would help define policy, as they had done in previous administrations. Now they provide fodder for policy already determined. Said one economist who had worked in the Clinton, Reagan and first Bush administrations, "They didn't worry about whether they agreed; we were encouraged to raise issues." Not anymore.

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