George W. Bush’s Medieval Presidency
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.
Even the scientific community has been waved off by the medievalists. A minority staff report issued last month by the House Government Reform Committee investigating scientific research found 21 areas in which the administration had “manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings,” including the president’s assurance that there were more than 60 lines for stem-cell research when there were actually only 11; it concluded that “these actions go far beyond the typical shifts in policy that occur with a change in the political party occupying the White House.” When a draft report of the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year included data on global warming, the White House ordered them expunged. Another EPA report, on air quality at ground zero in Manhattan, was altered to provide false reassurance that no danger existed, even though it did.
Every administration spins the facts to its advantage. As the old adage goes, “Figures don’t lie but liars do figure.” But the White House medievalists aren’t just shading the facts. In actively denying or changing them, they are changing the basis on which government has traditionally been conducted: rationality. There is no respect for facts because there is no respect for empiricism. Instead, the Bush ideologues came to power smug in the security of their own worldview, part of which, frankly, seems to be the belief that it would be soft and unmanly to let facts alter their preconceptions. Like the church confronting Galileo, they aren’t about to let reality destroy their cosmology, whether it is a bankrupt plan for pacifying an Iraq that was supposed to welcome us as liberators or a bankrupt fiscal plan that was supposed to jolt the economy to health.
Bush has made a great show of his religious faith, and he has won plaudits from many for reintroducing the concept of evil into political discourse. But his stubborn insistence on following his own course, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, may be the most profound way in which religion has shaped his presidency. Bush has a religious epistemology. Having devalued the idea of an observable, verifiable reality and having eschewed rational empiricism, he relies on his unalterable faith in himself not just to inform his policies, as all presidents have, but to dictate them.
His self-confidence is certainly admirable at a time when most politicians mistake opinion polls for empiricism. It is also scary. As writer Leon Wieseltier recently observed, this is a presidency without doubt, one entirely comfortable with its own certainties, which is what makes it medieval. But as Wieseltier also observed, it is doubt that deepens one’s vision of life and often provides a better basis for acting within it. It is doubt that helps one understand the world and enables one to avoid hubris. A presidency without doubt and resistant to disconcerting facts is a presidency not on the road to Damascus but on the road to disaster. By regarding facts as political tools, it compromises information and makes reality itself suspect, not to mention that it compromises the agencies that provide the information and makes them unreliable in the future. And by ignoring anything that contradicts its faith, it can vaingloriously plow ahead -- right into the abyss. The president and his crew may well live within a pre-Enlightenment lead bubble where they are unwilling and unable to see beyond themselves, but their fellow Americans must live in the real world where even the most powerful nation cannot simply posit its own reality. If you need proof, just read the newspapers.