October 11, 2003


George W. Bush's Medieval Presidency (Neal Gabler, October 5, 2003, LA Times)

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.

Reader warning: this is not self-parody. Despite the evidence of the 20th Century, Mr. Gabler apparently thinks that bureaucrats can "guide" government for our own good. This is the very core of the intellectual fallacy

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2003 8:12 AM

Of course the President doesn't read newspapers. He tracks Brothers Judd instead.

Posted by: Peter B at October 11, 2003 8:29 AM

I wouldn't follow the news either if I had the power he has - why should he? How does the constant scandalizing and politicizing and carping/whining/pissing/moaning and bending over for special interest groups contribute anything useful to the public debate? He has to assume - and I hope he is right - that his people know more about what is going on in the country, and the world, than what shows up on the front page of the newspaper fer crying out loud!

The major media has become a laughingstock - the public is just now starting to learn that to trust them implicitly is to be a fool.

The news business - it is not an art, a craft or a trade, it is strictly a business now - apparently takes itself way too seriously. And their criticism about him relying on trusted aides to filter the news for him is quite funny, when you consider that they instead want to filter it themselves.

Posted by: Jeff Brokaw at October 11, 2003 8:48 AM

Why should Bush "read" the media? They don't "read" him (and don't "read" probably 90% of the nation).

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 11, 2003 9:27 AM

But probably 75% of The Nation. . .

Posted by: Twn at October 11, 2003 10:38 AM

Ah, the Progressives as THE model of (anti)constitutional government....

Sadly, we are living out the legacy of Progressivism in so many areas (education, constitutional law, even academia). Undoing that legacy has not even begun, and this guy says we need MORE Progressivism? Geez.

Posted by: kevin whited at October 11, 2003 11:10 AM

Progressives look at facts. Really? Let's look at abortion. Progressives claim it is not a human being. What is it? If we found an unborn baby on Mars, would the headlines read "Life found on Mars" or "Fetus found on Mars"?

Posted by: pchuck at October 11, 2003 1:17 PM

What's worse that every time some Progressive nostrum is used or works as it's intended (like this week's recall in California), modern Progressives are aghast and demand a new set of reform to fix the failures of their previous reform(s). These people really do seem to subscribe to the Red Green philosophy of "if it ain't broke, you're not trying."

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 11, 2003 1:54 PM


Posted by: Barry Meislin at October 11, 2003 5:08 PM


President Bush should certainly have on staff at least one person who reads the newspapers and clips articles for him - after, "know thy enemy" is always good strategic advice.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 12, 2003 11:59 AM

The poor newspapers always have a hard time with the reality that most people do not rely on them for news. I wonder how much the tv news outlets bothered to cover that admission from Bush.

Posted by: at October 12, 2003 2:45 PM

"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."

You got to hand it to Bush. He really knows how to yank their chains.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 12, 2003 10:45 PM

Isn't Gabler a movie reviewer? Do you think he's got a problem with historical reality? What a naive dipstick.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 13, 2003 12:25 PM

Again, we have a problem with broad strokes that are too broad.

Read what part of the newspaper? In the news columns, most stories are continuing, and once you get the background, the new developments are usually summarized adequately in the headlines. There's no reason to keep reading the background over and over.

That Bush personally is incurious is, I think, obvious.

When Kissinger left office, he told someone he took a trunk of books on a vacation in Mexico, because it had been years since he had read an unclassified document. That explains why he was such a dolt.

Good managers -- and Orrin thinks Bush is one -- need to be wary about information overload.

I don't think there's a formula for picking what sources of information you need.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 6:18 PM