The President's drinking problem (June 1, 2001)

Barbara Kay

National Post

Jenna and Barbara Bush, twin daughters of the U.S. President, are in trouble because of alcohol, Jenna for the second time. They allegedly tried to buy beer at an Austin restaurant with another person's ID. Jenna Bush is a freshman at the University of Texas, Barbara attends Yale. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer calls the incident "a private family matter."

He wishes. George W. Bush's rocky relationship with alcohol as a young man, formally ended in 1986 with a commitment to abstention, provoked a good deal of public debate during the presidential race. Response split between those who viewed youthful abuse of alcohol an accepted, even predictable rite of passage, and those who treated it more darkly as a general weakness of character.

As parents with boundary-testing teenagers know -- my son, for example, once set a wooden balcony afire with an improperly stubbed forbidden cigarette -- there's more than a fine line between adolescent acting out and the first downward step to moral depravity. Most families manage to navigate the turbulent passage of adolescence with allotments of luck and mutual respect. Some kids never go beyond the furtive smoke or the occasional beer binge. Others race out of bounds, then in their twenties settle quietly into the predicted niches. The difference in the case of the Bush girls is that their peccadilloes make headlines and are a huge embarrassment to the President.

Nobody is suggesting the Bush girls are on the road to perdition -- yet. But their position as First Children ignites curiosity and criticism; they must be aware of this. Jenna's first incident can be explained away by naïveté, if one is inclined to be charitable. This second brush with the law suggests stupidity or a complete indifference to the significance of their situation. For these girls have been in the public spotlight for quite some time. Surely, if only by watching The West Wing, they know their behaviour will be scrutinized and held up to the harshest of tabloid lights?

Perhaps the instinct to reproach them should be tempered with sympathy. It is natural that Barbara and Jenna, more than most young people, should wish to prove to their peers that they fit in. Being one of the gang at virtually all U.S. universities involves drinking. Football and drinking. It seems ever to have been thus on campus. Partying is what you do -- unless you are a religious freak or a goody-goody. It would take unusual discipline to carve out a social life without conforming. And finally, knowing that one's father in his own youth didn't live up to the standards he is now setting may well have been the psychological tipping factor for the twins.

Of course, there would have been no news story if Jenna attended a university in a state where the drinking age is 18. The latest allegations against both girls, as well as Jenna's first incident, occurred in Texas, where the legal drinking age is 21. Most people would probably agree this is a curiously arbitrary line for the definition of an adult. Texans can marry, have children, go to war, hunt with rifles and start a business under the age of 21. What is it about Texans that make them so distrustful of their citizens when it comes to alcohol?

Americans have had a long love-hate relationship with alcohol, and Texas is a vestigial finger on a now-open, now-closed public hand. The United States was founded by Puritans, and alcohol has always worn a scarlet A on the underside of every whiskey bottle's cap. Alcohol is forbidden to children in the United States because it is tainted with sinfulness. Once young people do get their hands on it, they tend toward wretched excess. Witness the many drink-till-you-vomit frat party stories. Other cultures, other customs. Some cultures ban alcohol outright, others introduce it casually and disinterestedly as a welcome stimulant to be enjoyed in moderation.

Given the freedoms, sexual and otherwise, considered normative in U.S. society, Texas's drinking age is ridiculous and should be changed. In the meantime, however, though the law, sir, is an ass, it is a law, and should be obeyed. Obeyed by everyone, but noblesse oblige in the case of the Bush girls, and they should hold themselves to the highest standard, whatever the social fallout may be. For there is another law that should apply to everyone, but again, more especially to Barbara and Jenna: Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother that thy days may be long upon the Earth (and that your father's days in the presidency be untroubled by you).

Barbara Kay

is a Montreal writer.