First Family Follies

Why President Bush should let his daughters drink


Let us now praise the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, for delivering us from a dreary, scandal-free news cycle. As the sinking post-Clinton ratings of most cable yak shows attest, nothing grabs eyeballs like tales of personal and public folly. If our national politics cannot be ideologically satisfying, they might as well be as luridly comic as a below-average episode of Sex and the City.

With their hilariously bungled attempt in June to order margaritas at a Texas restaurant—Jenna's willingness to flash a fake I.D. amid Secret Service agents and a knowing Austin crowd cements her reputation as the Anna Nicole Smith of her generation—the twins have done more than simply shame their teetotaling dad and school-marm mom. Barbara and Jenna have entered the pantheon of First Family Screw-Ups who over the years have given so much laughter and joy to the body politic.

The 19-year-old twins now stand shoulder to shoulder with such epigones of embarrassment as Roger Clinton, whose coke-addled vocal stylings finally found an audience in the rock 'n' roll clubs of North Korea; Uncle Neil Bush, who has effectively gone missing since his role in the Silverado Savings & Loan scandal cast a pall over Poppy Bush's years in power; Patti Davis Reagan, who not only laid bare her disagreements with her father at numerous anti-nuke rallies but eventually laid bare for Playboy; and Billy Carter, whose predilection for public urination was matched only by his willingness to exploit his First Brother status to sell self-branded beer to his countrymen and arms to rogue nations.

This is heady company, and the fact that Barbara and Jenna have managed to enter such a charmed circle at such a young age—and so early in their father's tenure—is surely a testament to their superior upbringing. Who could have imagined this even a few months ago? During the election season, the twins were tucked so well into the background that few Americans knew their real names, let alone their bar-hopping aliases. (Last fall, reports Newsweek, Yale frosh Barbara tried to score some hooch in New Haven as one Barbara Pierce of Baltimore, Maryland.)

None of this is to suggest that the Bush twins did anything wrong when they bellied up to the bar at a Mexican eatery called Chuy's. Quite the contrary. They were not only following in their father's admitted footsteps by trying to fill their young adulthood with boozy evenings; they were doing what college students, and youths more generally, have done for centuries: go out drinking.

The problem is that they were doing so in an America that criminalized such traditional behavior in the mid-1980s—when their very own grandfather was vice president of the United States and their very own father was taking the pledge.

Even as the Reagan-Bush administration promised to minimize the scope and size of the federal government, it waged a gratuitous, invasive, multi-front campaign against pleasure-seeking: It reinvigorated the War on Drugs, pushing through grotesquely draconian laws that have helped create a national drug-gulag system the envy of every two-bit dictatorship. It prosecuted "porn merchants" such as the publishers of the inoffensive Adam & Eve sex-aids catalog. (Check out Philip D. Harvey's new memoir, The Government vs. Erotica, for a depressing but engrossing account of the latter.) And, apropos of the Bush twins, it pushed to have every state in this sweet land of liberty raise its drinking age to 21.

How did the feds accomplish that? By tying federal highway dollars to state drinking ages, a policy that then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole—whose Viagra pitchman husband Bob was last seen pursuing his own pleasure by ogling Britney Spears in a Pepsi commercial—considers among her very greatest contributions as a public servant.

Such repression was not just a Republican cause, and it didn't end when Bush the Elder was sent packing. Bill Clinton—no stranger to booze, drugs, or adult entertainment—pushed tough drug and teen-age drinking laws too. (He did go soft on porn, effectively suspending federal prosecutions in that area.) In such a climate, then-Gov. Bush signed a three-strikes law punishing underage drinkers that may even end up putting daughter Jenna in the slammer.

How best to undo such ironic justice? President Bush might work to undo the legacy to which he has contributed by pushing for a drinking age that would allow his daughters, and the nation's young adults, to experience college the way he did 30 years ago.

A teetotaler legalizing student drinking? Not quite Nixon going to China, but not so bad a goal for the second 100 days.