The last Wednesday in May, I came home to find a message from the Today show: Could I please appear on the program the next morning? The message didn’t say what the subject was. Something about President Bush, I supposed—perhaps how a man who had campaigned on his special ability to work across party lines had managed to run Vermont senator Jim Jeffords out of the Republican party. But I was wrong. When I returned the call, I was told that the topic was an incident that had occurred the previous night, involving the president’s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush, who were charged with using a fake ID and underage drinking, respectively. I declined.
The call from the Today show was followed by three others—from MSNBC, a San Antonio radio station, and an Austin television station, all of which I likewise declined. Each allegedly wanted to address the proper role of the media in covering the story. Sure. Everyone knows what the proper role of the media is in covering children, even the children of presidents: It is to report the public record and nothing more. Arrests should be noted. The disposition of the cases should be examined for evidence of favorable treatment. Beyond that, gossip and speculation and prying into the lives of nineteen-year-old kids are off-limits. Do I think that this is what the Today show or anyone else in the media really wanted to hear? No way. They wanted gossip and speculation and prying into the lives of nineteen-year-olds. And so the media found a way to talk about the Bush daughters: by talking about whether they should be talking about the Bush daughters. On one cable news channel, I saw a Democratic operative describe Jenna Bush’s second alcohol-related incident in a month (following an earlier citation for underage drinking) as “a cry for help.” No, countered the editor of a conservative magazine, it was “a cry for beer.”
The trouble with unleashing talking heads to practice street-corner stereotyping is that the daughters have no way to defend themselves. Politicians, at least, have the ability to fight back by crafting their own images and messages. Kids do not. The stereotype clings to them, an unwelcome burden like a heavy cloak on a warm day.
I have met Jenna Bush exactly once, in January 1998, at Texas Monthly’s twenty-fifth anniversary party. She was sixteen at the time. I had recently written a story about the elder Bushes, and she came over to me and said, “Hi, I’m Jenna Bush, and I want to thank you for the nice article you wrote about my grandparents.” She was a picture of poise and grace. I have considerable familiarity with the mid-teenage child, and I consider this type of mature behavior to be entirely atypical of the species. The next time that my work brought me into contact with then-governor Bush, I related the episode to him. “Oh, thank the Lord,” he said. “I can hardly wait to tell her mother.”
His reaction was one that any parent could relate to. It is all too common amid the