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 daily landmarks of child-rearing—the prolonged appeals to get out of bed in the morning, the chores that remain undone, the occasional temper tantrum, the smiles that make you forgive and forget—to miss the poise and grace that strangers are often the first to notice. Parents have too much to worry about. I see the story of how the Bush family deals with this drinking incident not as one for public consumption, but rather as one for private discussion in families everywhere. The father has to decide whether to move to a new city, to seek a new job that offers greater prestige and rewards for himself but creates problems for his children. It happens all the time in America, and sometimes the parents have to sacrifice and sometimes the children have to sacrifice and sometimes neither are willing to sacrifice. It happens too that some parents (and I speak from firsthand experience) are condemned to see the mistakes of their youth repeated by their children. It comes as no surprise to parents of teenagers that all the power and glory of the presidency is useless in the face of two kids who have their own ideas about growing up.
Nevertheless, I think that the case of the Bush girls is more than a strictly personal matter. The media have focused principally on whether politics trumps privacy. I have already stated my disagreement with the notion that just because the president’s family is involved, privacy goes out the window. But I do think that the incident raises two other public-policy issues that ought to be considered, quite apart from the Bush family. First, we need to consider whether our laws about drinking make sense. If you set out to devise an example of an ineffective law, you could hardly produce a better prototype than one that prohibits college-age students from consuming alcohol. Well, there’s one that would be even more futile: to prohibit adults from consuming alcohol. We tried that too, with devastating and lasting consequences for American society and respect for the law. Prohibition was a noble idea that didn’t work. Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 was a noble idea that doesn’t work. It makes lawbreakers out of our kids.
This is an old and familiar debate in America. All of the good arguments are on the side of temperance—it saves lives, it saves families—except for one: Strict laws have never stopped people from drinking and they never will. Moonshiner, speakeasy, rumrunner: The language of evasion is embedded in American culture. If you think that this is likely to change, run out to your local bookstore and pick up a guide to America’s colleges. You will read that at many schools, one residence hall is identified as substance-free. One. The students who choose to live there agree to abide by the policy and enforce it themselves. This tells you all you need to know about widespread drug and alcohol use on college campuses and the impossibility of enforcing rules against it. As a parent of three teenagers, I preach abstinence and hope for restraint. But I also believe that lives can be ruined just as surely by bad law as by bad behavior. A law that tries to deal with excessive drinking by prohibiting all drinking is a bad law.
Second, we need to rethink our ideas about punishment. The vogue today is ever tougher sanctions—zero tolerance and tough love and three strikes, with scant distinction made between lesser and greater offenses. A zero-tolerance policy on drug possession in school has been applied to aspirin in a student’s backpack. This obsession with punishment is an outgrowth of the debate over values that has dominated American politics during the past two decades. The lack of values—adherence to a strict moral code—is held responsible for all the ills of society. Politicians blame Hollywood, the music industry, television, schools, parents, and each other for the lack of values, and their prescribed cure is to make examples of those who stray from the straight and narrow. One such attempt was the three-strikes law on underage drinking, passed by the Texas Legislature in 1997 and signed into law by Governor Bush, which is now on the verge of ensnaring Jenna Bush, who pleaded not guilty to her second citation. If she were to be convicted, she would be one offense removed from being subject to a jail sentence.
This is another bad law—not because it could catch the president’s daughter, who should be held responsible for her actions, but because it is too harsh a response to such a small offense. A lesser punishment, such as the mandatory surrender of an underage drinker’s driver’s license, would provide a deterrent without putting kids behind bars. The result of our current punishment scheme is that our prisons and jails are filled not only with the violent criminals who should be there but also with small-time substance abusers. It is too bad that it takes the misadventures of a reluctant celebrity to shine the light on a bad public policy, but the truth is that when lawmakers vote for such bills and governors sign them, the person they picture being led away to jail is never one of their own kids. If it were, they would never vote for the laws in the first place.
I’m all for instilling values, but I wish that politicians would leave that job to the parents. Some of us will mess it up, but our children will turn out all right anyway. Others of us will do our best, only to find that our children have minds of their own. Of all the members of the animal kingdom, humans seem to be the least able to transmit the acquired wisdom of the species from one generation to the next. Legislators—and apparently even presidents—are no exception.