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Jewish World Review June 6, 2001 / 16 Sivan 5761

Philip Terzian

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The girls are all right -- YOU may have noticed that the Bush daughters' apparent acquaintance with alcohol has lately made the news.

Barbara Bush, a freshman at Yale, tried to use a false identification card at a New Haven saloon. Jenna Bush, a freshman at the University of Texas, has twice been apprehended drinking beer at Austin restaurants. In both cases, the Bush girls were victims of celebrity: The manager of the Austin restaurant, a Democratic activist, recognized Jenna and called the cops. In New Haven a security guard, one Bill Coale, confiscated Barbara's fake ID, where it now hangs on his family room wall.

These incidents have not gone unreported in the press. Because both Bush girls are adults in the eye of the law (18) most newspapers have covered the stories extensively. TV personalities such as Katie Couric and Matt Lauer have devoted considerable time on the air to repeating the charges, interviewing family counselors and psychologists, and soliciting the views of George W. Bush's political detractors. This has greatly irritated the Bush family, which points out that neither daughter holds public office -- both argued strenuously against their father running for president -- and the infractions, while genuine, are decidedly trivial.

Democrats, however, see it another way. They have used the occasion to remind readers and viewers that the girls' father, George W. Bush, once had a drinking problem himself -- "our DUI president," as one columnist puts it -- and make the hypothetical argument that, if Chelsea Clinton had done anything comparable, the vast right-wing conspiracy would never have dropped the subject.

There is no doubt that President Bush was once a problem drinker; he has acknowledged as such, over and over, and stayed away from alcohol for the past 15 years. The second point, however, is highly debatable. It is possible that some Clinton critics might have exploited Chelsea's problems, if she had any; but the fact is that we know next to nothing about the subject. Chelsea Clinton was off-limits to the press during her father's tenure in the White House -- except, of course, when she was needed for photo opportunities during the Lewinsky affair -- a condition which persists to this day. When her mother ran for the Senate last year, the 21-year-old Chelsea often accompanied her on the hustings, smiling, waving and shaking hands, but standing resolutely silent when asked the occasional question.

Nor can it plausibly be argued, as some have tried, that because President Bush has gotten kid-glove coverage in the press (or so I am told) hungry reporters are bound to pounce on his daughters' travails. That's a nice theory, but it founders on the recent history of Albert Gore's children. One of the Gore daughters was once accosted by police in Chevy Chase, Md., for underage drinking -- she tried the don't-you-know-who-I-am argument -- but the story was largely suppressed. Albert Gore III was summarily dismissed from St. Alban's School (his father's alma mater) for reasons that have never been publicly explained, and just last summer, young Albert III was charged in North Carolina with driving 97 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone.

Why should the Bush daughters generate such media attention while Chelsea Clinton is shrouded by the press, and the Gore children go unmentioned? It's a good question, for which there is only one answer: The press is anxious to protect its favorites, and eager to embarrass a Republican president.

To be sure, the Bush daughters did not display sound judgment. Whether they like it or not, they are subject to a level of scrutiny -- and frequently hostile scrutiny -- that they neither asked for nor can ever escape. I presume their parents have since impressed upon them the value of prudence, and the sad reality that their lives are forever transformed.

Still, you have to ask yourself whether it is more self-destructive and dangerous to others to drive 97 mph in a 55 mph zone, or to brandish a false ID in an Ivy League hangout. And compared to the fun and games played by 18-year-old Baby Boomers in their heyday, a college freshman ordering a beer in a Tex Mex restaurant seems comparatively benign. Let he who is without sin cast the first olive.

There is one final irony. Those who argued against Bill Clinton's impreachment because the case involved an invasion of privacy are the ones most eager to harass, and publicly humiliate, Jenna and Barbara Bush.

Privacy is either a privilege or a right; but whatever it is, it ought not to be invoked selectively. What the Bush girls are accused of doing falls under the broad category of youthful mischief, and the Bush family is entitled to protection from inquiring minds. And if this is the worst that can be said about the Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, then the President and First Lady deserve full marks for being good parents.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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