A Story Better Left Untold

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When the story broke about the Bush twins' being cited for drinking at a restaurant in Austin, Texas, I hoped it would fade before my deadline. I remember all too well when I was 19, although not as well as I would have if I hadn't gone in for a good deal of underage drinking. More recently, I remember being the parent of a 19-year-old and worrying about her underage drinking. I would have been a lot more concerned, however, had I thought a bunch of outsiders was going to be judging her as a teenager or me as a parent.

It's fair game to take after George W. Bush for his policy on taxes. It's less fair to take after him for his policy on his daughters, especially since we don't know what that policy is. The weekend at Camp David was going to be hard enough for the extended Bush clan without a couple of hundred nosy press people volunteering their uninformed opinions.

So it was a surprise when Grandma Barbara Bush said in a speech on Friday how interesting it was to have known the President in his unpresidential days, adding dryly — and pointedly — that George was now "getting back some of his own." The crowd roared in a we've-been-there sort of way. Barbara found a middle ground between where Bill Clinton would be — calling Jesse Jackson in to pray and harking back to his alcoholic father — and the total silence of her son George. Calling it a "private matter," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer scolded reporters. "Do you want the American people to know that you're asking about private conversations that took place between the President of the U.S. and his child?"

Yes and no, Ari. People don't want to ask those questions, they dislike the press for asking them, but boy, do they gobble up the newspapers and magazines that provide the answers! Though a majority of Americans say they're pleased that honor and dignity have been restored to the White House, it is only human to gawk when a crack appears in the marble of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, especially if we've stepped on the same crack. Yes, it's part voyeurism, but it's much more I-wonder-how-they'll-deal-with-this.

The arc of these stories guarantees a long life. The tabloids go big first (JENNA AND TONIC, bleated the New York Post), thereby laundering the story for the rest of the media, which then cluck over the tabloids' distressingly low standards. How long will it be, I wondered, before the first JENNA'S CRY FOR HELP story appears? Not long enough. See Friday's New York Daily News. And yet the coverage so far has been more restrained than it would have been if the name on the police report had been Chelsea Clinton. Conservatives lie in wait for evidence of feeble family values and general Democratic decadence. Newt Gingrich blamed the squishy morals of the left when Susan Smith drowned her two young sons in a South Carolina lake. The press gave Chelsea Clinton a lot of room when she arrived at the tender age of 13. Even harsh Clinton critics concede she was one good kid (adding in the next breath, of course, that she was compensating for her dysfunctional parents). Unfortunately for the twins, they are older; one is blonder; both make good copy; and they are highly recognizable. Jenna could hardly have asked for salt on her margarita before the bartender began dialing 911. The Secret Service was nearby, of course — close enough to protect the girls from physical attack but not close enough to protect them from themselves.

Teenage drinking is too common, regrettably, to be news, and Bush's daughters must hate the press for making such a big deal of theirs. But it's also the press that makes it impossible for Dad to claim that in his day he never did such a thing. Friends and family happily volunteer the story of young George arriving home, feeling no pain, running his car into trash cans and confronting his father with the taunt, "Wanna go mano a mano?" Then there's the famous D.U.I. that came out at the end of the campaign. Just two weeks ago at Yale, Bush wore the no-sweat saunter of the frat guy who was so smart (or elite) that he could party and succeed. Bush grew up to become a Governor who drastically increased the penalties for teenage drinking in his state. Once upon a time, I was a little like the young W. But now I want my daughter to do what I say, not what I did. I suspect Bush feels the same way.