Pour, Little Rich Girl

One of the only things I've ever told foreigners about the United States that they simply refused to believe concerns our drinking laws. Last Bastille Day, I visited friends in a small town in Normandy. After the fireworks, the entire extended family wandered over to a cafe patio and we all ordered drinks. My friend Guillaume ordered a panaché for his 11-year-old son. I asked him what a panaché was, and that launched us on a 10-minute excursion into utter mutual incomprehension.

"It's half beer, half lemonade," he explained. "You must have something like it in the United States."

"No, we prefer to drink just beer."

"I mean for kids."

"Well, kids can't drink in the United States."

"But, say, when they go out to a bar and their father orders a --"

"Kids don't go into bars."

"Of course not, but if a boy's with his father and --"

"It doesn't matter," I said. "It's against the law for a father to order a beer for his kid."

This is where understanding broke down totally. "No, you see, the child doesn't order the beer," Guillaume went on, his patience rapidly eroding. "The father --"

"It doesn't matter," I repeated.

Guillaume called over his older brother Maurice, who had a reputation as the town savant, and explained what we'd been talking about. Maurice did an extraordinary thing: he told me that what I was saying could not possibly be true, and if I actually went back and checked the relevant U.S. laws, I'd find ...

As the meaning of Barbara and Jenna Bush's alcohol troubles gets masticated in the press, the key point to bear in mind is the one that most easily gets lost. It's that there are no customs on Earth more bizarre than America's alcohol laws. When you think of them, think of suttee, foot-binding, and ritual scarification.

The 19-year-old Bush twins were arrested at an Austin saloon last week for underage drinking. Naturally, there's no evidence that either of them has an unnatural relationship with alcohol -- so the state of Texas has taken it upon itself to provide them with one. Owing partly to a jurisdictional accident -- Barbara Bush attends Yale in semi-civilized Connecticut and Jenna attends UT in enforcement-mad Texas -- Barbara will probably get off with community service, but Jenna could be in a world of pain.

You see, Jenna has a prior conviction for underage drinking. She was sentenced just three weeks ago to community service and alcohol education lessons. And it emerged at the end of last week that Jenna may actually have two prior convictions. There is a 1997 incident on police databases. Because Jenna was a juvenile at the time it has not been revealed whether that incident was an arrest or merely a warning. If Jenna does in fact have a third underage drinking offense on her record, then under Texas' ridiculous "three strikes" law, she could face a jail term of up to six months. The horrid irony here is that Jenna's own father not only signed that law but actually agitated for it.

Almost anyone who thinks for a second about Jenna's predicament will find himself pulled in opposite directions. The dual sympathies that result resemble those of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At least they resemble mine. On the one hand, there was simply no way that the American people should have had their constitutional right to choose their president nullified because moralists objected to that president's having had an affair. On the other hand, the President was in danger of impeachment because he himself had signed a Violence Against Women Act that was an outrage to freedom worthy of the Khmer Rouge. And not just signed it -- crowed about it, and belittled those who raised libertarian objections to it. Under the act's feminist-dictated terms, any woman suing a man for the nebulous "crime" of sexual harassment was entitled to demand under oath his entire sexual curriculum vitae. And that's just what Paula Jones did.

Back to Jenna. On the one hand, there is no way that George Bush's daughter should go to jail for having a drink. (What would make that outcome even more sickening, should it transpire, is that most of the people passing judgment on her -- from the cops to the prosecutors to the jury to the judge -- will likely have done with impunity exactly what she did.) On the other hand, if she does enter the prison system -- a prison system, by the way, that Bush did nothing to make less brutal and degrading -- it will be as a result of her own father's presidential resume-building.

In both Clinton's case and Bush's, it was easy to envision two happy outcomes, one ideal, one passable. Ideal would have been a nationwide reconsideration, led by the President himself, of the idiotic and illogical laws that had brought us to this pass, to be followed by concerted effort to overturn them. Second best would be an exercise of the presidential pardon authority to ensure that, if the law doesn't apply to the president or his family, at least no one else gets held liable under it. Neither happened in Clinton's case. Clinton's strategy was to ignore the people whose lives had been wrecked by his stupid law, and aim at his accusers an all-out smear campaign. (It's true that some of those accusers were ruthless and unscrupulous -- ruthless and unscrupulous enough to use the Violence Against Women act exactly as President Clinton had intended his ruthless and unscrupulous allies to use it.)

Bush has not been ruthless like his predecessor, but neither has his administration exercised much -- to use a tough-on-crime shibboleth -- "personal responsibility." Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer even got on his high horse, in an attempt to bully reporters off the story. "I would urge all of you to very carefully think through how much you want to pursue this," he lectured the press last week. "Any reaction of the parents is parental; it is not governmental. It is family. It's private and the American people respect that."

To which one can only say: No it isn't! No they don't! They may say they do, but the American people have persisted in electing Draconian enforcers like George W. Bush.

So Fleischer has it exactly backwards. If Jenna Bush risks getting her young life derailed over nothing, it's because of her father's insistence that the job of teaching kids to drink responsibly be taken out of parents' hands, and placed in the hands of government.

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