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Spinning the Jenna Story

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, June 6, 2001; Page A27

I, for one, really liked Jenna's choice of pink Capri pants and a toe ring for her May 16 court appearance concerning her first underage-drinking rap. If you're going to get your life dragged through the spin cycle of pundits, political enemies, rent-a-shrinks and public scolds, it may be the better part of valor to wear your Bad Girl rags with pride.

The fact that the president's daughter has been cited twice in less than two months -- the second time with her more bookish twin, Barbara -- for incidents involving underage drinking is certainly legitimate news. But it has also been a withering lesson in the tendentious, sometimes nonsensical uses we make of presidential intimates. Here are just a few of the Big Thoughts we have magically drawn from Jenna's behavior:

(1) Jenna has a Problem with drinking. You know, the problem, the one her father conquered but never entirely acknowledged, having quit drinking at 40 while insisting he was not actually an alcoholic. Now it's quite possible that the president's daughter is on the way to developing what we know to be a profoundly heritable disease. But it's also possible that she is just doing what college students do, in mulish protest of the awful truth that different rules now apply to her from the rules applying to the hundreds of thousands of other college students who scheme to score a margarita on Saturday night. The point is that none of us blabbing about this has the faintest idea which possibility is closer to the truth.

(2) Jenna's drinking is proof of her father's failure to come honestly to grips with his own drinking problem. "Certainly our DWI president has set a very, very bad example for his impressionable girls," wrote Margery Eagan in the Boston Herald. "The apples have not fallen far from the tree." It's hard to see how a guy who pulled up his socks, swore off alcohol and got himself elected president set a bad example for his kids. But somehow we just know that if he'd handled matters better, the Bush twins would spend their Saturday nights having wholesome bowling parties with sherbet punch.

(3) The Bushes aren't handling this right. This we know for sure, apparently, despite not knowing what it is that perfect parents do in these situations to bring their rebellious daughters into peaceful compliance. Salon's Joan Walsh, for example, put her normally formidable powers of discernment to work and surmised, "I'd bet there hasn't been enough communication in the WASP-y Texas Bush family, and it looks as if the first twins are acting out as a result. Their blatant risk-taking and public partying . . . seem designed to force a family reckoning that their father's drinking never triggered." Maybe so. Or maybe they want to get drunk on a Saturday night, like college kids since the dawn of time.

(4) This just proves the folly of making alcohol illegal under the age of 21. Now this is, at least, a genuine policy debate. But a politician's child is exactly the wrong person around whom to frame it. Setting the drinking age at 21 is one of those social games we play, setting a boundary that we understand is routinely breached. We do it in the hope of at least limiting and to some degree controlling the behavior in question, through both law enforcement and cultural taboo. And while many people see this as a form of hypocrisy, many others find it a livable compromise. Using as a test case a young woman who is going to suffer the penalty of worldwide headlines every time she gets nabbed doesn't reflect the real social bargain at issue, and therefore doesn't shed much light on whether it's a good or a popular arrangement.

My impulse to suspend judgment here feels slightly unnatural to me. I come from a family in which alcohol played a devastating role, and I know in my bones the complicated, multi-generational reach it can have. I've been confident, in other matters, that the Bush family dynamics do have some bearing on their public behavior. And the White House's bullying tone about this story makes it doubly tempting not to grant them the restraint they seek. But more than anything, Jenna Bush seems simply like a daughter struggling with an outrageously magnified version of any child's resistance to a parent's demand -- be it a demand made directly or a demand made by the circumstance of the presidency -- that her top priority be to reflect well on him.

I like her for making noise about it. When a president's child breaks the law, we have to report it. But let's spare her the symbolic freight, the crocodile tears, the knowing psychoanalysis. Free Jenna Bush!


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