Little Rich Girl
second instance in which American customs have put me in the position of Ripley’s
Believe It or Not 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.
half beer, half lemonade," he explained. "You must have something like
it in the United States."
we prefer to drink just beer."
mean for kids."
kids can’t drink in the United States."
say, when they go out to a bar and their father orders a–"
don’t go into bars."
course not, but if a boy’s with his father and–"
doesn’t matter," I said. "It’s against the law for a father
to order a beer for his kid."
is where understanding broke down totally. "No, you see, the child
doesn’t order the beer," Guillaume went on, his patience rapidly eroding.
doesn’t matter," I repeated.
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… In
other words, he went all colonial on me. He treated me as if I were some savage
who misunderstood the hard facts of his own country. It was as if I were a tribesman
from Mbonkoland telling a couple of tourists that his country’s leading industry
is tin mining, which confuses the tourists, who know the country mines nickel,
not tin. The confusion would get resolved when some "old Mbonkoland hand"
explained that, in the Mbonkolese languages, "tin" is the word used
for any metal. But there was no old American hand around, and no possibility of
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
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
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.
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
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.)
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.