Beating the Bushies

Posted: Jan 16, 2004 12:00 AM

Who, exactly, is a public figure? It is a tricky question, and an important one.
President Bush certainly qualifies. By running for office, he?s put himself in the public eye and deserves all the attention he gets.
Britney Spears is, as well. She?s sold piles of CDs and performed thousands of concerts. She sought her fame, and now has to expect that her every public action, from answering Diane Sawyer?s questions to becoming -- and unbecoming -- a bride (we know she kissed Madonna, but was she even hitched long enough to kiss her ?husband??) will be topics of water cooler conversation.

 But how about those related to public figures, such as President Bush?s twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara?

 They?ve never sought the spotlight. In fact, they?ve done all they could to avoid it.

?As the family began to discuss whether George [Bush] should run for president, the girls were adamant in their opposition,? reporter Ann Gerhart writes in her new book, ?The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.?
Unfortunately, even without seeking out the spotlight, they?ve found it. And the existence of the book ?The Perfect Wife? proves that, as does media coverage of the book.

Gerhart?s employer, The Washington Post, ran an excerpt in the Style section on Jan. 7. Most of it amounted to a hit piece on the Bush daughters, and on the way their parents have raised them.

In the book, Gerhart notes that Laura Bush simply wants her daughters to be normal teenagers. ?This declaration is dead opposite from most parents? insistence,? Gerhart lectures, ?which is, ?I don?t care what the other kids do. You are not other kids.?? In fact, Gerhart later opines that the Bush parenting style ?seems to have turned into indulgence.?

Really? A pair of baby boomer parents, indulging their children? Now there?s news.

But in Gerhart?s view, the parents aren?t completely at fault. She also faults the daughters for not stepping out. ?Jenna and Barbara have not campaigned or reined in their adolescent rebellions,? she writes. ?They have not appeared engaged in any of the pressing issues their generation will inherit.?

But isn?t that exactly the point? They could become engaged in public policy. In fact, they?re better positioned to do so than 99 percent of Americans. But so far, they?ve chosen to stay out of the public eye. It would be hypocritical for the daughters to march in pro-war parades or to sit down for interviews with Barbara Walters and then expect the press to leave them alone. All they?re really guilty of here is consistency: They want to be left alone, so they?re minding their own business.

Still, since the very earliest days of their father?s administration, they?ve endured unwanted media coverage.
Back in 2001, Gerhart writes, the major media outlets respected the president?s request that his daughters be left alone. However, tabloid publications weren?t so accommodating. ?Within weeks, the National Enquirer had printed a full-page photo of Jenna laughing and holding a cigarette, crashing to the floor atop a giggling female friend,? she writes.

This, of course, is very different from the coverage former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton enjoyed. ?Chelsea went to parties and drank and had boyfriends just like many other teenagers,? Gerhart admits, ?but Chelsea had a gift for keeping her mishaps out of the public eye.? Either she had a gift, or she enjoyed a gift -- the gift of non-coverage -- from reporters.

Of course, the Bush girls have caused their share of trouble. In the spring of 2001 they were arrested in Austin for underage drinking. It was Jenna?s second citation within a few weeks. The incident got a lot of press, but ended up being settled pretty quietly. Both girls did community service, and Jenna lost her driver?s license and paid a fine.

Now, it?s certainly not good to have the presidential daughters breaking the law. However, their behavior isn?t particularly unusual. Most of us engaged in at least a little bit of underage drinking -- heck, even Chelsea Clinton did. And just last month, Albert Gore III, the 21-year-old son of the former vice president, was arrested and charged with possession of marijuana. So the Bush girls have a lot of company.

What lies ahead for the Bush daughters? Gerhart seems surprised they remain uninterested in politics. ?So far,? she writes, ?they have shown little inclination to embrace the life of public service modeled by their parents, uncle and grandparents.?

Indeed. What they?ve said, and what they?ve shown, is that they want to be left alone. After all, it?s not Jenna and Barbara?s fault that their father decided to run for president. Let?s turn off the spotlight, unless and until they make it clear they?re seeking out our attention.