Jenna and Barbara, Honorary J.D.s

Posted: Jun 06, 2001 12:00 AM
We took one of those oaths, which was not to write about the Bush ladies, but one aspect of their drinking affair is underplayed, which is the sheer idiocy of the law.

We all know that up until the counter-Woodstock anti-alcohol putsch of a generation ago, drinking was permitted in most states after age 18. What seemed to happen simultaneously was that our lawmakers resolved (a) to forbid drinking until age 21, and (b) to permit voting at age 18.

Begin by acknowledging that alcoholism is the worst of our national curses. About 20 percent of Americans who drink, drink too much, and about 5 percent become alcoholics. They do things like destroy family life, run over people while driving automobiles, aim pistols at their wives' lovers or at their wives, and commit suicide, sometimes belatedly. And it is also true that if you put off drinking until age 21, the chances that you will never drink increase -- which stretches out into a hopeful moral: No booze till 21 means no booze everywhere.

Those projections are not airtight, so that the most that can be said is that it pays to postpone alcoholic intake until a little supplementary seniority is there to contribute a better perspective than you have at the earlier age. Certainly the perspective of Jenna and Barbara was off. To have slipped a drink when, it turns out, AP, Larry King, MGM, "60 Minutes" and Jim Lehrer were all staring at them from the corner of the restaurant shows an immature perspective, to be compared with an amateur bank robber.

But attempts to legislate on the basis of a prudent projection of the incidence of alcoholism are themselves misplaced acts of legislative/moral energy, because to choose one is glaringly to ignore that which you did not choose, which is of course tobacco. The statistics here are very firm. If you don't smoke until age 21, the chances are 90 percent you will never smoke. And nicotine addiction, though it doesn't cause mayhem, does cause frequent and painful death.

Now the argument against enforcing the rule against teen-age smoking (it is a "rule" only in that in many states teen-agers aren't permitted to buy cigarettes) is that it is quite simply impossible. Who is so brave and so dumb as to stand up in front of a battery of policemen instructing them to bring into court anyone with a cigarette in his/her mouth who can't prove that he/she was born before 1980? The move to repeal the constitutional amendment against drinking was fueled substantially by the national despair over its enforcement, and derivative gloom over the implications of wholesale resistance to the integrity of laws, let alone constitutionally specified laws.

The idea of eliminating booze from campus life is an abstraction akin to the idea of eliminating rising costs by wage-and-price controls. Moreover, where efforts to do it are employed, the results can be comic. Invited to be the speaker a year ago at the annual celebration of the Yale Daily News, I stipulated that my sole condition was that I be served wine during dinner. Three years earlier my son had been the speaker, and almost all the guests and editors decided to do a binge drunk that evening so that when he got up to speak, nobody was conscious enough to listen. This resulted in an op-ed piece in The New York Times and shocks and quavers at Yale, eddies from which were rippling when I made my appearance.

My hosts decided to handle the law by serving wine to all present who were over 21 (about 30 percent), fruit juice to the others. But of course there was a back-of-the bus feel to this plan, so that, in the event, no wine was served to anybody, which meant that students had to leave the banquet hall before having their beer.

Princeton handles the no-booze-until-21 law by the wonderful expedience of simply ignoring it. At their fraternities (everybody at Princeton belongs), they can have their beer and wine, and the police do other things.

Perhaps most of the time in Austin, Texas, the police do other things, and it is legitimately argued that the Bush ladies were simply dumb and provocative to ask for margaritas, let alone to produce other people's ID cards to disugise their ages. But whatever one might intone about the relative responsibilities of children of public figures, still the offense for which they were arraigned is better commentary on the misbehavior of the law than of the two violators of it.

There are plenty of sanctions one can come up with against student drinkers who overdo it, and the reports a few months ago on binge drinking bring these to light. The Bush ladies have proved not much more than that modern life confirms that sexual equality means also that girls will be girls. Maybe when the two Bush sisters reach a venerable age they will be given honorary degrees by the University of Texas for having brought to focus, in the year 2001, the silliness of that particular blue law.