Underage drinking an unhappy commonplace

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, June 6, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — A noteworthy aspect of the Bush twins’ unlawful brushes with alcohol is the explanation given by many as to why the press should go easy on them: It’s not fair to mercilessly expose the president’s daughters for doing what’s virtually a rite of passage among American youth.

If we really view college-age drinking as something just about everybody does, shouldn’t we be asking whether it’s healthy to have our law and our reality so far apart? Isn’t it hypocritical — not to mention dysfunctional — to be threatening, ticketing and arresting young adults for a form of behavior that we don’t even want to embarrass the president’s daughters by publicizing?

The notion that it’s one thing to undertake unlawful drinking but a much worse thing to talk about it is, if somewhat bizarre, quite prevalent. Certainly it is common in the Bush household. You’ll recall that the twins’ father was the subject of a similarly uncomfortable exposure when, at the election’s 11th hour, word leaked out that he’d been arrested for drunk driving in Maine in 1976.

Bush had long been at pains not to acknowledge this arrest. He had left blank the space on a jury summons asking whether he’d ever been accused of a crime. He had also misled — at the least — a Texas reporter who asked him whether he’d been arrested any time after college.

When the unhappy news did break, Bush produced two lines of defense: He hadn’t wanted his kids to know, and the news came out only because of political dirty tricks.

Said Bush, "I didn’t want to talk about this in front of my daughters. … I made the decision that, as a dad, I did not want my girls doing the kind of things I did. … I’m a dad. I’m trying to teach my children right from wrong."

Bush the candidate had often noted that, while he had made foolish mistakes in his youth, he had learned from them. And, as a parent, I couldn’t help thinking that if Bush really hadn’t ever told his kids about his drunk-driving arrest, he was missing out on an important teaching opportunity. Couldn’t he have better helped his daughters, and other young people, too, to learn from his mistakes by being forthright about them?

As for dirty politics, it’s always a likely suspect, but beside the point. What counted was his arrest — and the fact that he didn’t want us to know about it. I recall a newspaper in Colorado that ran on its masthead the message, "If you don’t want to see it in the Times, don’t do it" — a good sentiment always to keep in mind.

But the Bushes are far from unusual in preferring to keep their unlawful-drinking episodes out of view. We all seem more comfortable overlooking such things. We see the signs of excessive youthful drinking all around us, from unchaperoned high school parties to spring-break orgies to colleges’ struggles with binge-drinking students. Why don’t we ask ourselves how well the current law is working?

Perhaps seeing one of the president’s daughters twice caught in alcohol violations — the second time, along with her sister — can have the fortunate side effect of bringing this question into the open: Should the drinking age, in fact, be 21? Is it time to look again at the old oddity of being able to vote, marry, sign a contract and die in a war at 18 — but not legally have a beer till 21?

Is it time to consider that the raising of the drinking age may in fact, in some ways, have exacerbated youthful drinking problems? That, indeed, it has some unattractive things in common with other prohibition attempts — such as the impossibility of enforcement? And the unhappy commonplace of lawbreaking, with its attending social consequences. And the "forbidden fruit" quality that makes drinking all the more compelling.

An undeniably powerful factor in favor of the law as it stands is the decline in traffic fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that higher minimum drinking-age laws have reduced traffic deaths among 18- to 20-year-old drivers by 13 percent. Some contend the reduction has much to do, as well, with lower speed limits, air bags, tougher blood-alcohol measurements and other factors. Might we be able to keep the fatalities lower through tough drunk-driving laws, if we returned the legal drinking age to 18?

I don’t know the answers. But when college-age young people regularly drink, and regularly break the law to do it, and we prefer to avoid talking about it, I wonder if it isn’t time we sought some answers.

Geneva Overholser can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or overholserg@washpost.com.

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