The recent apprehension of the Bush daughters for assorted alcohol-related malfeasances just underscores how unimportant clarity in political thinking is. Nobody wants to talk honestly or consistently about a point when the bigger concern is the ongoing left/right squabbles being played out on shout television and talk radio.
As pretty much everyone knows by now, despite protracted media hand-wringing about the invasion of the first kids’ privacy, President Bush’s twin college-freshman daughters have each pleaded guilty to one underaged drinking count; one of them, Jenna, is facing a second count. A third conviction actually could yield mandatory jail time under a law signed by her father.
The whole series of events is without political significance, of course, and is not evidence of Bush’s policy hypocrisy, unfitness as a father, or alcoholic genes. It also has no significance with regard to the fairness of his tax bill, the likely efficacy of his education proposals, or his commitment to the environment.
Yet, more than a few conservative political organs have taken advantage of the occasion to raise questions that never previously occurred to them about the logic of the 21-year-old drinking age. One suspects those second thoughts have more to do with propping up the Bush presidency than with some belated sober judgment. One also suspects that if these events had involved the Clintons in any shape or form, talk-radio commentators would be discussing it in terms of “the rule of law” as they so frequently did during the impeachment saga.
Of course, if there is anything really going on here, it is that politicians are choking again on something they did with minimum conviction and maximum fanfare. While it is tempting to lay all that marching hypocrisy about the alcohol issue on the Republicans, who see stopping youthful drinking as tied to their general “traditional” moral values worldview, the truth is that there has been plenty of misspent energy on the issue on the part of Democratic politicians.
The battle over raising the drinking age in Tennessee is instructive. During the early 1970s, caught up in the enthusiasm of the youth culture and the excess gas of the Vietnam War, Tennessee was one of 29 states to lower its drinking age to 18. This occurred at the same time that the voting age was lowered and reflected the same thought processold enough to die for one’s country, old enough to take a drink.
In subsequent years, the nation’s sense of humor about drunk driving waned and, led by the diligent campaigning of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the push began in the 1980s to raise the drinking age back to 21. The ostensible reason was to make young people safer; the subtext was a small step toward rolling back the 1960s and the broad license or liberationdepending on your perspectivethat period had fostered in widely accepted social norms.
When the issue came to a head in the General Assembly in 1984, it was fought out both in terms of the usual platitudes (which are not worth rehashing here) and in terms of some real-world arguments, which are more interesting. Many of the proponents of the higher drinking age acknowledged that changing the law would only impedeand not preventpeople in the 18 to 21 bracket from drinking. They argued, however, that the real benefit was in making it harder for 16- and 17-year-olds to drink, since they would have a harder time finding people to buy for them.
On the other side of the coin were some real-world arguments against a higher drinking agethat driving the young drinkers underground encouraged binge drinking (something that subsequent experience nationwide has proven to be true) and that young people were more likely to learn to drink responsibly if they were allowed to drink in public.
In the final analysis, the real-world arguments stood little chance of getting much rational thought when the politicians had recourse to sanctimony, which they applied in liberal dosages.
The higher-drinking-age bill easily sailed through the state Senate before heading over to the House, led by its speakerand leading West Tennessee Budweiser distributorNed McWherter. Not many in the House were willing to speak too loudly against the bill, but there were lots of members willing to do mischief. House members attached various confounding amendments to the bill meant to undermine its intent or underscore its shaky foundations: provisions allowing young people to drink when accompanied by their parents, one permitting active-duty members of the military to drink, one intended to keep young people from losing jobs in bars or grocery stores, and a phase-in implementation that protected the imbibing rights of those already above the legal drinking age.
When the Senate refused to go along with the amendments, House Speaker Pro Tem Harper Brewer appointed a delegation to the conference committee largely made up of opponents and crypto-opponents, including premier House party boy John Tanner. Brewer said he didn’t know where the conference committee list came from, that he just found it lying by the speaker’s rostrum. McWherter, meanwhile, was skulking in the back of the House chamber.
The House conferees succeeded in tying up the bill in procedural wrangling such that, in the closing hours of the session, all the Senate could do to save the bill was agree to all the mischief-making House provisions.
How could it have been possible for a bill that passed both houses by substantial majorities to have such a hard time becoming law? The simple answer was that many members didn’t have their hearts in it; it was just something that the politics of the moment required.
“In all the time I’ve been up at the General Assembly, I’ve never had a bill where I had so many people come to me and offer to do anything they could to help, short of voting against the bill,” beer lobbyist Bill T. Williams said later.
The peculiar provisions of the legislation were expunged a couple of years later under the threat of losing federal highway funds as part of a national initiativeled by then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Doleto force up the drinking age.
The point of all this is that nobody much believed in the higher drinking age at the timeexcept perhaps the lawmakers who just generally don’t like drinking. There isn’t much logic to ityoung people can smoke, get married, join the army, buy guns, be sentenced to an adult prison, and vote for president at age 18. Drinking seems a relatively odd thing in comparison to set aside for special caution. But this has been apparent for the 17 years that young people have been forced out of bars and into their cars to drink their illegally obtained beer. It’s just interesting that in the spirit of rallying around the administration, conservatives are finally saying what they should have been interested in a long time ago.
Of course, that kind of ideological flexibility is not a purely Republican phenomenon. Democrats who dismissed the case against Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair as trivial did so largely because they felt it was necessary to protect an ideologically acceptable president. Most of them didn’t like having to do it, and they hated Clinton for putting them in that position.
Let’s hope none of the Republicans bear similar grudges against poor Jenna Bush.
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