The first family’s alcohol troubles

President Bush downplayed his own drinking problem and hid a DUI. Now his daughters are making news for underage drinking. Is there a connection?

Topics: George W. Bush, Alcoholism,

The first family's alcohol troubles

I don’t envy Jenna and Barbara Bush, going off to college under the watchful eye of the Secret Service and the international media. But the sudden flurry of headlines about the first twins’ alcohol-related mishaps raises new questions about the way their father handled his own “young and irresponsible” past.

I always thought it was a bad decision for Bush, as a politician, to refuse to acknowledge his wild youth — which, by his own account, lasted until he was 40. But now it seems it was a bad choice for Bush as a father. After his 1976 drunken-driving arrest was revealed last year, Bush said he didn’t admit it when he decided to run for president because he didn’t want his daughters to know about it. That was a mistake, and the twins’ recent run of bad behavior seems designed to let him know that.

There’s no evidence either twin has a drinking problem, but the string of news items involving their partying and scrapes with the law in the last few months can’t be ignored. First came the tale of Secret Service agents ferrying home Jenna’s boyfriend after he was arrested for public drunkenness. Then there were randy National Enquirer photos of Jenna, a University of Texas freshman, and a beer-drinking pal, and a story about her alleged marijuana use. Yale freshman Barbara, supposedly the studious twin, had a false I.D. confiscated at a New Haven, Conn., bar. In April, the Enquirer featured a lurid tale of Barbara’s drunken spring-break binge in Mexico, and by the end of the month all major newspapers were carrying a story about Jenna being cited by police at an Austin bar for underage drinking, while Secret Service agents waited outside.

Now, barely a week after a court appearance to deal with that alcohol citation, Jenna has been caught again using a false I.D. to buy alcohol at an Austin restaurant, with sister Barbara at her side.

Of course, many of us would have provided lively tabloid fodder in college if we’d been subjected to the scrutiny Barbara and Jenna Bush must endure. And their college drinking doesn’t mean they’ll turn into alcoholics as adults. Most teenage party girls become responsible citizens, eventually. Still, their recklessness in the first months of their father’s presidency suggests their parents screwed up by downplaying and even denying President Bush’s own drinking problem.

You Might Also Like

Bush’s he-man decision to quit drinking cold turkey is the stuff of legend. The morning after a boozy 40th birthday party in 1986, he woke up at Colorado’s tony Broadmoor Resort and decided, on his own, to get sober. Alcohol had begun to “compete for my affections,” Bush said later. Certainly he didn’t need Alcoholics Anonymous, he told the Washington Post: “I don’t think I was clinically an alcoholic; I didn’t have the genuine addiction. I don’t know why I drank. I liked to drink, I guess.”

But his close friends tell a slightly different story: “Once he got started, he couldn’t, didn’t shut it off,” Bush’s buddy Don Evans, now commerce secretary, told the Washington Post last year. “He didn’t have the discipline.” That sounds a lot like an addiction, though only Bush himself knows for sure.

He refused to discuss details of his drinking or rumored drug use throughout his political campaigns, relying on the stock excuse, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” His parents have also repeatedly denied he had a drinking problem, even after several family crises involving his drinking came to light: an ugly Christmas confrontation with his father in 1972, after Bush drove drunk with his brother Marvin, crashed into a neighbor’s garbage cans and offered to fight “mano a mano” with his father; and the 1976 DUI incident near the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, with his then-teenage sister Dorothy in the car.

We know Bush’s problem drinking, including the DUI, was a family secret. The night a reporter broke the DUI story, Laura Bush called both daughters, in Austin and New Haven, to break the news to them. “I made the decision that as a dad I didn’t want my girls doing the kinds of things I did, and I told them not to drink and drive,” Bush told reporters. But he didn’t tell them about his own arrest.

The secrecy, of course, was a mistake. Anyone who works with alcoholics and their families knows honesty is crucial: The drinking parent needs to come clean about his or her problems, and kids need to understand the family dynamics that were established around the drinking. And as teenagers, they need to know that alcoholism is a disease — whether because of psychology or physiology or some combination of the two — that is remarkably hereditary, and think about their own drinking in that context.

“We know for a fact that [Jenna's] father had a long history of alcohol use and abuse,” Lynn Ponton, a psychiatrist who studies teenage risk-taking, told Salon. “And this is an opportunity for the Bushes … to talk honestly with their children about risk-taking and really provide guidance and increase communication. And I would wonder what type of communication is actually taking place.”

I wonder, too. I’d bet there hasn’t been enough communication in the WASP-y Texas Bush family, and it looks as if the first twins are acting out as a result. Even with a Secret Service detail, there are ways for young women to party, if they’re discreet. Clearly, the first twins aren’t. Their blatant risk-taking and public partying (the Secret Service waits outside the bars where they drink illegally?) seem designed to force a family reckoning that their father’s drinking never triggered.

I’m reluctant to play family therapist for a family I’ve never met, but I’d say that Bush may have gotten past voters with evasiveness about his drinking problem, but he hasn’t satisfied his daughters. And if he sticks to the sanitized, up-from-Broadmoor version of the story, he may someday find he won the White House at the cost of an honest relationship with his daughters.

An earlier version of this story appeared in Bushed! last month.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>