Knocking the wind out of a self-righteous windbag is always healthy fun, especially when the windbag happens to be an authority figure like the president of the United States. Sometimes, however, the impulse to deflate also injures innocent bystanders such as Jenna and Barbara Bush -- whose moralizing pappy must be mortified by their recent booze busts.
Unfortunately for the Bushes, their fellow citizens have a right to know that the first family will be held to the same rules imposed on the rest of us. The necessity for a single standard is greater still when those rules were imposed by the president himself.
Yet conservative commentators, in a sudden display of tender concern for victims of tabloid journalism, are urging reporters to stop picking on the Bush twins. They point out that almost all American kids start drinking before they reach legal age, that underage guzzling is usually a private problem for families to resolve, and that neither of the girls has harmed anyone else.
The pleas for mercy sound perfectly reasonable, even though several of the same pundits couldn't resist attacking Chelsea Clinton in the most cruel and boorish way. But except for a few lonely civil libertarians, almost nobody made those permissive arguments when George W. Bush (and a bipartisan majority of the Texas Legislature) enacted the "three strikes" penalties that could lead to Jenna Bush's imprisonment if she is arrested with alcohol once more.
In the situational ethics that now define conservatism, cracking down on kids who drink was a great national imperative, until that policy meant political trouble for a Republican in the White House.
No doubt the public humiliation of Jenna and Barbara Bush has been inevitable since 1997, when their father approved a set of Draconian revisions to the Texas laws governing consumption of alcohol by minors. Like most teenagers, they eventually were bound to run afoul of those statutes, which he had trumpeted as symbols of his own rectitude and his determination to crush youthful vice and criminality. Due to their high visibility, they were likely to be caught, too.
In fact, as reported in the Houston Chronicle, Jenna Bush's first alcohol offense occurred within six months after the then-governor signed the harsh new standards into law. (Were it not for a loophole that excludes her first offense because she was only 16 at the time, she would now be facing up to six months in jail as well as a $2,000 fine.) By the time he approved that bill, Bush had already fashioned a political career out of his propensity for cracking down, for "tough love" and for treating juvenile offenders with "zero tolerance."
Those were the principal themes of his first campaign for governor, when much more was said about his opponent's history of substance abuse than about his own excessive drunkenness. During that 1994 race, he went so far as to cite his daughters as evidence of his fitness to punish other kids. "I've raised two children that respect discipline," he said proudly (and somewhat optimistically).
Within weeks after he signed the laws that now haunt his family, Bush triumphantly addressed a Midwestern GOP conference. "One of my main responsibilities as governor -- and I believe one of the responsibilities as Republicans -- is to set the tone for change," he remarked. "Whether that change involves schools, or the juvenile justice system, or whether that change involves solving the No. 1 problem facing America -- the culture of our time -- a culture that says if it feels good, do it, and if you have a problem, blame somebody else."
When he embarked on his campaign for the presidency, Bush continued to emphasize the nation's supposed moral decline while proclaiming a "new era of personal responsibility." As the long-concealed facts about his own past finally emerged, however, it became difficult not to wonder whether he assumed that his preachments are for ordinary citizens only, not members of the Bush clan. With his insistent avoidance of honest discussion about his own indulgences and indiscretions, including his drunk-driving arrest, he made that contradiction all too obvious.
Lying behind Bush's personal double standard are issues not only of abusive authority but of class and race. The imagery he exploited in his crusade against juvenile offenders always focused on black, Latino and white working-class youth, not the sons and daughters of the fancy Dallas and Houston suburbs. That nasty habit hasn't changed with his elevation to the White House. The latest penalty to be imposed on young people arrested for possession of marijuana -- permanent ineligibility for federal student loans -- is heavily class-biased. Young scholars with backgrounds similar to that of Bush girls, each of whom is the beneficiary of a half-million-dollar trust fund, don't need federal loans.
So for many Americans, the Bush booze bust represents a question of elementary fairness as well as an opportunity for a few laughs. It isn't that the president's daughters deserve to be mocked or humiliated. They don't. It is simply that they must be accorded the same tough treatment mandated by him toward other young people, whose chances and privileges are otherwise far smaller than theirs. The only insurance of such equal justice (or injustice) is appropriate media coverage of their illegal conduct and its consequences.
In short, on Father's Day they will have only one man to blame for their present predicament.
And speaking of Daddy Dubya, perhaps his daughters' distress will encourage him to reconsider his punitive attitude toward those who make the same mistakes he once did. Had he been subjected to such a strict and unforgiving code, after all, this paragon of sobriety would be in no position to inflict his hypocrisies on the rest of us today.