Really Giving 'Em Something to Talk About

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The media brew-ha-ha that erupted last week over the Bush twins' alcohol-related misfortunes might make one yearn for the monastic self-restraint and quiet decorum of the Clinton years. Unless, that is, you're Rudy Rucker Jr.

Rucker, a 29-year-old San Franciscan, operates thefirsttwins.com, a freewheeling Web site devoted to Jenna and Barbara, whose father, George W. Bush, happens to be president of the United States. Police reports that the 19-year-old First Twins had been charged with possessing alcohol (Barbara) and using a false ID to try to obtain it (Jenna) at a restaurant in Austin, Texas, where the legal drinking age is 21, set off a flurry of cyber-chatter on Rucker's 6-month-old Web site.

"People have been going nuts in the last 48 hours," Rucker said last week during peak Internet trafficking. Was all the fuss justified over a couple of college freshmen out on the town--albeit with their own private Secret Service entourage in tow?

"Yes, it's legitimate," Rucker said. "It's not about murder, it's not about botched foreign politics, it's about girls growing up in college." Bipartisan diversion, not hard-core Beltway punditry, is after, after all, his site's raison d'e^tre. Most of us "are over 19, so we've gone through that phase of our life" where we've experienced similar episodes of errant behavior, he added.

Around the nation and the world, media and public response to the incident varied dramatically, from the sympathetic to the sardonic, the sanctimonious to the shoulder-shrugging. Leading the charge was the pun-happy New York Post, which ran a story under the headline "Jenna and Tonic." It also dubbed Jenna the "Terrible Twin" and "Bottle Blond." Last month, the second-born Bush daughter pleaded no contest to an alcohol-related citation.

Elsewhere, the reaction was less giddy. The Washington Post began its May 31 story in sober fashion, with a straightforward recounting of just the facts, ma'am. But by the eighth graph the writer couldn't resist describing Chuy's restaurant, where the event occurred, as "a joint known for mediocre food and killer margaritas."

Other correspondents ventured a guess as to What All This Means in terms of first family emotional dynamics. "I'm reluctant to play family therapist for a family I've never met," Joan Walsh wrote near the end of an insightful May 31 piece in the online journal Salon.com, in which she put the Bush clan on the couch, psycho-journalistically speaking. Her diagnosis? President Bush erred by concealing his own 1976 drunk-driving arrest from his daughters. "That was a mistake," Walsh wrote, "and the twins' recent run of bad behavior seems designed to let him know that."

Across the pond, some British journalists--not a group generally known for viewing pub-crawling as a capital offense--tended to see the incident through a pint glass, darkly. In England, underage alcohol abuse is gaining recognition as a widespread social problem. Its dimensions were underscored last summer when Prime Minister Tony Blair's then-16-year-old son Euan was found in what was described as a "drunk and incapable" condition in London's Leicester Square. The boy, who'd been out celebrating after taking exams, also reportedly misled police about his identity and age.

Simon Jenkins, writing in the Times of London last week, raised the specter of America's failed Prohibition experiment in the 1920s and '30s in arguing that "America's under-21 rule is a piece of political archaeology . . . a nostalgic act of moral majoritarian wish-fulfillment."

"If the drinking law were properly enforced, the University of Texas would have to be converted from an academic to a correctional institution," Jenkins wrote. Later in his piece, headlined "Twin-Track Approach to the New Prohibition," he observed that, "Any nation lurches into hypocrisy when it legislates social disapproval of the consensual activities of specific groups."

Katie Roiphe, Jenkins' counterpart at Britain's left-leaning daily, the Guardian, speculated that the twins' antics actually could benefit the Bush presidency by making it appear less stodgy, more human. She described Jenna and Barbara as "Southern party girls exuding a kind of plump lazy sexuality, evoking warm nights and big cars, chewing gum and margaritas--the appealing opposite of the slick newscastery sheen of the Gore daughters."

In the raging subconscious of cyberspace, where arguments tend to be less carefully considered and inhibitions nonexistent, opinions concerning the presidential progeny ran to the ribald. Along with the inevitable jokes ("Maybe we should call them the Busch sisters") and ventings of outrage ("This has got to be the most blatant form of dirty politics") there were many been-there-done-that expressions of commiseration. One cyber-scribe, apparently eavesdropping from overseas, opined: "You Americans are so funny. No alcohol for anyone, but let them buy guns and shoot each other."

Various pet subtexts quickly emerged. There was the-bartender-is-a-fink subtext; apparently, it was a Chuy's employee who reported the twins to the police. There was the alcohol-is-thicker-than-blood subtext, in reference to President Bush's self-admitted alcohol overindulging as a younger man.

There was the Democrat-liberal media conspiracy subtext. And there was the what's-sauce-for-the-goose subtext: When Bush was Texas governor, he signed a 1997 amendment that stiffened the penalty for third-strike alcohol-related offenses, as Jenna Bush may discover if she continues to slip up.

While the White House has been pleading with reporters not to overplay the story, Rucker, who operates a small Internet service provider, monkeybrains.net, said the Bush twins were fated to be scrutinized from the get go. "The fact that there's two of them in college, there was going to be interest no matter what," he said. "The media was going to find ways to dredge up stories. Every move they made was going to be watched."

How long that interest will last he couldn't tell. "But there's a good 3 1/2 years of glory yet."

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