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Jewish World Review June 11, 2001/ 21 Sivan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Let them drink Perrier -- AMERICA has an alcohol problem. We can't get enough of it. We killed for it during Prohibition. Then we legalized it again, and ever since, we've argued incessantly about when someone becomes old enough to drink.

At Princeton in the 1950s, the young men voted to have booze instead of cars if they couldn't have both. That was before they could have girls in their beds overnight.

In all 50 states it's now against the law to buy booze or beer until you're 21. Every pundit is proud to tell us how he (or she) can't remember how many times he broke the law with or without a fake ID. I got a kick from champagne, too. At my 17th birthday party my father served us Lancers, a sparkling burgundy which came in a round brown bottle we thought ultra-chic, only later to be regarded as oh-so tacky. I graduated to Moet Chandon on my 18th birthday.

Daddy figured it was better to pour the bubbly under his roof, where he could keep a watchful eye, than for me to order it somewhere else, where he couldn't. Until 1984, the legal drinking age varied; some states mandated 18, others 21, still others had no restrictions at all.

When Elizabeth Dole became secretary of transportation, she fused drinking and driving, telling the states that if they wanted increased federal highway funding, they had to raise the drinking age to 21.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had reported that while teens made up only 8 percent of the driving population, they were responsible for 15 percent of the drunken-driving accidents. More than 25,000 people died every year from drunken driving, and 5,000 of them were teen-agers. It was estimated that 1,250 lives could be saved annually if the drinking age were increased uniformly to 21.

When 19 states failed to raise the drinking age, President Reagan, a staunch states'-rights man, nevertheless supported federal coercion. The Supreme Court upheld the administration's position.

Fast-forward to 2001. Jenna and Barbara Bush, twin daughters of the president of the United States, both 19, are cited for ordering alcohol with a fake ID, inspiring a new public debate.

The Bush family haters, many still smarting from the presidential election results, couldn't wait to recall how the president tried to conceal a decades-old drunken driving arrest from his daughters. Amateur psychologists stroke their chin whiskers and tell us solemnly that the twins are trying to get daddy's attention. Thirsty Texans, smarting from a law signed by Gov. George W. Bush that decrees prison for the third alcohol-related conviction, grumble that the situation "serves the old man right.''

Or maybe the daughters wanted to help their father by diverting his attention from the pain of the Jeffords defection to think about something really important. My favorite insight was reflected in this headline in the London Daily Telegraph: "America's alcohol laws would drive anyone to drink.'' (The English can be smug now, since they finally, but only recently, rescinded their ridiculous on-again, off-again pub hours, first decreed during World War I to keep munitions workers sober and at work.)

Writes columnist Mark Steyn, who lives in New Hampshire, in The Telegraph: "Jenna can drive, vote, marry, own a house, join the army, buy firearms, and hop a flight to Vermont with a lesbian to get one of the state's new 'civil union' licenses and spend the night having as much sex as she wants. She can do everything an adult can do except go into a Tex-Mex restaurant and wash down her incendiary enchiladas with a margarita.''

Strict liquor laws are the expression, if not necessarily the triumph, of hope over experience. College students on their own might learn how to discipline themselves, starting with a respect for the law. If they don't like the law, they can lobby to change it. They're not old enough to drink, but they're old enough to vote.

The twins know their father had a drinking problem and has been a teetotaler since he was 40. Maybe they think drinking until they're 40 is good enough for them, too. It's true that only a president's daughter with a fake ID would make an editor think such a story is actually news, but the twins are learning the hard way that, fair or not (and it's not), they're held to different standards than others.

Marie Antoinette might have said of them: "Let them drink Perrier.''

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS